Eco Buzz

Why Republicans won’t back a carbon tax

Gristmill - Thu, 2014-08-28 10:22

Climate change activists across the political spectrum fantasize about it. No, it’s not another Kanye West video of snowy mountains and a topless Kim Kardashian. It’s a carbon tax.

Republicans, as everyone knows, hate taxes and don’t accept, much less care about, climate change. But wonks on both sides of the aisle dream that a carbon tax could win bipartisan support as part of a broader tax-reform package. A carbon tax could be revenue neutral, the dreamers point out, and if revenue from the tax is used to cut other taxes, it shouldn’t offend Republicans — in theory.

And so people who want to bring Republicans into the climate movement like to argue that the GOP could come to embrace a carbon tax. We’ve heard it from former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who lost his seat to a Tea Party primary challenger in 2010 after he proposed a revenue-neutral plan to create a carbon tax and cut payroll taxes. We’ve heard it from energy industry bigwigs like Roger Sant, who recently argued the case at the Aspen Ideas Festival. We’ve heard it from GOP think tankers like Eli Lehrer.

It’s the epitome of centrist wishful thinking. It will not happen.

Grover Norquist.  (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

I know because I asked the man most responsible for setting Republican tax policy: Grover Norquist. As head of Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist has gotten 218 House Republicans and 39 Senate Republicans to sign his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” never to raise taxes. His group has marshaled the Republican base’s zealous anti-tax activists and successfully primaried politicians who violate the pledge, making Norquist a much-feared and much-obeyed player in D.C.  The Boston Globe Magazine went so far as to call him “the most powerful man in America” — at least of the unelected variety.

First off, Norquist has no interest in a carbon tax because, he told me, there has been no global warming for the last 15 years. That right-wing shibboleth is false, but the point is that if you don’t accept climate science, as Norquist and the Republicans don’t, you’ve got no reason to back a carbon tax.

Although Norquist conceded that you could theoretically construct a revenue-neutral carbon tax that does not violate his pledge, he would still oppose it, and he said Republicans generally would too. “I would urge people not to [vote for a carbon tax], because the tax burden is a function of how many taxes you have,” Norquist said, noting that higher-tax jurisdictions tend to have more sources of tax revenue. “With one tax, people can see how big it is. Divide it and no one knows.”

“I don’t see the path to getting a lot of Republican votes,” he concluded. Neither do I.

It’s useful to look at how Republicans react to other tax-reform ideas: Eliminate the carried-interest loophole that taxes hedge-fund managers at a lower rate than their secretaries? No way! Eliminate deductions for oil and gas companies? Nothing doing.

The arguments Republicans make about this one tax being unfair or that one stifling economic growth are all just arguments of convenience. Republicans are for taxing the things they don’t care about (poor people’s meager earnings) and against taxing the things they do care about (rich people’s unearned income). So Republicans oppose taxing inheritances and capital gains, but seem not to mind flat taxes on income or sales. That’s why the big tax-reform proposals that insurgent Republican candidates have ridden to prominence — Mike Huckabee’s “Fair Tax,” Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” plan — involve shifting much of the tax burden to a national sales tax: because sales taxes fall disproportionately on poor people. (Poor people have to spend a bigger portion of their income than rich people do just to get by, so sales taxes are regressive.)

And that’s why offering to cut payroll taxes in exchange for creating a carbon tax won’t win a bunch of Republican votes. First of all, Republicans don’t care about the tax burden on poor people, so the payroll tax deduction is not going to entice them. (In fact, they opposed an extension of President Obama’s payroll-tax holiday.) Meanwhile, they don’t share the premise that fuel consumption and carbon pollution are bad, because they don’t accept climate science. And they don’t want to shift the tax burden to fossil fuel companies, which are huge GOP contributors.

It’s worth remembering how a carbon tax became the ostensible bipartisan solution to climate change. Back in 2008, both parties’ presidential candidates backed cap-and-trade plans. Obama won and advanced his plan, so Republicans all opposed it. By default, whatever Obama proposes becomes “partisan” and the alternative becomes supposedly the reasonable, non-ideological idea Republicans would have supported. It’s always a lie.

There are two possible paths to either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax: One, Democrats gain control of both houses of Congress and the White House, and feel more pressure to address climate change than they did in 2010, when they let the opportunity slip away. Or, two, Republicans come to accept climate science and decide they want to save the world from burning. But until Republicans come around to acknowledge the reality of climate change, they’re not going to agree to a carbon tax.

