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[1THING] Blog: Archive for November, 2012

[ Oil Train Revival: Booming North Dakota Relies on Rail to Deliver Its ]

In the booming North Dakota’s Bakken Shale region, producers aren’t waiting for pipelines. In a reprise of the industry’s pioneering days, they’re loading oil on railroads.

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[ Car Sharing Redefines the Value of a Parking Space ]

For many cities, car sharing has presented a compelling solution to public transit crowding and traffic snarls (see related story: “Car Sharing Widens the Lanes of Access for City Drivers“). Services such as Zipcar and Car2go offer the opportunity to cut the number of cars on city streets, but a price for hosting those services’ fleets is paid in the loss of precious, centrally located parking spots.

The potential impact of car-sharing fleets on parking availability for car owners was enough to make the community of Manhattan Beach, California, pause this week before approving a deal with the Daimler-owned Car2go. City council members said that a parking study was needed before they could support Car2go’s proposal to bring the service into nine cities in the South Bay area of Los Angeles.

Ironically, taking curbside parking spots out of the general pool and dedicating them to shared vehicles is seen as part of the solution to the parking and congestion problem. It’s an idea that has met some success—as well as some complaints from residents—in Hoboken, New Jersey, one of the most densely populated areas in the United States.

Located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Hoboken has dedicated more than 40 of its 9,000 on-street parking spaces to a car-share program known as Corner Cars. Hertz operates the program and pays the city $100 per spot each month, while charging members $5 to $16 an hour for the cars. Bright green paint marks off pairs of spots reserved for Corner Cars every few blocks.

Two years after the program’s launch, about a quarter of Corner Cars’ 3,000 members have reportedly given up their own cars or put off buying a new one because of access to the shared wheels. (See related story: “To Curb Driving, Cities Cut Down on Car Parking“)

Of course, some residents complain that they would gladly pay $100 to rent a prime parking spot—never mind the city’s argument that one spot can provide convenience to many more residents if it is occupied by a shared vehicle instead of a private car.

Some cities, on the other hand, are capitalizing on the high value of convenient city parking. Washington, D.C. has opted to auction off dozens of spots formerly awarded for free to Zipcar. Last year, the District set a minimum bid price of $3,600 per space, and drew offers from three car sharing companies. Zipcar went from having 86 parking spots to only 12 spots in the slightly smaller pool of 84 spots now dedicated to shared cars.

In San Francisco, meanwhile, securing on-street parking and charging locations remains one of the challenges for BMW DriveNow electric fleet, which launched in the city this past August. For now, says DriveNow CEO Richard Steinberg, the solution is to seek private parking locations.

On the other side of the globe, in a country with one of the highest car ownership rates of all the advanced nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Sydney, Australia, is now home to more than 9,000 car-sharing members. That’s up from 4,000 members two years ago, and by 2016 the city aims to boost car-sharing among its residents to 10 percent of all households for an estimated 15,000 members in all.

Among other forms of support for the shift, the city provides parking at curbside and in city car parks while integrating car sharing into urban renewal areas. Viewing car sharing as a “crucial complement to a sustainable transport system,” the city writes that “The availability of shared cars provides the peace-of-mind and flexibility needed for residents who have chosen to base their travel predominantly on public transport, walking and cycling.”

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[ Ford Fusion Named the Green Car of the Year 2013 ]

With two of its cars among the five finalists, Ford took the Green Car of the Year Award for its 2013 Fusion on Thursday at the LA Auto Show.

The newly redesigned, midsize sedan is offered with three different engines: gas-electric hybrid, plug-in hybrid and gasoline. The base model starts at $21,700, while the gas-electric hybrid, rated at 47 mpg for both city and highway driving by the EPA, starts at $27,200.

The Fusion was recognized for its low petroleum use and low carbon dioxide emissions, as well as for its competitive pricing, reported the LA Times.

The Green Car Journal’s award is decided by a prestigious panel of judges, including environmental leaders such as Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, Global Green USA President Matt Petersen, and Ocean Futures Society president Jean-Michel Cousteau, along with car enthusiast and late night comedian Jay Leno and the journal’s staff.

“We’ve moved our brand from laggard to leader in fuel economy,” said Dave Mondragon, Ford’s general marketing manager as he accepted the award.

“The 2013 Ford Fusion approaches the market with a ‘game-on’ attitude,” said Ron Cogan, publisher of The Green Car Journal.

U.S. automakers were well represented in the group of finalists for the recognition. The Fusion was up against Ford’s own C-Max, the Dodge Dart Aero, the Mazda CX-5 SkyACTIV and the Toyota Prius c.

For its mileage, the Fusion is second only to the Prius c, which gets 53 mpg, according to the Detroit News.

Previous winners of the award include the 2012 Honda Civic GX Natural Gas, 2011 Chevrolet Volt, 2010 Audi A3 TDI, 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid, and the 2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid.

Not everyone is impressed with the accolade, which is in its eighth year.

Michael Vaughn wrote in The Globe and Mail earlier this month that, “the five Green Car finalists … are all yawners. There are glaring omissions from the list and the ones that did make it all feature worthwhile but unexciting technology that we have seen before.”

But Ford’s Mondragon called it “a great testament for Ford,” and the award adds to some of the press attention that the car, which went on sale this fall, has already gotten. By several accounts, the 2013 Fusion is a very important model for the automaker, which is entering the popular (and crowded) midsize sedan market. Ford is betting that the Fusion, which it has billed as “the most fuel-efficient sedan in America,” will help it dominate that market.

