Energy and global warming news for February 25th: Which nations are most vulnerable to climate change? Using solar power to extract oil?

Which Nations Are Most Vulnerable to Climate Change? The Daunting Politics of Choosing

Is it worse to be swallowed by the sea or racked by famine?

As climate change tightens its grip on the world, institutions charged with protecting the most vulnerable nations could be faced with just such a question. Because there is no international consensus for ranking the possibilities of future devastation — and because there are limited dollars lined up to help cope with climate change — some countries already are battling over who will be considered most vulnerable.

“This is a major, major topic of discussion and debate at the moment,” said Saleem Huq, head of the climate change group at the U.K.-based International Institute for Environment and Development.


Judging who is most threatened has real-world implications. Those at the top of the list — if ever such a list is developed and agreed upon internationally — could decide who is first in line to tap a multibillion-dollar Green Climate Fund.

The trail toward making such a determination, experts say, is strewn with scientific and political land mines. After all, many scientists consider China — susceptible to droughts, typhoons and sea level rise — to be the world’s most threatened nation. But with a gross domestic product of $4.99 trillion, should it be as eligible for aid as poverty-stricken Bangladesh?

Some small island nations like the Seychelles are middle-income countries, yet climate change threatens their very existence. And where in the mix to put a Colombia or Pakistan, which doesn’t fit neatly into any prescribed U.N. category yet suffers catastrophic flooding?

“There is simply no objective, scientific way of categorizing a ranking of 100-plus countries in order of who is more vulnerable than another,” Huq said. “The moment someone comes up with a list, there’s a problem.”

Lawmakers urge Obama to release emergency oil

Three U.S. lawmakers on Thursday urged President Barack Obama to consider tapping America’s emergency oil supply to help lower crude prices that have spiked above $100 a barrel over disruptions in Libya.

The International Energy Agency, which coordinates policy among the world’s consumer nations, has said it would likely let OPEC move first to address any supply shortages. But the call by the Democratic Representatives suggests pressure is starting to build for Obama to get more involved.

The lawmakers wrote in a letter that releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would help prevent the kind of runaway increase in oil prices that occurred in the summer of 2008, when crude reached a record $147 a barrel and gasoline hit an all-time high of $4.11 a gallon.

“We therefore urge you to consider leveraging the SPR to respond to these supply disruptions and combat the rapid price escalations resulting from rampant speculation in the oil markets,” the lawmakers said in their letter to Obama.

The lawmakers did not recommend how much oil to release, but said pulling out even “a small fraction…could have a significant impact on speculation in the marketplace and on prices.”

The letter was signed by Representatives Ed Markey, a relatively influential lawmaker who ran the House’s erstwhile committee on climate change and energy independence, plus Rosa DeLauro and Peter Welch, all Democrats from Northeast states.

House Republicans raise specter of congressional action on EPA boiler rules

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) raised the specter late Wednesday of taking action in Congress to change the Environmental Protection Agency’s final air pollution regulations for industrial boilers, which the lawmaker said were issued hastily amid a looming court-ordered deadline.

“If congressional intervention is needed to provide EPA the time it needs to provide careful, defensible rules that will not invite additional judicial challenge, the Committee on Energy and Commerce is prepared to act,” Upton, who was joined by Energy subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), said in a statement.

It’s the latest example of a lawmaker expressing willingness to take congressional action to alter the rules, which industry groups and Republicans slammed Thursday as a job killer even as the EPA said the regulations would net 2,200 new jobs.

“At a time when we are enduring 21 consecutive months of 9 percent or higher unemployment, we cannot afford to rush sweeping regulations that have the potential to do more harm than good,” Upton said in a statement.

EPA released the final industrial boiler and incinerator regulations Wednesday. Though the agency asked for an extra 15 months to issue the rules, a federal judge gave EPA only 30 days.

