WASHINGTON—A series of headline-grabbing ruptures along the nation's 2.5 million-mile network of oil and gas pipelines is prompting a rare attempt at bipartisanship. Democrats and Republicans seem equally intent on significantly beefing up the pipeline safety standards that might have prevented some of these spills.
The timing of the legislation they're considering is especially vital because the State Department is in the midst of deciding whether a Canadian company should be allowed to expand its U.S. presence by building a $7 billion pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer and other fragile landscapes in the nation's heartland.
TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline would pump millions of gallons of diluted bitumen —a particularly dirty grade of heavy crude — 1,702 miles from the oil sands mines of Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Three bills — two Democratic measures in the Senate and one cross-party initiative in the House — are now circulating. All of them would give federal regulators a bigger hammer to prevent pipeline leaks and accidents. Provisions include studying how diluted bitumen affects a pipeline's structural integrity, improving leak detection technology, increasing inspections, requiring steeper penalties for violations and mandating advances such as automatic shutoff valves and excess flow valves.
One unusual development is that industry groups and environmental and public interest advocates seem heartened by what they are hearing and seeing on the legislative front. The , a Bellingham, Wash.-based nonprofit whose sole mission is promoting fuel transportation safety, is also satisfied with where Congress is headed.
The Trust's executive director, Carl Weimer, and others from his organization have spent hours testifying before congressional committees.
"Before the rash of pipeline tragedies in the last 15 months, we'd be happy to have three of the 12 items on our laundry list in a bill," Weimer told SolveClimate News. "But this time around we've got most everything on our list in these bills.
The Canadian company wants to build a 1,702-mile pipeline that will pass through Nebraska's Ogallala aquifer as it transports heavy crude oil from tar sands mines in Alberta, Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline say it will improve U.S. energy security and decrease reliance on Middle Eastern oil. Opponents say that pipelines transporting oil sands crude raise the risk of spills and damage to aquifers and waterways, while extracting and processing the thick oil increase greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that on a "well-to-tank" basis the heavy crude extracted is 82 percent more carbon intensive than conventional oil. That estimate sits in a middle ground between widely varying claims offered by industry and environmentalists.
Since the pipeline will cross an international border, TransCanada must get a presidential permit from the State Department before it can build and operate the line. In July 2010, the EPA gave the State Department's first (EIS) of the project the lowest possible grade of "inadequate," creating an inter-agency tussle that has delayed the permit decision. Although a second draft EIS did better, the EPA said more analysis was still needed to fully evaluate the environmental risks. The State Department's final environmental review of Keystone XL is expected this month.
The Ogallala aquifer has emerged as an important point in the debate. In June, two scientists from Nebraska called for a special study to determine how an oil spill would affect it, and Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska has asked the State Department to consider an alternate, more easterly route that would avoid it. Twenty scientists from top research institutions recently urging President Obama not to approve the pipeline because of environmental concerns.
Here's a primer on why people are worried.
Social media expert Patrick Crane had just stepped down for a "career break" after four years with networking giant LinkedIn when Sungevity came knocking late last year with a job offer.
Still far from decided but intrigued, Crane agreed to sign up with the Oakland, Calif.-based solar leasing firm — but just as a customer.
He filled out a free online Sungevity iQuote, punching in his roof specifics, electricity usage and other household details. In less than 24 hours, the company calculated the roof's pitch and orientation to the sun and emailed Crane a design of his solar array without ever stepping foot in his San Francisco Bay Area home.
The quote tallied how much money the panels would save on electricity bills. And it stated that, at no cost to Crane, he could lease an installation from Sungevity, skipping out on tens of thousands of dollars in upfront costs.
Looking over the proposal led to an "aha" moment for Crane.
Going solar seemed like a transformative choice, he told SolveClimate News in an interview, and he wanted to talk about it far and wide. For a social networking guy, that was huge. "I felt in my bones that solar is a social phenomenon," Crane said. "What I saw very quickly through my own experience was that families are making a very big emotional decision.
"Solar is not a bunch of black panels on a roof," he continued. "Solar is a lifestyle."
That was in January. One month later Crane signed on to be Sungevity's chief marketing officer, and in that same week in February his real-life rooftop array was first connected to the grid.
"Being that wowed ... by the customer experience was the impetus to say, 'This is what I want to do with my life for the next few years,'" Crane said.
