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Energy and Global Warming News for July 12: Run cars on green electricity, not natural gas; World on track for hottest year on record; New rules may cloud outlook for biomass

Run Cars on Green Electricity, Not Natural Gas

With the dramatic increase in oil prices earlier this year translating into higher prices at the gas pump in the United States, concerns over U.S. dependence on foreign oil are once again part of the national discussion on energy security. Combined with the growing understanding that carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are driving global climate change, the debate is now focused on how to restructure the U.S. transport system to solve these two problems. While the idea of running U.S. vehicles on natural gas has lately received a great deal of attention, powering our cars with green electricity is a more sensible option on all fronts “” national security, efficiency, climate stabilization and economics.

Having a fleet of natural gas-powered vehicles (NGVs) would simply replace U.S. dependence on foreign oil with a dependence on natural gas, another fossil fuel. The United States has scarcely 3 percent of the world’s proved natural gas reserves, yet even without the increased demand that would result from an NGV fleet, the country already consumes nearly a quarter of the world’s natural gas. At current rates of consumption, U.S. proved reserves would only meet national demand for another nine years….

A better investment is one that supports a fleet of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), such as the Chevy Volt slated for sale in 2010, which can use the existing electric infrastructure. A study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that if all U.S. automobiles were PHEVs, the current U.S. infrastructure could provide power for more than 70 percent of the fleet. Battery charging would occur mostly at night, when demand for electricity is low. In the emerging energy economy “” an economy built on domestic wind, solar and geothermal energy sources “” the greening of the grid by replacing fossil fuel-based electrical generation will also be a greening of the transport system. Beyond the grid, distributed power systems “” solar cells on rooftops, for example “” could also be used to power PHEVs.

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With today’s energy mix, PHEVs running on electricity from the grid are nearly three times more efficient than NGVs on a “well-to-wheel” basis””that is, when considering the full life cycle of the energy source, from fuel extraction to combustion to vehicle propulsion. This is because internal combustion engines, such as those used in natural gas vehicles and in today’s gas-powered automobile fleet, are incredibly inefficient. Only 20 percent or so of the energy in the fuel is used to move the vehicle. The other 80 percent is wasted as heat. Thus, choosing electric vehicles over NGVs can sharply reduce energy demand….

Burning natural gas in a new combined cycle power plant is three times as efficient as burning natural gas in a car. Even including electrical losses from transmission, distribution, and battery charging, running a car on electricity from a natural gas power plant is more than twice as efficient. Keeping natural gas in the electric sector to help power a fleet of PHEVs is therefore the logical choice. Wind-generated electricity should replace electricity from coal-fired power plants, the most polluting power source.

Under normal driving conditions, well-to-wheel carbon dioxide emissions for vehicles running on electricity from natural gas-fired power plants are one fourth as high as emissions from cars directly burning natural gas. Since a PHEV operating in electric-only mode has no tailpipe emissions, electrifying transport would move the majority of carbon emissions from millions of vehicles to centralized electricity-generating plants, greatly simplifying the task of controlling emissions. As fossil-based power generation is replaced with wind and solar power, cumulative carbon emissions from centralized power facilities will be greatly reduced.

New Rules May Cloud the Outlook for Biomass

An energy technology that has long been viewed as a clean and climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels is facing tough new regulatory hurdles that could ultimately hamper its ability to compete with renewable power sources like wind and solar.

Dozens of biomass power plants, which typically burn plant or tree matter to generate electricity, are already in operation in a variety of states, like California, Michigan and Maine. In most cases, those plants have qualified for some form of renewable energy tax incentives or other benefits, as states used them to diversify their power portfolios.

But a long-simmering debate in Massachusetts questioning the environmental benefits of biomass has culminated in new rules that will limit what sorts of projects will qualify for renewable energy incentives there. If other states “” or even Congress, which is writing energy legislation of its own “” follow suit, it could have wide implications for biomass developers, as well as for states trying to meet renewable energy production targets.

World on Track for Warmest Year on Record, U.S. Scientist Says

The current year may become the warmest on record, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist.