The agency, as part of President Obama’s executive order requiring federal agencies to review their regulations, made its final rules more cost-effective. The agency said Wednesday the final regulations cost 50 percent less to implement than the proposed rules, which industry decried as unrealistic.

But Upton said he lacked confidence in the regulations because the agency was under such a tight deadline to issue them.

“How can anyone have confidence in rules that the EPA was admittedly unprepared to issue just weeks ago?” Upton said, adding later, “The EPA was operating under court order to meet this week’s deadline, but we continue to believe sound policymaking should trump arbitrary timelines.”

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, EPA air chief Gina McCarthy said the agency was pleased with the final boiler rules, and stressed that the deadline did not affect the quality of the regulations.

US climate cuts threaten isolation

The latest flirtations of the US political right with “climate denial” look set to marginalise the country even further within the global community of nations — at least when it comes to climate change.

The key to all this is the advance made by the Republican party — and by relatively right-wing Democrats — during the mid-term elections late last year.

With a majority in the House of Representatives, politicians unconvinced of the case for action on climate change have been able to attack the edifices of climate science and international negotiations in quite dramatic ways.

Budgetary measures passed by the House at the weekend would not only withdraw US funding from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — they would also end financing for the office occupied by Todd Stern, the experienced official who leads US diplomacy within the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) and other fora.

Before these measures could come into law they would have to make it through the labrynthine processes that precede a US budget agreement, including being approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate and signed off by President Obama.

So, you might conclude they’ll never make it.

Equally, remembering that they’ll be relatively minor ingredients of a vast budgetary package whose negotiation will require extensive horse-trading, it’s easy to see how they might make it through these various hurdles if the Democrats judge they’re more expendable than other items.

House Dems call for climate science hearings amid GOP efforts to block EPA climate rules

Two key House Democrats called on Republicans Thursday to hold a hearing on the latest climate science amid efforts by the GOP to block the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate authority.

In a letter to the top Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) pointed to two new studies that link climate change to extreme weather.

“[I]t is imperative that the Committee have an understanding of the science of climate change and the impact carbon pollution may be having on the weather in the United States and abroad. We cannot legislate wisely if we do not know what we are doing,” said the lawmakers in the letter.

Waxman and Rush said it would be “irresponsible” for Republicans to ignore the new research and move forward in their efforts to permanently block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are writing to ask that the Energy and Commerce Committee hold a hearing to better understand these important scientific developments,” the lawmakers said. “We believe it would be irresponsible for the Committee to ignore the mounting scientific evidence linking strange and dangerous weather to rising carbon levels in the atmosphere.”

House Republicans approved a government-spending bill that would block funding for EPA’s climate rules through the end of September. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Energy and Power subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) are hoping to move legislation through the House that would permanently revoke the agency’s climate authority.

State Senate approves ambitious clean-energy mandate

The state Senate on Thursday approved a measure requiring California utilities to buy 33% of their electricity from wind, solar and other renewable energy sources by the year 2020, with supporters arguing it will help recharge the economy by creating jobs.

State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) said his legislation, which now goes to the Assembly, will help the state meet both environmental and economic goals.

“This is a measure that can help us right now with clean air, help us right now to address climate change”¦ and right now we can begin to create the jobs that this state so desperately needs,” Simitian said during a floor debate on SB 2X .

The measure passed on a 26–11 vote, with opponents saying it will drive up energy costs, meaning higher electricity bills for homeowners and manufacturers. The additional cost of doing business will convince more companies to send their jobs out of California, said Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar).

“This is yet another nail in the coffin for our manufacturing sector in California,” Huff told his colleagues.

California previously required that 20% of electricity come from renewable sources by 2010, but some utilities did not meet that standard.

A similar Simitian bill was vetoed last session by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said it was loaded down with red tape, but lawmakers have made adjustments and are more hopeful the proposal will be supported by new Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat.

The 33% standard was a key plank in Brown’s campaign platform, but he has not made a final decision on the legislation, which can still be changed before it reaches him.