The financial effects of the Fukushima nuclear power crisis continued on Wednesday as Germany's E.ON announced that plans by its government to shut the country's reactors in response to the Japanese disaster would result in up to 11,000 job losses.
As fears mounted that the nuclear shutdown would significantly increase Germany's industrial operating costs — weakening its competitiveness in an already fragile global economy — E.ON announced a swing into the red, a dividend cut, the redundancies and profits warnings for the next three years.
Germany's biggest utility, which on Friday announced an average 15 percent price rise for its five million domestic UK gas and electricity customers, took a €1.9 billion ($2.7 billion) charge relating to plant closures and a new tax on spent nuclear fuel rods, pushing the group to its first quarterly loss in 10 years — a second-quarter deficit of €1.49 billion ($2.1 billion)
E.ON was reporting a day after German rival RWE reported its own swing into deficit, reporting that €900 million ($1.28 billion) of decommissioning and tax costs dragged it to a €229 million loss ($323.3 million).
This week's utility results are adding to concerns about the cost of closing all 17 of Germany's nuclear reactors by 2022 and making up the shortfall by doubling renewable energy output.
POINT OF ROCKS, Wyoming—On a mid-June afternoon in the dusty plains of southwest Wyoming a team of oil drillers got the final thumbs-up to begin boring deep into the earth. As of yesterday they were more than 90 percent of the way to reaching their goal of drilling a test well 2.5 miles below the surface.
But this is not any old well.
The crew from , the Houston, Texas-based oil services company, is not even searching for oil but something far more elusive: a leak-proof place to permanently store carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants to curtail global warming pollution.
The effort is part of the , or WY-CUSP. Fourteen years in the making, the project is being closely watched to see if it can overcome the financial and technical challenges that have plagued other carbon capture and and sequestration (CCS) plans in the United States.
Up until last month, American Electric Power's Mountaineer CCS plant in New Haven, W.Va. had grabbed the lion's share of industry attention. It was the nation's most advanced attempt at capturing CO2 from the 31-year-old coal plant's exhaust gases and burying it in the deep-rock sandstone there. But on July 13, citing an uncertain U.S. climate policy and the continued economic downturn, AEP shelved the project.
Ron Surdam, director of the University of (CMI), which manages WY-CUSP, believes his team's project is worthy of a different fate than AEP's pilot. "We think we've got a world class place to store CO2," he told SolveClimate News.
But while the focus of attention may be shifting to WY-CUSP, it, too, faces enormous hurdles, and commercialization of CCS — touted by many as a critical national energy policy — remains a distant and uncertain prospect. Even if WY-CUSP succeeds in identifying a massive underground storage location for CO2, that is only half the battle — and perhaps the easier one to win for this technology.
Markets in water rights are likely to evolve as a rising population leads to shortages and climate change causes drought and famine.
But they will be based on regional and ethical trading practices and will differ from the bulk of commodity trade.
Detractors argue that trading water is unethical or even a breach of human rights, but already water rights are bought and sold in arid areas of the globe from Oman to Australia.
"We at Blackhawk strongly believe that water is in fact turning into the new gold for this decade and beyond," said Ziad Abdelnour, president and chief executive of U.S.-based private equity firm Blackhawk Partners.
"No wonder smart money is aggressively moving in this direction."
For now, however, he cited buying shares in water treatment companies or utilities, rather than water trade per se.
Some of the big investment banks dominant in commodities are among those who have voiced skepticism water could ever attract direct trade.
A Minnesota wind developer is betting on untested storage technology that will allow it to meet electricity demand at peak periods and improve profits even when the wind isn't blowing, with implications for all U.S. wind farm operators.
Juhl Wind to install a 1-megawatt advanced battery system at its 10-megawatt Woodstock Hills wind facility near its headquarters in Woodstock, Minn. The system will store electricity captured during gusty times for up to six hours, giving Juhl the option to sell its wind supply when power demand is highest and charge premium prices for it.
"By adding the storage component, you're going to be able to store energy and deliver it to the system when the system needs it most," said Dan Juhl, chairman and CEO of Juhl Wind. "Instead of becoming baseload, it becomes peak power," which is more competitively priced.