Temperature trends across the U.S. and around the world have been among the warmest on record, said David Easterling, a climatologist with NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

“If the warming around the world continues the way it has so far this year, we are likely to have 2010 be the warmest on record,” Easterling said during a conference call on climate change hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The combined land and ocean temperatures around the world were 1.22 degrees warmer than the 20th-century average, according to NOAA records. Since 1975, global temperatures have been rising and since 1960 the number of heat waves has been increasing, Easterling said on the call.

Much of the U.S. Northeast has been gripped by a heat wave that broke temperature records in New York, Washington and Baltimore and brought 100 degrees or more to Newark four days in a row.

Oil Industry, Green Groups Launch Dueling Ad Campaigns

A new ad war erupted today pitting groups that support climate legislation against the oil industry.

Clean Energy Works, a coalition of about 60 groups, launched an ad campaign that seeks to tar the oil industry with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The effort comes two days after the start of a new ad blitz from the oil industry trade group American Petroleum Institute (API), which is funding spots that protest the possible loss of sector tax benefits.

The new ad from Clean Energy Works tags the petroleum industry as “Big Oil.” The TV spot shows pictures of more than $4-per-gallon gas prices, former BP PLC CEO Tony Hayward, and the burning Deepwater Horizon oil rig before it sank in the Gulf. The spots advocate passage of “clean energy” legislation.

“What’s next from the big oil companies?” the television ad from green groups asks. “A multimillion-dollar smear campaign to stop clean energy legislation from passing in the U.S. Senate.”

Described by the group as costing “six figures,” it will run nationally on cable networks CNN and MSNBC.

Grow Green Jobs

Not enough jobs and too much heat; sagging payrolls and global warming.

Why not address both problems with a major public program to directly put people to work saving energy?

Plenty of green-job advocates have offered practical details, including my University of Massachusetts colleague, Robert Pollin. Yet no one in Congress or the White House seems willing to plant this garden.

I’m trying to figure out why green job-creation proposals have gotten stuck in the mud. Maybe environmentalists as a group are viewed with suspicion because they make us all feel guilty. Certainly, we’ve seen a conservative backlash against promotion of green jobs, linked to skepticism about the threat of global warming.

Sometimes political differences generate interesting debate “” as in an exchange published in The Economist between Van Jones and Andrew Morriss. But partisan bickering also discourages public engagement.

Clear Waters, Cloudy Future For California Wetlands

Oil continues to cloud Gulf Coast waters, but on the other side of the country, scientists are studying a body of water with the opposite problem. San Francisco Bay is becoming clearer. And clearer water is not always good news.

Underneath the dock on Alcatraz Island, U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist David Schoellhamer is collecting samples. “What we’re measuring here is suspended sediment,” he says. He holds up a bottle of cloudy water that he just collected. “Think of it as the microscopic rocks that are floating in the water.”

For Schoellhamer, the bottle holds important clues to the bay’s history. About 10 years ago, he noticed something strange in these samples: The bay’s water was becoming clearer, after more than a century of murkiness.

“Back in the 1800s … during the Gold Rush, the gold miners used essentially fire hoses and water cannons to literally wash down mountainsides to extract the gold from the sediment,” Schoellhamer explains.

Concerns Spread Over Environmental Costs of Producing Shale Gas

Around suppertime on June 3 in Clearfield County, Pa., a geyser of natural gas and sludge began shooting out of a well called Punxsutawney Hunting Club 36. The toxic stew of gas, salt water, mud and chemicals went 75 feet into the air for 16 hours. Some of this mess seeped into a stream northeast of Pittsburgh.

Four days later, as authorities were cleaning up the debris in Pennsylvania, an explosion burned seven workers at a gas well on the site of an abandoned coal mine outside of Moundsville, W.Va., just southwest of Pittsburgh.

The back-to-back emergencies were like a five-alarm fire for John Hanger, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. For a brief moment, the cable news channels turned their attention away from the BP PLC oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico to the apparent trouble in the nation’s expanding onshore natural gas fields.

The events added force to a tough public debate in Pennsylvania and New York and across northern Appalachia about how the environmental impacts of gas drilling balance against the economic benefits of gas and the role it could play in helping electric utilities transition to cleaner fuels.