“The governor broadly supports codifying the requirement that 33% of the state’s electricity be derived from renewable sources and will closely consider any bill that reaches his desk,” said spokesman Evan Westrup.

Jerry Brown’s tough choice: green energy in hard economic times

Instability in the Middle East has put America’s dependence on foreign oil back on front pages. It’s also added another ball to California Gov. Jerry Brown’s juggling act over this state’s renewable energy sector in tough economic times.

Democrats are resurrecting an idea vetoed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would require utilities to buy at least 33 percent of state electricity from renewable sources by 2020, hoping Mr. Brown will be more amenable. On Thursday, the bill passed in the state Senate.

“All indications by those commenting on this in committee is that this is an idea whose time has finally come,” says state Sen. Joe Simitian, the bill’s author. “This last month in the Arab world has been a stark reminder of what happens when Americans are driven by energy needs rather than our values and principles.”

Jerry Brown’s tough choice: green energy in hard economic timesWith Jerry Brown now governor, California lawmakers are resurrecting an idea vetoed by Arnold Schwarzenegger: Make utilities buy at least 33 percent of electricity from renewable sources.

Democrats are resurrecting an idea vetoed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would require utilities to buy at least 33 percent of state electricity from renewable sources by 2020, hoping Mr. Brown will be more amenable. On Thursday, the bill passed in the state Senate.”All indications by those commenting on this in committee is that this is an idea whose time has finally come,” says state Sen. Joe Simitian, the bill’s author. “This last month in the Arab world has been a stark reminder of what happens when Americans are driven by energy needs rather than our values and principles.”

Leading environmental groups are applauding the action.

“Senator Simitian’s bill has remarkable bipartisan support and would boost confidence in clean energy investments, create jobs, and enable California to meet its pollution reduction goals,” says Peter Miller, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Voters made it clear last November that they want to move forward with a clean energy future. Now we must implement the wish of the voters.”

Brown campaigned strongly on environmental themes, but others are asking how green he can afford to be given the state’s current fiscal straits.

Lawmakers already are at loggerheads over how to close the $26.4 billion budget deficit. If Brown is serious about balancing the budget — which he stated vociferously in both his inaugural address and his first state-of-the-state speech — how pioneering and innovative can he afford to be if big, costly programs are impossible?

We can take practical measures to reduce oil imports

The turmoil in Libya and its impact on oil prices and financial markets should remind us that America must make our energy supply more secure and sustainable. In the last election, both presidential candidates vowed to reduce oil imports and support cleaner fuels. We cannot afford partisan gridlock preventing the progress we need. There are practical steps we could take to reduce oil imports and encourage domestic fuels, including cleaner fuels.

American vehicles consume the vast majority of imported oil, so we must start with more efficient use of fuel to begin curing what President George W. Bush called our “addiction to foreign oil.” Fortunately, we know what works. Fuel economy standards improved auto miles per gallon by 70 percent during the period from 1975 to 1985. Then progress halted. In 2007 Congress authorized new standards and last year the Obama administration set goals equivalent to 34 miles per gallon for new vehicles in 2016. New goals should be extended through 2020, raising fuel economy to greater than 40 mpg. Strong fuel economy standards also encourage use of alternative fuels, further reducing oil imports.

We can also reduce fuel use and costs with more efficient transportation of freight. We should learn from the success of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which set bold annual goals to achieve dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency in its trucking operations. We must also remove the bottlenecks from the freight rail system and encourage the use of inland waterways to transport freight at a fraction of the fuel use of trucking.

Coal supplies almost half of U.S. electricity, and many old coal plants emit large amounts of conventional pollution as well as greenhouse gases. Our nation has a great opportunity to phase in cleaner fuels, starting with soaring supplies of natural gas, which could replace a quarter of existing coal-fired power. Waste heat and wind and geothermal sources can double their contribution to electricity supply in less than a decade. The cost of solar power is falling. Regional grids should be charged with responsibility for developing plans giving cleaner fuels a defined priority when the grids dispatch power. Requiring grids to phase in cleaner power, using reasonable economic and emissions criteria, requires no new taxes or fuel-specific quotas.