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Study: LEED Certified Hotels Achieve ‘Superior Financial Performance’

Triple Pundit - Thu, 2014-08-28 07:55
Researchers from Cornell University's school of hotel administration recently took a look at the revenue that's gained by U.S. hotels with LEED certification, and the results are encouraging. Certification does matter to business revenue in the hospitality sector.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Energy-Coffee Wastewater Project Delivers Multiple Benefits in Central America

Triple Pundit - Thu, 2014-08-28 07:52
Taking a holistic, integrated approach to tackle issues at the water-food-energy nexus, UTZ Certified is expanding its Energy from Coffee Wastewater Project from Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala to Brazil and Peru.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Towards a Greener Beer: Craft Brewer Rolls Out the Evercan

Triple Pundit - Thu, 2014-08-28 07:51
Last week, in partnership with aluminum manufacturer, Novelis, Red Hare Brewing Co. began packaging its beer in a can made of 90 percent recycled aluminum.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Why Delaware is doing climate change mitigation right

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-08-27 22:34

Carl Schmidt
Adapting Chicken Production to Climate Change Through Breeding
Newark, Del.

Delaware’s official state bird is a chicken — the Delaware Blue Hen, to be exact. Dr. Carl Schmidt at the University of Delaware heads a team that’s developing a breed of chicken that will be more resistant to high temperatures, enabling the chicken to survive the almost-guaranteed extreme heat waves of the future.

Why we chose these super-chickens:

Schmidt is motivated by a desire to feed a global population in a changing climate. His team has been researching breeds of chickens that fare well in hotter climates — for example, the Transylvanian Naked Neck — and is now working to develop its own breed. They aren’t interested in creating a Frankenchicken using genetic engineering. Instead, they are sticking to traditional breeding methods by isolating genetic variants that make chickens less sensitive to heat. The project is in its early stages; Schmidt estimates that it will be another 15 years before they’ve developed a living, breathing prototype.

On getting a head start:

Says Schmidt: “My hope is that if 20 years from now, we really need a chicken that can withstand these heat waves, people can look to this work and say, ‘And here is what we need.’”

Click to check out the full map.
Filed under: Food, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

China scoffs at our puny bikeshare programs

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-08-27 22:32

The Chinese have tried every trick in the book to clear up urban smog that, at times, has literally broken the pollutometer. We’ve seen everything from protest art to threats from the government to execute some of the country’s worst polluters.

But there’s another smog fighting tool hitting the streets now, too: The humble, and once common bicycle.

According to a 2008 report by the Earth Policy Institute, bicycling in China took a serious dive between 1995 and 2005: The country’s bike fleet declined by 35 percent, while private car ownership doubled.

Now, according to the Atlantic, bikes are making a comeback, in part because of ubiquitous bikeshare programs. In fact, of the top 30 cities worldwide with more than 5,000 bikes in their systems, 24 of them are in China, Vox reports:

“…over the last couple of years, China has lapped the field several times over. As its private bicycle fleet has declined — largely because more and more people can afford cars — officials have implemented bike share programs to give residents a transportation option that cuts down on traffic.

All told, China has eight cities with more bike share bikes than the entire United States does.”

To compare, France, the country tailing China for second place, has 45,000 bikes making up its bikeshare programs, and the United States rounds out fourth place with close to 20,000 bikes.

China’s budding bikeshare programs are likely putting only a small dent in a massive pollution problem, as the country still burns loads of coal — and the jury is still out on just how much carbon dioxide these programs prevent from entering the atmosphere.

But hell, if world’s most populous country has managed to spread bikeshares like fire, who are we to argue?

Filed under: Business & Technology, Cities, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Obama has a plan for getting around Senate opposition to a climate treaty

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-08-27 22:23

The elephant in the room every time Americans talk about international climate agreements is that, unlike in parliamentary democracies, our opposition party gets a veto over treaties. Due to the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate for ratification of international treaties, Senate Republicans can, and will, reject any binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions (joined by some fossil fuel–state Democrats).

In theory, this means that 34 senators, representing as little as 7.5 percent of the American public if they come from the least populous states, can block any global action on climate change. The U.S. is the world’s biggest economy, and many other big nations won’t join an agreement if we won’t.

