Energy Policy Meets Federal Land

A recent article called Turning Pristine Public Lands Into Solar Farms in Bloomberg Businessweek highlighted the Obama administrations’ policy of opening federal lands maintained by the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior to renewable energy projects.  The executive powers that Obama is using are similar to the ones that the Bush administration used to bypass Congress and push for oil and gas drilling on those same lands in 2001.  Using Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Interior, Obama has approved more than 37 renewable energy projects on federal lands that will power more than 3.8 million homes.

Brownfields WindSince taking office, Obama has issued an average of 1,000 fewer drilling leases per year to oil and gas interests.  Instead, the administration has green lighted more than 18 other utility-scale solar plant, 7 wind farms, and 9 geothermal facilities.

However, certain projects have angered environmentalist groups such as the Sierra Club and the NRDC who feel that some of the projects would be better sited on 80,000 – 285,000 abandoned mine sites on federal lands instead of pristine desert space near treasured national parks such as Joshua Tree in southern California.  A coalition called the Western Lands Project is suing the Dept. of the Interior in federal court hoping to have the projects moved to those less desirable, degraded lands.

While I am generally skeptical of politicians bypassing Congress to achieve a political goal, I do favor building renewable energy plants on federal lands.  I also agree with the Western Lands Project that the Interior should look for better locations for these projects that redevelop sites that have already been ruined by mining operations.  Reusing depleted lands and brownfield development would be ideal for PV installation because the land does not have to be cleaned up beforehand and solar PV requires very little maintenance and can be seated on top of the land, not disturbing the contamination.  The EPA announced a brownfield redevelopment project called Brightfields that aims to achieve exactly that.  As with any major project, land use should be a major factor.  This is especially true when using public lands for private development.  By identifying sustainable sites that promote redevelopment of tarnished lands, the government can achieve a double victory of renewable energy and brownfield remediation.

The below image shows a refurnished open pit mine in Germany that is now one of the world’s largest PV plants at 166MW.  This site would have otherwise been left uninhabitable for any purpose.

Brownfield Solar

Unlikely Alliance

canada            I read a quick article in Bloomberg Businessweek last week that detailed an unlikely alliance between tar sands producers and environmentalists to put a pollution tax on the dirty, heavy crude coming out of Alberta.  Yes, that is correct.  Tar sands producers are actually lobbying for a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system that would help to clean up their operations. In British Columbia, a province that enacted a carbon tax, families are paying an average annual premium of $376 and have reduced their per capita emissions 10%.  The producer’s biggest fears are to be viewed as “too polluting” by other nations, resulting in no market for their exports.  America’s opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline highlights this fear. Unless the tar sands can change their appearance, it seems that the world would be okay without the product.  An oil industry spokesman even said that “If your country looks at Canada and says your energy exports are too carbon intensive, then it becomes and economic competitiveness issue.”

tarsands            Standing in the way of this unlikely alliance and subsequent carbon pricing is the Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  Harper has traditionally emphasized business and job creation over environmental issues and is responsible for pulling Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol, the only nation to do so.  Failure to embrace cleaner regulations on the tar sands may soon become an environmental and economic problem for The Great White North.

tar sands movers            The winds of change are blowing, and nations are figuring out how to monetize carbon.  If Canada can enact sensible regulation that appeases both oil producers and environmentalists, then it can be a leader in the carbon markets.  If it fights the winds of change, then it risks being left behind by the rest of the world.  The simple answer is to put a price on carbon and use the proceeds to invest in clean technology developments.

All Fracked Up and Nowhere to Go

I read an interesting article in The Economist this week regarding LNG exports in the US. This is a rather interesting article, so please read the full version for yourself.