Germany to cut solar subsidies by up to 15 pct

German lawmakers passed on Thursday a law cutting solar power subsidies by up to 15 percent from this summer, six months earlier than originally planned, dealing a blow to the world’s biggest photovoltaic market.

The lower parliamentary house voted to introduce the cuts for roof installations from July and for ground-based cell assemblies from September.

The vote, which went as expected, ratified a compromise deal agreed at the start of this month by the German cabinet that brought to an end a dispute between the economy and environment ministries.

The economy ministry had wanted cuts of up to 25 percent to slow booming growth in the sector in Germany.

Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen announced plans last month to bring forward the start of the subsidy cuts by six months to July 1.

Germany is the world’s biggest photovoltaic energy market and has helped drive down prices for photovoltaic systems, which turn sunlight into electricity.

The share prices of solar companies such as Solarworld (SWVG.DE), Q-Cells (QCEG.DE) and SMA Solar (S92G.DE) have been at the mercy of German government decisions.

The industry boomed after the Renewable Energy Act (EEG) in 2000, which guarantees investors above-market fees for solar power for 20 years from the point of installation.

Using Solar Power to Extract Oil

A California company has begun using solar power to squeeze oil out of an old oil field, flooding the underground rock with steam that comes from the sun’s heat instead of from burning natural gas.

The technique was tried in the 1980s by the Atlantic Richfield Company, but GlassPoint Solar, of Fremont, Calif., which cut the ribbon on a pilot project Thursday, says its plant is the only one of its kind now operating. Other companies have discussed such projects.

The process is cheaper than using natural gas, even at today’s depressed prices for that fuel, and trims the carbon footprint of the gasoline, according to GlassPoint. The pilot plant, completed in January in Kern County, is very modest, occupying less than an acre and producing only about a million B.T.U.’s per hour. But the company says it could quickly be replicated on a larger scale and could eventually displace 80 percent of the natural gas used to produce a barrel of oil.

GlassPoint said that at a full-size plant, its technology could produce steam at a cost of $3 per million B.T.U., compared with a market price of gas today of around $4 per million B.T.U.

Whether GlassPoint can get that far remains unclear. The company has no track record in the oil industry and has had three different business strategies in less than two years. Formerly known as CleanBoard, GlassPoint changed its name in October 2009 when it abandoned plans to use a solar-powered factory to make gypsum-based wallboard and said it would work with other wallboard manufacturers. Last year, it refocused its business yet again on using solar power to extract oil.

Rod MacGregor, GlassPoint’s chairman, said that burning natural gas to make steam for oil recovery was the largest single use of natural gas in California. About 40 percent of California’s oil is produced through such “enhanced oil recovery,” and the steam can account for as much as two-thirds of the production cost of such oil, according to GlassPoint.

Denmark, Britain urge deeper CO2 EU emissions cut

Britain and Denmark on Thursday called on fellow European Union members to adopt a more ambitious target for cutting carbon emissions.

The British and Danish governments want to move to a 30 percent cut from 20 percent by 2020. Their call comes as EU states are considering whether to move faster than the one-fifth reduction from the 1990 level.

A draft paper showed earlier this month that the EU is overhauling its strategy in favour of a 25 percent cut. [ID:nLDE71A1VM] [ID:nLDE71E2EZ]

EU governments have agreed to deepen cuts to 30 percent but only if a strong global climate deal is reached which would also bind developing countries to a similar goal.

“Denmark and the UK are in agreement that our future prosperity depends on stimulating green growth and getting off the oil hook,” British Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne and Danish Minister for Climate and Energy Lykke Friis said in a joint statement.