But Obama, as demonstrated by his power plant regulations, is determined to do what he can with the power he has. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration is planning to go to the big climate talks in Paris next December asking for the strongest possible accord short of a treaty. “President Obama’s climate negotiators are devising what they call a ‘politically binding’ deal that would ‘name and shame’ countries into cutting their emissions,” writes the Times’ Coral Davenport. “Negotiators say it may be the only realistic path.”

Back in 1992, when Democrats were in the Senate majority and Republicans hadn’t gone off the deep end, the Senate ratified the legally nonbinding United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which sets up the regular meetings to negotiate actual emissions reductions. The Obama administration would seek to expand the 1992 framework as much as possible, so that any deal reached next year would technically be an update rather than a new treaty, along with some new but mostly voluntary measures.

That might work as a way of getting around Republican opposition. But unfortunately, Republicans are not the only political obstacle to a new agreement. Throughout the wealthy Anglophone world, conservative parties are backsliding on climate change. And the conservative parties are currently in power in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Australia and Canada are particularly eager to exploit their dirty fuel resources and are doing everything they can to undermine global efforts to stave off climate apocalypse.

When Australia repealed its carbon tax last month, The Wall Street Journal noted:

In Europe, Australia’s repeal has hobbled ambitions of linking up similar carbon-emission trading systems around the globe to the EU’s own. …

In the U.S., Australia’s repeal is providing political fodder for critics of President Barack Obama ‘s climate agenda, feeding into criticism that Mr. Obama is acting alone on a problem that is stubbornly global in nature. …

Australia’s repeal also helps strengthen the position of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has repeatedly rejected calls from opposition politicians and environmental groups to introduce a carbon levy in Canada …

Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto protocol on climate change in 2011, arguing the treaty would prove ineffective because it failed to incorporate major emitters such as the U.S., China and India. Mr. Harper can now point to Australia’s decision as evidence that he isn’t a global outlier, as his critics contend, when it comes to environmental policy.

Australia and Canada also undermined climate talks in Warsaw last year by refusing to contribute to a climate fund for developing nations. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently reasserted their skepticism of global climate agreements at a joint press conference. Climate change, said Abbott, is “not the only or even the most important problem the world faces.”

Still, conservatives in other developed countries are not as backward as their American counterparts. Domestic politics compel Abbott and Harper to admit anthropogenic climate change is happening and to at least feign a desire to address it in a way that won’t hobble their economies.

And so the Obama administration will try to thread a needle in Paris next year: get an accord that is strong enough to appease developing nations, which are calling for rich countries to reduce their emissions and contribute to the Green Climate Fund, but weak enough to appease conservatives in other developed nations.

The one thing Obama cannot do, however, is appease conservatives at home. Since they do not accept the global scientific consensus on climate change, there is no deal they will ratify. Instead, Obama must make a deal that avoids the need for Senate ratification but still has enough teeth to compel action. That’s a very fine needle to thread.

Correction: This post originally stated that meetings held under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change are called protocols. In fact, they are called Conferences of the Parties (COPs).

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

EV Drive: Behind the Wheel of the 2015 Volkswagen e-Golf

Triple Pundit - Wed, 2014-08-27 22:20
As the morning sun basked across the Virginia countryside, I couldn't wait to hit the road. Read on for an up-close look at the e-Golf, which is set to hit the market in November.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Coconuts and Sustainable Development: Adding Value to a Wasted Resource

Triple Pundit - Wed, 2014-08-27 22:20
Researchers-turned-entrepreneurs, such as the founders of Essentium Materials, see tremendous value in using coconut husks to produce a variety of products, while providing a pathway for sustainable, inclusive economic development.
Categories: Eco Buzz

These adorable car ideas from kids will make your day

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-08-27 22:15

For the Toyota Dream car challenge, Japan’s biggest car company asked kids across the world to design their ideal vehicles. But it only takes a quick scan of the winners to see a few themes emerging. Driving is secondary. Flashy and fast vehicles are out. Instead, cars are literal vehicles meant to solve herculean social and environmental hurdles (and in some cases disperse super-cute rescue squids).

The adult jury panel selection undoubtably had a lot to do with leaving Transformers-esque submissions on the cutting room floor. The judges waded through 662,898 submissions from 75 countries and regions. The 31 winners attended an awards ceremony held in Tokyo today. Their artworks are so goodhearted and loaded with little-kid weirdness that we can’t help but share a few.