LNG TankerYears ago, when the US thought they would have to import LNG’s from abroad there was a massive build out of over 24 LNG plants for regassification.  Thanks to horizontal drilling and hydrologic fracturing, the US will not have to worry about LNG imports for the next century at the earliest.  Converting these regassification plants to be export terminals makes economic sense and environmental sense.  With the exception of Sabine Pass in Louisiana who was just recently granted permission to export, all that equipment now sits idle along the gulf coast.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that American gas now sells for $3.40 per MBTU domestically but over $12 in Europe and up to $20 in Asia.  Turning American nat gas to LNG cost about $5 per MBTU, so exports of LNG can be beneficial to the economy.  Furthermore, the glut of natural gas has actually forced producers to stop producing until the supply dwindles or demand picks up.  Tapping the international markets would allow this process to balance out.  Of course, there is steady opposition to LNG exports from uncommon bedfellows of environmentalist and business proponents who respectively oppose fracking on environmental grounds and who want to maintain their access to cheap fuels.

I have gone back and forth on the subject of fracking several times now but generally agree with the economic arguments set forth in this article.  While I am not a proponent of fracking, the following issues deserve mention:

  • Nat Gas is priced on a regional market as opposed to a global market.   The lack of export infrastructure acts as a subsidy thereby keeping the price of gas artificially low and promoting inefficient use of the fuel.  Increasing LNG exports will increase the price but will hopefully establish a free and transparent market.  The revenues of the fuel trade should be used in clean technology research and developing next generation technologies.
  • With cheap nat gas prices in the USA, developing nations have been leaning towards coal to fuel their consumption.  Access to natural gas will hopefully reduce the emissions in the developing world more than if the gas were kept in the US.

ny_fracking_rallyThese two points rely on the assumption that fracking remains legal.  As I write this, a moratorium on fracking (bill A.5424-A) was just passed by the Assembly and will go before the NY State Senate and then on to the Governor for signature.

Clean technology has never been more affordable or accessible to the masses.  Policy makers are now realizing the national security and economic concerns of relying on fossil fuels.  Clean, distributed sources of energy combined with sustainable development are our best options for a healthy, prosperous future.

How Much is Climate Change Costing Us?

“One degree Celsius rise in temperature is associated with 10% productivity loss in farming. For us, it means losing about four million metric tonnes of food grain, amounting to about US$ 2.5 billion. That is about 2% of our GDP. Adding up the damages to property and other losses, we are faced with a total loss of about 3-4% of GDP. Without these losses, we could have easily secured much higher growth.”

   -Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh

Most people think the biggest costs associated with climate change are in trying to avoid it by reducing carbon emissions.  However, a new study (Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2nd Ed) by DARA concludes that climate change is already costing us $1.2 trillion in foregone prosperity.  Yes, that is trillion with a T.  This is roughly 1.6% of global GDP.  By 2030 the effects of climate change could amount to 3.2% of global GDP with most of the pain being felt by developing nations.  Here are some more stats:

• Climate change and a carbon-intensive economy considered a leading global cause of death today, responsible for 5 million deaths each year – 400,000 due to hunger and communicable diseases aggravated by climate change and 4.5 million carbon economy deaths due mainly to air pollution

• Losses for lower-income countries are already extreme: 11% of GDP on average for Least Developed Countries already by 2030

• Major economies are heavily hit: in less than 20 years China will incur the greatest share of all losses at over 1.2 trillion dollars; the US economy will be held back by more 2% of GDP; India, over 5% of its GDP

However, the future doesn’t have to be so doom and gloom.  The report concludes that much of these costs can be avoided by emissions reduction investments of just 0.5% of GDP and $150 billion per year in support to mitigate the effects in the countries most vulnerable.

Fracking New York

No, the title of this post is not just something I heard uttered by a disgruntled Red Sox fan on our road trip to Boston this past weekend. It actually has to do with Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s decision to begin a new environmental study of the effects of fracking on public health. This decision would restart the regulatory process and almost certainly push a final decision into 2013 or later.