Prince of Wales opens new front in global warming fight

The Prince of Wales, who warned last year that there were “less than 100 months” to save the planet from irreversible damage due to climate change, is stepping up his own efforts.

The heir to the throne has launched a global project to prevent ecological disaster, the International Sustainability Unit, for which he has ambitious plans.

“This is the most important cause that His Royal Highness has ever taken on,” says one of Prince Charles’s friends. “He hopes that the unit will make a real difference on the global stage. He knows that it’s a controversial issue, but considers it of such importance that he is prepared to take risks.”

A spokesman for the Prince says the organisation will work with national governments and global bodies such as the World Bank to promote “sustainable” development. “The ISU will continue the Prince’s rainforest work while also engaging with other urgent issues, in particular the marine environment (and especially over-fishing), sustainable agriculture and preserving ecosystem services,” says the spokesman.

“The unit aims to address the depletion of the world’s natural capital by helping to create a consensus as to the best ways to enhance long-term food, water and energy security.”

Climate change biggest restriction on China’s development -economist

With its own security in mind, China is pushing to curb greenhouse gases, setting up broad environmental as well as economic targets in its latest five-year state plan, a leading Chinese “green development” advocate said this week.

Fully 39 percent of the performance indicators for government officials in the new 2011–2015 plan should focus on “green” issues, up from 3 percent in the previous plan, said Hu Angang, an economics professor from Tsinghua University in Beijing, speaking at Chatham House in London.

That’s in part because Chinese officials, facing rising public unhappiness over some of the world’s worst pollution and an estimated $25 trillion cost to clean up environmental damage associated with the country’s rapid industrialisation, now see climate change, economic and security issues as inextricably linked, he said.

“Climate change is the biggest actor restricting China’s development,” Hu said

An interview with Yvo de Boer, the United Nations’ former climate-change chief

Until this month, Yvo de Boer served as executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body that oversees international climate negotiations. After supervising the Copenhagen climate talks last year, a process he has called frustrating, de Boer suddenly announced in February that he would be stepping down. After nearly four years on the U.N. job (he describes it as “three years and 11 months,” but who’s counting?), he just started work as an adviser on climate change and sustainability at KPMG International in London. The Washington Post’s national environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin spoke with de Boer last week about leaving the United Nations, why he never kept Al Gore out in the cold and how President Obama has his brain in the right place.

Opposition Builds to Canadian Pipeline for the World’s Dirtiest Oil

Yesterday marked the 80th day that oil has been hemorrhaging into the Gulf of Mexico from the site where BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and took the lives of 11 workers. If our country learns one lesson from this tragedy, I hope it’s this: that we can’t afford to maintain our profligate diet of dirty, dangerous oil, no matter how much greedy oil corporations scheme to keep us hooked.

One of the most devastating projects Big Oil has cooked up in North America, and arguably worldwide, is the exploitation of Canada’s tar sands for crude.

To access oil from the tar sands, giants like BP are clear-cutting massive swaths of forest, draining wetlands and hauling away tons of living matter and soil to mine a tarry substance that can be upgraded and refined into oil. Indigenous communities living downstream are being poisoned by toxins leaching from the sludge left behind. In Fort Chipewyan, one hundred of the town’s 1,200 residents have died from rare cancers and auto-immune diseases since 2000.

Tar sands oil is called the world’s dirtiest because its production dumps three times more climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere than conventional oil. It also spews higher levels of smog- and asthma-causing toxins into the air when refined.

Change coming slowly on climate law

Congress may or may not pass a serious climate bill this year, but one thing is certain: It won’t be business as usual.

While Republicans and polluting industries will celebrate, most know their victory will be fleeting and, with or without a bill, they’ll soon face a cascade of onerous and expensive new regulations that could fundamentally reshape the nation’s economic, environmental and legal landscape.

That’s because the Obama administration spent the past year setting up a series of rules and international frameworks on climate control that were intended to prod Congress into action, sync up with whatever legislation did pass and, as a last resort, kick in as a backstop, should Congress fail to act.

It looks increasingly like Plan C “” which even President Barack Obama has characterized as a worst-case option “” will prevail. And as those rules slide into place, look for the climate change battles to take plenty of dramatic twists and turns.