Below is a handful of our favorites (see the rest of the entries here). Be sure to read the hilarious and heartwarming captions. Adorableness awaits:

Robo-Squid Hydropower Rescue Car

Nakoto Ichikawa

“It is constantly being charged up in water by hydropower. When Robo-Squid headquarters receives an SOS of someone in trouble in the water, Squid Juniors go into action to rescue people. When the damage is enormous or a ship is about to sink, Squid Baby’s Egg Trampoline expands and helps the situation by becoming a cushion or coiling around and pulling it up.” — Nakoto Ichikawa, 7, Japan

Super Crab Car

Thanh Mai Bui

“I live in a rural area and my parents are farmers. I wish Toyota could create a car that can recycle straw and rubbish into paper, notebooks and stationery for me and my friends after harvesting rice. If it could do that, it would be so fantastic!” — Thanh Mai Bui, 6, Vietnam

Environmentally Friendly Toyota Kingdom

Phonepaseuth Sengmanyvong

“My car cleans and keeps the natural balance and helps protect animals from being hunted.” — Phonepaseuth Sengmanyvong, 14, Laos

Birds’ Car

Aishwarja Nafisa Noshin Khan

“This car has been invented for birds. Birds’ necessities will be fulfilled through this car.” — Aishwarja Nafisa Noshin Khan, 7, Bangladesh

My Dream Car

Luca-Filip Clima

“This car collects metals to produce engines.” — Luca-Filip Clima, 6, Romania

Balloon Car

Luo Tong Zoe Sim

“This is a solar-powered, light balloon car. Accident and pollution free, it is made from recycled materials and can fold up into a bag.” — Luo Tong Zoe Sim, 5, United Kingdom

Underwater Musical Vehicle

Evonne Tan Wei Ni

“An economical and environmentally friendly vehicle, capable of transporting a choir group underwater to perform for the aquatic animals.” — Evonne Tan Wei Ni, 10, Malaysia

Love Car 

Pranali Harish Patel

“My dream Love Car converts hate and violence into peace and love. It travels all around the world to spread love and encourage people to stop fighting and love each other instead.” — Pranali Harish Patel, 11, Kenya

Smart Fish Car

Mealaksey Pha, Cambodia

“I love fish so much, that is why I decided to draw a colorful fish, and this fish can be driven like a car. Therefore, everyone who is fond of fish can enjoy driving the fish car that I have drawn at all times.” — Mealaksey Pha, 5, Cambodia

Hey, I’d take a Smart Fish Car over a Tesla any day, Mealaksey. Our congrats to all of the winners and (hopefully) future car engineers. We realize this is a free good publicity for a gigantic car company, but if you’re in the market for a new vehicle, consider test-driving a Robo-Squid Hydropower Rescue Car today.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

TODAY: Twitter Chat with Heineken on Local Sourcing: Join #BaBF

Triple Pundit - Wed, 2014-08-27 19:14
What does local sourcing mean to HEINEKEN? Join TriplePundit and Aman Singh on Twitter to learn more and have your questions answered at #BaBF on August 27, 2014 at 8 a.m. PDT/11 a.m. EDT/5 p.m. CET.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Invasion of the corn snatchers

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-08-27 18:36

Food has become the domain of all sorts of shady underworld characters. There are drug dealers bootlegging rice through Europe, fraudulent fishmongers fencing fillets in fine restaurants, and mafia capos adulterating olive oil in North America. Now thieves are conducting elaborate heists to fleece farmers of their vegetables.

According to a story in the New York Times, the crew that hit Whit Betts’ Green Acres farm had the perfect plan:

The thieves had come at night and left 10 outer rows closest to the road intact so as not to arouse suspicion. They knew what they were doing: They picked cleanly, without wrecking the stalks. And they grabbed plenty of butter-and-sugar corn, a common variety in Connecticut, but left behind the more valuable Kandy corn.

“I think we’re the only ones to grow that in central Connecticut, so that would have been traceable,” Mr. Betts said.

The robbers who broke into Anderson Farms, 25 miles to the east, weren’t so careful, and were caught red handed.

“They had corn tassels in their hair,” Mr. Anderson said. “A dead giveaway.”

Seriously guys, this isn’t cool. If you all can’t deal with the temptation of beautiful local farms, we’re just going to have to consolidate them all to the remotest midwest and ship all your food to you long distance.

