A catastrophic tailings spill last month at British Columbia’s Mount Polley copper and gold mine has focused Canadians’ attention on the safety of mine waste containment, and NRDC says the tar sands/oil sands industry is one of the main sources of concern. Tar sands/oil sands mining operations “generate massive volumes naphthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phenolic compounds, ammonia, and mercury and other trace metals, and some of these compounds are carcinogenic,” Droitsch writes. “For every barrel of tar sands bitumen produced…1.5 barrels of liquid waste is added to the tailings ponds.” Companies already store more than 200 billion gallons of waste in an area larger than Washington, DC, and “because of weak and unenforced regulations, the volume of tailings could grow to 343 billion gallons by 2060,” according to the Alberta-based Pembina Institute.
The Energy Collective
The Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are both declining at an unprecedented and alarming rate, according to satellite mapping by NASA. The volume of ice loss in Greenland has doubled since 2009, and “the loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has in the same time span increased by a factor of three,” said glaciologist Prof. Dr. Angelika Humbert. “Combined, the two ice sheets are thinning at a rate of 500 cubic kilometres per year. That is the highest speed observed since altimetry satellite records began about 20 years ago.” Romm comments that “we are seeing ice sheet loss at rates not imagined even a few years ago,” meaning that “if we don’t reverse carbon pollution emissions trends ASAP, sea level rise will likely be four to five feet or more by century’s end. Also, the rate of sea level rise in 2100 could be upwards of one inch per year.”
Electric vehicles are a “quadruple win” for utilities seeking to increase electricity demand, build different kinds of relationships with customers, show stronger support for environmental objectives, and reduce their own operating costs, according to the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the industry’s main trade body. “Thus far, utilities have had a conflicted relationship with electric vehicles,” Lacey writes. “Although sales continue to grow, consumer demand has been relatively low compared to initial estimates. That has prevented power companies from investing heavily in charging infrastructure.” But with virtually no growth in retail demand for electricity, and distributed solar cutting into their markets, “today’s electric utilities need a new source of load growth—one that fits within the political, economic, and social environment,” an EEI report states.
Major energy companies have been increasing their debt loads and selling assets to boost operating cash flow that has “flattened in line with flat crude oil prices,” the EIA reported in early August. Based on March 2014 figures, the agency spotted a $110 billion gap between cash flow needs and operating revenues for 127 global oil and gas companies. “To meet spending with relatively flat growth in cash from operations, companies increased their borrowing,” EIA reported. “When comparing the major sources of cash for the first quarter only, the net increase in debt has made up at least 20% of cash since 2012.”
Our lead story usually focuses on the substance of climate and energy transition. But our ability to find and curate the best, most accurate and timely content depends on a free flow of information. That’s why it’s so important that Pulitzer Prize-winning InsideClimate News, one of our top sources for The Energy Mix, is pushing back after a published attack earlier this week from Energy in Depth, a PR arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Over the last year, ICN and the U.S. Center for Public Integrity have conducted an in-depth investigation of air pollution from unconventional oil and gas operations in Texas. Rather than countering the substance of ICN’s work, Energy in Depth tried to attack their journalistic integrity. “Changing the subject through the production of distractions is a kind of sleight of hand that is the specialty of well-trained public relations professionals, who in America now outnumber journalists four to one,” wrote ICN’s David Sassoon. “But no such thing as an ‘anti-fracking industry’ exists, and [IPAA] provides no evidence that would pass muster in an honest newsroom that it does.”
Domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. may be at their lowest level in two decades. But while coal consumption was down 18% between 2000 and 2012, production only fell by about 5%, and exports made up the difference. “It is estimated that ports under consideration in Oregon and Washington could eventually ship over 100 million tons of coal per year to Asia,” Fowlie reports. “These developments have environmentalists urgently questioning the extent to which increased energy exports will undermine carbon emissions reductions achieved within the U.S.” A key question is whether the exports will increase global energy consumption or offset other production, with one analyst suggesting a reduction in overall carbon pollution.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is teaming up with Google Earth to track methane leaks from aging natural gas pipes across the United States. “Natural gas is often touted as being far cleaner than coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but that depends on how much natural gas is leaked in the extraction and delivery process,” writes Tweed, a reporter with Greentech Media. “And unfortunately, there is little accurate historical data on just how much natural gas is seeping into the atmosphere.” Using interactive online maps, the project will begin by tracking methane leaks in Boston and Indianapolis, and on Staten Island.