Groups sue EPA for documents on Texas power plants

Two environmental groups have sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for access to 350,000 pages of documents about coal-fired power plants blamed for making Texas’ pollution problems worse.

The groups claim in their federal lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act that the documents will show that one or more of Luminant’s five coal-fired power plants violated the Clean Air Act. The Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project say they need the information so they can “protect the public health in and around these plants.”

“The Sierra Club only files suits when the state or federal government fails to act,” Jen Powis, a Sierra Club spokeswoman in Texas, said Thursday. “The EPA has been looking into these plants but has not been acting.”

The EPA had not been served with the suit as of Thursday and officials could not comment, said Dave Bary, a spokesman in the Dallas EPA office.

Allan Koenig, a spokesman for Dallas-based Luminant, said company officials had no comment because they had not read the suit.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in San Francisco, where the Sierra Club is based, claims the EPA has violated public disclosure laws by not providing the information or a reason for the denial by required deadlines. Instead, the EPA has said for months that it is reviewing Luminant’s claims that the documents contain confidential business information, the suit states.

Air Pollution Triggers More Heart Attacks Than Cocaine: Study

Air pollution triggers more heart attacks than cocaine use, a recent study finds. While cocaine users certainly shouldn’t be celebrating, people living in cities with high pollution levels should be concerned.

Tim Nawrot of Hasselt University led the study, published in The Lancet journal, which examined the proportion of total heart attacks that were caused by specific triggers (population-attributable fraction). The highest risk fractions were traffic exposure, physical exertion, alcohol, coffee, and air pollution. Cocaine use, anger, and sex were listed after the other factors.

According to Reuters, this study demonstrates that while cocaine use may still be most likely to trigger an individual heart attack, it’s crucial to look at population-wide factors as well, such as air pollution. The researchers state in The Lancet, “In view of both the magnitude of the risk and the prevalence in the population, air pollution is an important trigger of myocardial infarction [heart attack], it is of similar magnitude (PAF 5–7%) as other well accepted triggers such as physical exertion, alcohol, and coffee.”

Meanwhile, Congressmen Fred Upton and Ed Whitfield are fighting to eliminate pollution standards by cutting Clean Air Act provisions in the U.S. The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution causes around 2 million premature deaths worldwide every year. The good news and the bad news is that human beings have control over changing these death statistics.

India green credit trade seen ramping up from 2012

India’s largest power exchange is hoping to ramp up volumes in the trade of renewable energy credits from April 2012, its chief said, seeking to tap a market estimated to be worth $8 billion by 2017. Jayant Deo, chief executive of Indian Energy Exchange (IEX) which this week launched the inaugural trading session for certificates aimed at rewarding producers of clean energy, said volumes would increase once the process to issue renewable credits to companies was streamlined. Trade bodies told Reuters only two projects had received the go-head to sell renewable credits. However, the website of the official agency administering the project showed no certificates had yet been issued. Deo told Reuters there was huge interest in the renewable energy certificates (RECs), which he said would encourage project developers to invest in solar, wind and biomass. “We have developed a platform of physical trade between buyer and seller, but it is not a futures platform where speculators can take positions.” Under the scheme, REC trading would occur for two hours during the last Wednesday of every month. Last year, India crafted rules for domestic REC trading, a move aimed to boost the share of electricity from green sources in the world’s third-worst greenhouse gas emitter. RECs can be bought by companies to meet statutory obligations to purchase a minimum level of renewable energy. One REC represents one megawatt-hour of energy generated from renewable sources and remains valid for a year. Renewable energy accounts for barely 8 percent of India’s total power generation capacity of about 150,000 megawatts but the government aims to double green power generation to 25,000 megawatts in three years. The rules stipulate clean energy producers either sell their electricity at a preferential tariff fixed by provincial power regulators or sell the electricity generation and environmental attributes associated with renewable power separately. A central agency administers the certificates trading among renewable power generators.