Filed under: Article, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Hip Hop curbs SUVs, takes Tesla for a spin

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-08-27 18:25

Rappers have been infatuated with cars since the beginning of Hip Hop, with a niche fetish for bulkier models. Early rapper endorsements of Jeeps, Suzuki Sidekicks, and MPVs are arguably what cued the auto industry to expand the SUV market. At one point, you couldn’t find a rap video that didn’t feature a fleet of stretched-out SUVs that probably got about 10 miles off the gallon. The ’98 – ’04 No Limit-Cash Money Records era was when it reached Peak Foolishness, with constant display of Humvees, Escalades, Navigators and other six-to-seven-figure gas guzzlers with shiny hubcaps that did silly, spinny things.

Things then began to die down, perhaps when rappers saw what little utility those vehicles held in Hurricane Katrina floodwaters, or how expensive it was to maintain them in the recession after. But hybrid cars didn’t quite catch on with the culture. They became joke fodder, as evidenced on Childish Gambino’s “Real Estate” where comedian Tina Fey flips a popular Jeezy line to say “My president’s black, and my Prius is blue, motherfucker.”

Listen to Fey parody herself, and the Prius, in the video below. (The song, and others in this post, are NSFW. Fey comes in around 5:00.)

But then that dude Elon Musk came out with the sleek Teslas and now Hip Hop has a non-petro-fried whip it can ride with. Kanye West shouted out Musk at Bonnaroo, and now it looks like Jay Z might have a new “murdered out” Model S. Other rap and trap stars are upgrading their status symbols, replacing the traditional B-list of cars (Beamer, Benz, Bentley, Bugatti) with those of the battery-charged variety.

In G Unit’s recent comeback attempt, “The Beauty of Independence,” 50 Cent — one of the biggest car whores of all time — raps, “I ain’t a BMW, I’m elecTRICK.” This matters if only because we know his early endorsement of Vitamin Water led to Coca Cola buying the company for a few billion. Now Google Glass is working with him. Could he also help tilt the market toward electric cars?

We’ve heard a few other rapper’s reference these cars, and not just as ostentatious floss. Here’s Canibus (yes, he’s still rapping. LL did not totally murder him.) recounting a murder mystery in his song “Sinflation”:

He was driving a Tesla Model S playing loud music/He drove into an EMP storm and got electrocuted/Trust fund lawyers were recruited, lawsuits were instituted/”The electric car killed him!” — prove it/Quantum evolution, quantum conducive/Quantum revolution rap music quantum electrocution…

Common also uses it in storytelling mode for his song “Hustle Harder,” describing how a nameless female protagonist sizes up her economic prospects:

Beamer Benz, she got friends with high ends/She know trends, she know when/She go in, like an investor/Yes sir, never get gassed like a Tesla/Ain’t about all that extra…

Common might have been listening to Cunninlynguists who used a similar simile in their song “Hot”:

All these girls, man, they just want me to sweat ’til I starve, but I don’t get gassed up like an electric car…

And then there’s this from producer Alchemist featuring Odd Future’s Domo Genesis and Hodgy Beats, along with Freddie Gibbs, for a rhymefest that makes no mention of the car, though the song is named after it. (It might also be named after Nikola Tesla. As with most Odd Future songs, the lyrics give us no clues.)

We’ll see where this goes. Hip Hop artists are classic tastemakers, having elevated otherwise obscure or mediocre brands into consumer must-haves. A few more key endorsements and we might be able to get those Teslas produced to the point where regular people can actually afford them.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Dropcountr Launches a New App to Manage Water Usage

Triple Pundit - Wed, 2014-08-27 18:05
The average Californian estimates they use half the amount of water than they actually do use. People want to do their part, but don't have the tools and direction to make a contribution.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Italian Scientists Turn Food Waste Into Bioplastics

Triple Pundit - Wed, 2014-08-27 17:25
A group of scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genova, Italy are working on ways to create bioplastic from food waste.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Whole Foods’ Sale of Rabbit Meat Is a Big Pet Peeve to Some

Triple Pundit - Wed, 2014-08-27 17:19
Whole Foods is now selling rabbit meat at a limited number of stores across the United States, and some New Yorkers are very unhappy.
Categories: Eco Buzz

Why Connecticut is doing sushi right

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-08-27 15:46

Bun Lai
Miya’s Sushi
New Haven, Conn.