The project will mark a milestone for the system's developer, , a cleantech company in Kalispell, Mont., which for three years has tested and tweaked the decade-old "redox flow" battery technology to make it economically viable.
"This is the first time we're throwing it in the field and seeing where the benefits are," Craig Wilkins, Zinc Air's executive vice president, told SolveClimate News. "It is huge for us at this point to be able to get a real live test of the battery. Companies are already looking at this with interested eyeballs."
He added that flow battery technology has gone through 10 years and tens of millions of dollars of research. "We are the first ones to scale up" for commercial use.
Anissa Dehamna, a research analyst with Washington D.C.-based , told SolveClimate News that the Zinc Air demonstration is "a good strategy" for getting "the wind industry in line or on board with storage."
ISTANBUL, Turkey—At the end of June, Henry Puna, prime minister of the Cook Islands, a 90-square-mile archipelago in the South Pacific, traveled more than 11,000 miles on an unusual fact-finding mission to Turkey's Bozcaada island in the Aegean Sea.
Puna came to see Bozcaada's hospital and the house of its governor — two of the only buildings in the world partially powered by hydrogen-generated electricity. The unique prototype technology, which sounds like a back-to-the-future experiment, has been churning out zero-emissions power for the past few months.
At the governor's house a 20-kilowatt rooftop solar array and a free-standing 30-kilowatt wind turbine generate clean electricity, which is run through an electrolyzer that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen gas gets compressed and stored in tanks on the island and is later converted back into electricity whenever extra power is needed. The gas can also fuel hydrogen cars or vessels.
Currently, Bozcaada's system supplies all the electricity at both buildings, as well as a boat and golf cart. Combined, it's equivalent to powering about 20 households in Turkey.
That minuscule amount is emblematic of the uphill battle that hydrogen technologies face in becoming a solution to reckon with in the contest for alternative fuels. Still, experts say the facilities on the small Aegean outpost, 175 miles southwest of Istanbul, illustrate some of the more promising uses of hydrogen as an energy carrier — especially its potential to fill crucial niches within a larger clean energy economy.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured Canada's foreign minister on Thursday the United States was on track to decide on TransCanada Corp's bid for a $7 billion cross-border pipeline by the end of the year but gave no hint which way the decision would go.
Clinton met with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, who said he told her the Keystone project was "tremendously important to the future prosperity of the Canadian ."
"We are leaving no stone unturned in this process and we expect to make a decision on the permit before the end of this year," Clinton told reporters in a joint appearance with Baird after their meeting.
Keystone XL, which would take petroleum from Canada's oil sands to refineries in Texas, faces opposition from environmental groups and some U.S. politicians who say it would bolster more oil sands development, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and raise the risk of oil spills in the central U.S. states, site of a massive aquifer.
The State Department has said last week it will issue a final environmental assessment on the project in August and then government agencies will have 90 days to comment on it before a final decision is made.
California regulators have adopted the nation's first sweeping privacy rules for household smart meters that form the backbone of the growing "green" grid, vowing to protect consumers from cyber attacks that could steal energy usage data and other private information.
The California Public Utility Commission will require utilities to regularly conduct independent security audits of their millions of wireless meters and to restrict the access of third parties, such as energy-efficiency consultants, to customers' personal details.
The nearly 200-page decision, announced last week, applies to the state's biggest utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — which together have deployed about eight million of the nation's , with three million more devices planned for late 2012.
"The rules and policies we've adopted are the first such in the nation and should serve as a national model," CPUC president Michael Peevey .
He added that the standards are consistent with privacy and security principles adopted by California's Senate Bill 1476, which former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law last September, and by the Department of Homeland Security.
The smart grid's rollout across the United States is predicted to revolutionize energy generation and distribution by allowing more intermittent wind and solar power on the grid and by making operations more efficient. By 2020, nearly 60 million smart meters, which transmit real-time data on customers' electricity use, are expected to be installed nationwide.
With its rules, the commission aims to protect citizens from the kinds of security and data breaches that have plagued credit card payment systems, online gaming platforms like the Sony Playstation Network and similar wireless systems. In recent attacks, hackers have exposed or stolen hundreds of thousands of customers' names, credit card and debit card numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses.
Smart grid experts applauded the new standards but said that utilities' compliance with them should be one piece of a much larger cyber security strategy.