Senate Democrats face critical four weeks

Senate Democrats will be racing against the clock and calendar this week when they return to Washington for a four-week legislative sprint.

The majority party hopes to take up and pass a long-stalled package of unemployment insurance benefits this week, as well as the Wall Street reform conference report they’d hoped to finish before the recess. Democrats plan to map out specifics at their weekly lunch on Tuesday.

Few believe there will be enough time or will for major legislative battles after the Senate recesses for a monthlong break on Aug. 6, meaning some of the heaviest legislative lifting “” an energy bill, immigration reform, the START arms control treaty and campaign finance reform “” may get pushed into 2011.

“It is really going to be hard,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor and Senate analyst for The Cook Political Report. “Maybe they can move the ball down the field on some of these things, but actually getting it done and to the president’s desk? Occasionally there’s a surprise, and they’ll pull one of those all-nighters or two, but at the end of the day not much gets done.”

Green firms uniting to flex political muscle

Stonyfield Farm is slapping its familiar cow logo on more than just containers of yogurt these days. The New Hampshire-based organic food maker is one of more than 50 local companies to lend its corporate name to a political lobbying campaign aimed at persuading Congress to support climate and energy legislation on Capitol Hill.

The green-friendly businesses “” including many young tech companies not yet household names “” are the regional face of a multimillion dollar lobbying effort aimed at key senators across the country. Their effort is backed by some of the world’s most recognizable consumer brands and Fortune 500 companies, and guided by experienced political hands with deep connections to the Obama and Clinton administrations.

The TV, radio, and print campaign, bolstered by in-person jawboning of legislators, demonstrates the political reach of green-technology and alternative energy companies, which have progressed from the cluttered basements of inventors and entrepreneurs into an emerging political force seeking to apply pressure at the highest levels of government.

Obama urges increase in clean energy tax credits

Mixing policy and politics, President Barack Obama called on Congress Friday to expand a clean energy tax credit that could pay off in Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is struggling in his re-election campaign.

Obama told an audience at the University of Nevada that a $5 billion increase in clean energy manufacturing tax credits could generate nearly 40,000 jobs. Some of those could arrive in Nevada, where 14 percent unemployment threatens to undermine Reid’s argument that his position as majority leader pays dividends to his state.

“If an American company wants to create jobs and grow, we should be there to help them do it,” Obama said.

Reid, who is seeking a fifth term, has been pushing hard for investments in solar energy to capitalize on his home state’s scorching climate. He’s had some success attracting projects to the state, but he and other Democrats are battling uphill going into November’s critical midterms.

While Obama applauded both Democrats and Republicans for supporting his call for the expanded tax credits, he took a swipe at GOP lawmakers, saying similar bipartisan support has been absent from many of the other efforts he and Reid have promoted, from the massive health care overhaul to Wall Street reform.

We fiddle while Farm Belt copes with climate change

Legend has it that the Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Almost two millennia later, Congress keeps quarreling while the world keeps warming. Greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 70 percent from 1970 to 2004 and are projected to increase from 25 percent to 90 percent more by 2030. By the end of the century, global average temperatures are expected to increase by from 1.1 to 6.4 degrees Celsius. In the face of this, food production is at risk and actions are needed.

While the Beltway is still scoping out the science, the Farm Belt is coping with the consequences of climate change and soon will face yet larger changes. Temperature has increased by one degree Celsius so far with shifts observed in growing seasons, areas where crops are suitable, rainfall and pests, among many other effects. As temperatures climb further, U.S. farmers could experience longer growing seasons, altered rainfall and water availability, with less expected in the deep South, less snowfall, more crop growth as a result of atmospheric carbon dioxide, northward shifts in suitable crop areas, and increased incidence of droughts, pests and livestock heat stress. Drought losses since 1998 have cost Texas agriculture alone more than $3.6 billion.

Even if the Beltway enacts new climate management policies, the Farm Belt will still have to find new ways to adapt agricultural practices to altered climate conditions. Even if Congress passes cap-and-trade legislation and greenhouse gas emissions return to 2000 levels, temperature will continue to increase due to international emissions increases and momentum.