New Haven is not known for its sushi, and sushi isn’t known for being sustainable. Bun Lai’s joint breaks both of these conventions. The restaurant has even become a destination for discerning New Yorkers.

Why we chose this sushi:

You can’t count on salmon, tuna, or eel on the menu here. Instead, you might find rockfish, tilapia from a local aquaculture school, and wild, local seaweed. The menu will often include “trash fish,” invasive species such as lionfish, and lots of vegetables. A recent dish even featured dehydrated larvae.

On educating the next gen of sushi eaters:

Lai was raised in the Yale community by a scientist father and a chef mother (Yoshiko Lai, who founded Miya’s in 1982). His parents helped him build an appreciation for good food at a young age, and he sees Miya’s as a way to offer the same education. “There are kids who are growing up with Miya’s, and really don’t know any other sushi,” he says. “They’ll go to other restaurants asking questions, like, ‘Why do you do things this way?’”

Click to check out the full map.
Filed under: Food, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Musty old weather reports may hold climate change secrets

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-08-27 10:08

Turns out the secret to better climate models could be hiding in the dreaded storage closet of many a weather station around the world.

Members of the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization (IEDRO) — a nonprofit organization that works with meteorological centers to digitize their climate data — think weather reports of yore could offer crucial glimpses into historical weather patterns, helping scientists to better track climate change.

They estimate there could be more than 100 million potentially useful records worldwide. But instead of being used to shape the next climate model or helping city planners plan around future climate issues like flooding, many of these records are collecting dust in backrooms and oft-forgotten filing cabinets, waiting to be digitized. The Atlantic’s CityLab reports:

“There’s data tied up in paper records that goes all the way back to the late 1800s,” says Theodore Allen, a graduate student at the University of Miami and IEDRO volunteer. “So rather than working on observations from 1960 to present, we can work on things from 1880 to present.” With that kind of information, climate scientists can make their models far more reliable. The problem is that nobody wants to spend the time and money it takes to scan and input 100 million pieces of old, musky, often disorganized paper. “You’ll show up to a place and you need dust masks on for days at a time,” says Allen. “You’re crouched over running through dusty, dirty weather records in a damp room. It’s not very glamorous.”

The paper cut risk sounds daunting enough. If unlocking these weather records could help climate science, though, let’s just hope Band-Aids come with the job.

Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Energy companies in Texas are setting money on fire

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-08-27 09:47

To some, like President Obama, natural gas is the “bridge fuel” — a readily available energy source that burns cleaner than coal and that’s cheap enough to put coal out of business while we’re waiting for actually renewable energy sources to come online.

But what if it’s so cheap it just gets wasted? The bridge just collapses, is what. As an epic series put together by the San Antonio Express News shows, being really, really cheap can also mean “too cheap to sell.”

The Express News spent a year going over stacks of documents and data obtained from the Texas Railroad Commission, which is responsible for overseeing the oil and gas industry in the state. What the investigation found was that fracking operations in the remote Eagle Ford shale were keeping the more valuable oil they produced while venting the natural gas into the atmosphere. Sometimes they just released it directly into the air, despite its being one of the nastier greenhouse gases out there.  Other times they burned it first, which converted it to carbon dioxide — less climate-change inducing, but not exactly Miss Popularity either. Between 2009 to 2012, they had let go of enough natural gas to keep 335,700 typical Texan households in warm houses and hot dinners for a year.

The reason for this, according to energy companies, is that it just didn’t make financial sense to do anything else. At a Railroad Commission meeting last October, EF Energy LLC broke it down this way:

The company said it would cost $1.5 million to build a 5.7-mile pipeline to hook into the nearest available pipeline. With the gas worth an estimated $670,000, the company would lose more than $800,000.

The U.S. does have a history, however complicated, of using financial and political mechanisms to persuade companies that polluting the air around them is not a great idea, no matter how well that option serves their bottom line. This legacy, however, does not appear to have registered with the Railroad Commission, which decided that since EF energy was already flaring without permission, it might as well just approve the request.