While a big victory for the environmentalists, it has angered upstate residents and land owners who were looking for economic development or to simply lease out their land to natural gas companies. Mr. Cuomo is caught between a rock and a hard spot on this issue because of his committment to economic prosperity and job creation on one hand, and his environmental conservatism on the other. With both sides fervently pushing to allow or deny fracking on the New York region of the Marcellus Shale, the Governor decided to review more data and let the facts make the decision for him.

I say, “Congratulation Mr. Cuomo! Thank you for not bending to one political pressure or another and instead reviewing actual science and data. This is something that has been missing from many of the major political arguments recently.”

America really needs to learn the facts about natural gas – do not base your decision on a 30 second tv commercial sponsored by the Natural Gas Alliance. Get out and do some research. This is such a big deal for America’s economy and our environment. If fracking is for the public good, then a public health study of the effects of fracking is exactly what the doctor ordered.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I must admit that I was originally in favor of fracking in certain areas and more importantly, in favor of natural gas as a “transition fuel” until renewable sources were cost competitive. I saw the economic benefits and job creation associated with fracking as outweighing the environmental degradation. Since then I have changed my opinion. I have to ask myself, why are we taking a bunt when we could be swinging for the fences in terms of renewable energy technology. Natural gas will still play a large role in America’s future – after all, we need a diversified energy portfolio. But now I see the economic benefits of renewable energy technology being even more important to our economy. Instead of risking potential poisoning to our fresh water supplies and still being dependent on the spot price of a commodity, our renewable energy future will protect our most vital resources and at the same time create a demand for good, high-paying jobs in science, engineering, and operations and maintenance of distributed, renewable energy systems.

 

Underground Coal Gassification

An interesting article in the 9/3 Bloomberg Businessweek introduced a new method of coal mining that has the potential to provide energy while limiting GHG pollution and completely avoiding mountaintop removal – one of the most destructive practices known to man.  Underground Coal Gassification (UCG) technology actually dates back more than a century but is only now gaining momentum thanks to the advances in technology as a result of the fracking boom.  UCG involves drilling well into a deep coal seem, igniting the fuel, and harnessing the gas released through combustion.  The CO2 is then pumped back into the ground to keep it from entering the atmosphere.  Many of the most harmful substances such as arsenic, mercury, and lead are left in the ground alleviating the problem of what to do with the waste (remember the TVA holding pond disaster?). 

UCG projects are currently underway in Canada, China, New Zealand, and Uzbekistan – areas where natural gas is expensive and the coal seams are hard to reach. 

There are plenty of downsides to this new technology – most notably the fact that you are in essence starting an underground mine fire (see Centralia, Pennsylvania).  Other concerns are groundwater contamination, water use, and a slew of environmental issues.  However, UCG has the potential to increase the USA’s exploitable coal reserves by a factor of 5. 

It is well established that coal-burning power plants are some of the biggest polluters in our society but their environmental effects are not limited to the generating facility.  From the beginning, whole mountains in Appalachia are blown up to access the coal in the cheapest manner possible.  After the coal is spent there is still the problem of disposing of the coal ash that contains toxins and carcinogens. 

Until our energy needs are fully met through renewable technologies, we are going to have to experiment with new processes that reduce GHG’s and are more environmentally friendly.  UCG is not the cure to our energy problem, but it does address several of the most devastating by-products of using coal as a power source.  To that end, it is definitely a technology worth researching.

 

Haiti and the Dominican Republic

The last post showing the world at night really sparked an interest for me on economic development and sustainability.  I remember seeing a photo in National Geographic several years ago showing the borderlands between Haiti and the DR and stark contrast between the two countries. Haiti on left Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and relies on the land for basic survival.  Rampant over-logging to make charcoal combined with other unsustainable agricultural and irrigation practices created a humanitarian crisis in the country. 

Last year the United Nations Development Program launched a project to teach local authorities and farmers about sustainable practices in order to restore the waterways and forests along the border region that is home to 150,000 people. 

Obviously it will take many years to bring the land back to its natural state, but the lessons learned can be repeated in other areas to prevent the suffering caused by unsustainable resource exploitation.