A $200-million demand management program could help New York’s Consolidated Edison postpone a $1-billion investment in a new substation to serve energy needs in some parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Based on recent experience with summer heat waves, Con Ed is looking for strategies to control demand over a 12-hour peak period, from noon to midnight. “The utility is getting creative on many levels,” Tweed reports. “Some efficiency measures will be old-school, such as incentives to replace inefficient appliances and AC units. There will also be new building management systems, battery systems that can be tapped for hours at a time, and maybe even a few microgrids.”
Fossil fuel and financial industry analysts must take a closer look at the “eventual reality” that carbon-intensive energy development will be constrained, writes Grandia, President of Spake Media House Inc. and former director of online strategy at Greenpeace USA. “Oil companies are investing billions in long-term plays in very carbon intensive fuels, like Canada’s oil sands, while at the same time there are more and more signs that strict regulations on such operations are on the horizon in the near-term,” Grandia writes. “You don’t need to look much further than the years of delays on the Keystone XL pipeline to see that governments are starting to second-guess these big cash layouts on climate risky projects.”
San José, California-based Siva Power expects to produce solar-electric cells at 28¢ per watt within four years, although industry analyst Stephen Lacey isn’t completely sold on the target. “With $60 million in venture funding, Siva plans to build a 300-megawatt plant and eventually produce modules for 28¢ per watt over the next four years, assuming the facility is ever actually built,” Lacey writes. But “Siva doesn’t even have its pilot line fully built yet,” and the company may run into technical issues that have been common to thin film solar producers.
Efforts in the U.S. House of Representatives to undo energy efficiency standards for light bulbs could cost consumers $13 billion per year in savings and send jobs overseas. The standards were signed into law six years by President George W. Bush and have the support of all major U.S. lighting companies, but a budget amendment by Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) would prohibit funding for enforcement. “Preventing [the U.S. Department of Energy] from enforcing the standards against imported noncompliant, inefficient bulbs won’t do anything other than sacrifice pollution reduction, help foreign producers, and cause U.S. companies to lose sales and suffer from a competitive disadvantage. It also will put jobs at risk in America, where some of the energy-saving bulbs are being assembled and manufactured,” Noll writes.
By emphasizing energy efficiency as an option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is giving states the flexibility to find the most cost-effective path to compliance. “By Auffhammer’s Yoga Theorem,” Fowlie writes, “the outcome of an emissions regulation that supports compliance flexibility will be less costly than a rule that limits states’ compliance options. Under the auspices of the Clean Air Act, the EPA has rolled out its metaphorical yoga mat and demonstrated some serious regulatory flexibility.” Under the draft rule, “on the demand side of the fence, the state can pursue efficiency improvements in order to reduce the total quantity of electricity generated while increasing its negawatts.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection may have short-circuited some of the inevitable court challenges to its new carbon pollution rule by concurrently publishing a 104-page legal memorandum on its authority to regulate existing power plants under the Clean Air Act. “I’ve been involved in dozens of EPA rulemakings, and I’ve never before seen EPA release what amounts to a legal brief with a proposed rule,” writes attorney Brian H. Potts. And there’s more: “In its climate proposal, the agency did something smart: It structured the rule so that if a court doesn’t agree with certain assumptions EPA made, the other parts of the rule can stand. This bit of legal foresight should allow EPA to take more legal risks in its final rule (which could lead to larger greenhouse gas reductions), without jeopardizing the plan’s overall viability in court.”
Municipal energy efficiency plans could play a central role in meeting state-by-state targets under the new carbon pollution standard announced June 2 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “States have a great deal of flexibility as they develop compliance plans over the next few years, utilizing the four building blocks the EPA outlines: making fossil fuel power plants more efficient, using low-emitting power sources more, using more renewable energy, and increasing energy efficiency. Of particular interest is the fourth block—energy efficiency—which has shown to be incredibly cost-effective, and is likely to be included in many state plans,” Narita notes. “As states think through how to further integrate energy efficiency into their compliance plans, they can consider local energy efficiency initiatives well under way.”
In the five years since the collapse of federal cap-and-trade legislation, state governments across the U.S. have been pursuing their own initiatives on climate change. “So now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has embraced the bottom-up ethos,” writes Muro, a senior fellow and director of policy at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. The EPA and the White House “have proposed a carbon scheme that recognizes that states have been innovating, places states at the centre of the emissions push, and gives them the maximum amount of flexibility to limit carbon pollution.”