Are there other options? There are. The Norwegian energy company Statoil manages to operate in the area without burning off gas in flares, but it is able to do so because the company thought ahead. It drills wells in areas that are connected to each other, and it installed infrastructure to capture natural gas before the wells were even operational. Another energy company, Pioneer Natural Resources, built its own natural gas fueling station so that it can use the gas that it finds while fracking to power its drilling rigs. There’s also the possibility that natural gas could be used to power the water treatment facilities designed to clean up up water contaminated with fracking fluid — an approach which has a certain ouroboros-like quality.

That said, if most companies had to follow regulations that required them to do things like this, there’d be a lot less fracking, in Texas and other places. This is a story that is new to the Eagle Ford shale, but it’s not new to North Dakota, where an estimated $100 million worth of gas a month — a third of what is pulled out of the ground —  is flared off.

In North Dakota, landowners are actually suing for lost revenue, since they only get compensated for what is sold, not what is thrown away. “It’s not just a waste to the landowner or the tax collector, it’s a waste of the land’s natural product,” a landowner named Tom Wheeler told CNBC. “When I was growing up, we were taught not to waste anything.”

It does seem un-American to have so much of something so combustible and to not even get to heat a can of beans with it, before its components ascend to wreak havoc in the troposphere. If we’re so into energy independence, why waste so much of what we’ve got?

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Palo Alto’s utility now provides guilt-free electricity

Gristmill - Wed, 2014-08-27 09:01

It’s one thing to own your utility with a commitment to renewable energy, but it’s quite another thing to deliver on it. In 2007, the municipal utility in Palo Alto, Calif., set an ambitious target of achieving 33 percent renewable energy by 2015, and ultimately a carbon neutral electricity supply. Seven years later, they are on track to reach 48 percent renewable power in 2017, and have been meeting their carbon neutral goal since late last year.

How can a utility be carbon neutral?

The foundation of Palo Alto’s energy supply is hydro power, making up as much as half of their total electricity generation each year, though it doesn’t technically count as ‘renewable.’ The utility purchased renewable energy credits to offset the other half of its energy supply. So while the carbon neutral target is impressive, it doesn’t mean no fossil fuels are used. Rather, on an annual, net basis, the cities’ electric customers produce no carbon emissions.

But the utility is moving toward actual long-term contracts with renewable energy projects. Palo Alto plans to get 23 percent of its energy from solar, 11 percent from landfill methane recovery, and 12 percent from wind power in 2017.

Building on low-cost solar

The drive toward renewable energy and a carbon neutral energy supply was aided by dramatically falling costs for solar energy. When the utility went out for bids in 2012, it found solar producers willing to sell it power for 7 cents per kWh, a price that’s remained relatively steady since then. Low cost solar energy has meant that the city’s nationally recognized green energy purchasing program, with 20 percent customer participation, eliminated the price premium because clean energy was no more expensive than traditional power.

Having control matters

“If you were a customer of an investor-owned utility, you’d be much less likely to see a program like [Palo Alto's] put in place simply because investor-owned utilities have a much more traditional business model focused on profits and the bottom line,” says Palo Alto Utilities’ Jim Stack.

Local control was a key to the pursuit of a low-carbon energy system in Palo Alto. They aren’t hampered by regulators and the city’s bond rating means the municipal utility can also access lower cost capital than investor-owned utilities.

Municipal ownership has one big drawback, however, making the transition to renewable energy that much more impressive.  The city can’t access the 30 percent federal tax credit for solar energy projects that private developers can.  While they can still sign contracts with these developers to deliver solar, they miss the economic opportunity of direct ownership.

Keeping it local

Palo Alto hasn’t been able to develop as much power in town as it would like, confesses Stack. As a mostly built-up urban environment with high land costs, local solar energy costs nearly twice what it costs to buy from projects nearby. All of their renewable power comes from California, however, within a two-hour drive of the city.

The city does have programs focused on local distributed generation and energy efficiency. Already, 6.5 MW of solar energy has been installed on local rooftops (serving about 4 percent of peak demand). The utility intends to use its feed-in tariff, community solar, and other initiatives to increase local solar to 23 MW, serving 15 percent of peak energy demand and 4 percent of total sales.

Can it work for you?

Stack says there’s nothing stopping other municipal utilities from moving in the same direction. Renewable energy is less expensive than just about anything else and offers long-term price stability.

For communities without municipal utilities, he suggests lobbying for voluntary green purchase programs, community solar, and working on developing community-based renewable energy projects.

Listen to the interview with Palo Alto Utilities’ Jim Stack:

Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz
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