(Related Photos: “Eleven Electric Cars Charge Ahead, Amid Obstacles“)

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[ Ukraine Crushed in Fraudulent $1.1Billion Gas Deal ]

What should have been a landmark natural gas deal for Ukraine has devolved into a bizarre and embarrassing debacle, as it became apparent this week that the $1.1 billion agreement the government signed Monday was not legitimate.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and Energy Minister Yurly Boyko presided over a live televised signing ceremony for the supposed deal with Spain’s Gas Natural Fenosa, which would have secured $1.1 billion in investment for the construction of Ukraine’s first liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal on the Black Sea and a pipeline connecting the country’s vast gas network to the terminal.

More to the point, the deal would enable Ukraine to import by tanker up to 10 billion cubic meters of European gas at a price 20 percent lower than that charged by Russia’s Gazprom. That would be a major first step toward reducing Ukraine’s dependence on Russia.

Here’s the rub: Fenosa apparently had no idea it was signing a landmark agreement with Ukraine. The man supposedly signing on behalf of Fenosa, identified as Jordi Sarda Bonvehi, has no affiliation with the company, according to Fenosa. It remains unclear how Ukrainian authorities were led to believe—during multiple rounds of negotiations—that Bonvehi was a Fenosa representative.

Authorities in Kiev said that Bonvehi was under the impression that Fenosa would sign the deal with Ukraine and that he would be given the authority to sign the deal retroactively.

But Fenosa denies it has ever considered such a deal and continues to deny any relationship at all with Bonvehi.

The collapse of the deal leaves Ukraine in the lurch, with much-needed funds for the terminal’s construction potentially up in smoke. Ukraine’s state investment agency reportedly said Thursday that it was in contact with Fenosa “to settle the question of the Spanish company’s participation in the LNG terminal project.”

A version of this post originally appeared at OilPrice.com and has been republished with permission.

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[ Clean Coal Turnabout? ]

A clean-coal lobbying group talks of a “shared … commitment” with the Obama administration on the environment. Hmm.

Okay, it’s past Thanksgiving and the election is long over, but a series of ads I saw on television on election night keep playing in my mind. They were about the virtues of coal. Why would such ads stay with me? Let me explain.

The ad campaign to throw the ‘bums’ out

It all starts with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a trade lobbying group made up of coal-mining companies and utilities with coal-based power, which, according to its website, “supports policies that will ensure affordable, reliable, domestically produced energy, while supporting the development and deployment of advanced technologies to further reduce the environmental footprint of coal-fueled electricity generation.” (Emphasis mine.)

All good stuff in principle. In practice the ACCCE has had a hard time balancing the objective of using coal with the objective of protecting the environment.

That problem was in full display in the runup to the election when the ACCCE launched a blitz of ads telling voters “that now is the time to stand up to the EPA’s anticoal agenda.” While technically nonpartisan, the message was pretty clear — get Obama and those environmental-regulating crazies out of the White House.

Take for example the “Home Field Advantage” ad above (uploaded on October 3, 2012) with the following voiceover:

“Our current leadership in Washington has taken us down a … path paved by heavy-handed EPA regulations, a path relying on fads not fuels, a path leading away from energy independence, a path that fails to recognize the connection between low-cost energy and desirable, high-paying jobs. … It’s time to send leaders to Washington who will build a future on a solid foundation. Your vote is your voice. Now is the time to make it heard.”

Other salient quotes from the ads include:

“The regulations coming down are going to increase the cost of producing electricity which is going to make the power bills go up even more so, and I don’t understand why we’re getting rid of the cheapest form of electricity we’re set up to make and put it out of business.” (“Losing Power”)

“The rules and regulations they’re making at the EPA are affecting real lives,” says J. Howard Spencer, the town manager of Glen Lyn, Virginia. ”It takes the hope away from children. Where can they get a job? (“Losing Power”)

“I think we need an EPA; however, I think that they have far overstepped their reach and we’re feeling it as consumers in every aspect of our lives.” (“Coal = Future”)

But still claiming the green banner

Paradoxically, while bashing the Environmental Protection Agency, the ads also claim coal-industry credit for environmental progress:

“The technology exists for clean coal.” (Watch video.)

“The time is ticking, America. … It’s time we recognize that the nearly $100 billion spent on clean coal technologies have resulted in real environmental progress.” (Watch video.)

And this is where I call foul and ask for help from the fact-checkers. You want to promote coal, that’s your business. You want to promote coal while also claiming to be champions of the environment — not so fast.

  1. While the coal industry takes credit for the sizable reductions in SOx and NOx emissions — about 90 percent per unit of electricity generated since 1970 — these reductions actually came about as a result of regulations promulgated by the EPA via the authority granted it under the Clean Air Act and its amendments. Laws and regulations that the coal industry fought against tooth and nail, and predicted would result in dire consequences (see here and here). Not only did the predicted doom and gloom not occur; the air-quality benefits and savings in health-care costs have been substantial. (See also here.)
  2. EPA is now in the process of developing and promulgating updated regulations for SOx and NOx emissions to take effect with landmark regulations for mercury. In its pre-election rhetoric — those ads we’re talking about — the ACCCE was against those regulations and actively encouraged people to cast their ballot to prevent such measures from going forward.

A kinder, gentler clean coal coalition speaking out now?

But an interesting thing happened on November 6th, at least on CNN where I watched the election returns. While there was still a plethora of clean coal ads — including some from Exxon Mobil, the sponsor of “CNN live election night coverage” — the spots showed a softer side.

Gone was any bashing of the administration or the EPA, and all that remained, in warm, lush tones and pretty pictures of nature in all its glory, were the virtues of coal as a homegrown, plentiful and clean energy source.

Could it be that the coal lobby had gotten the message from the polls and decided that there would not be a change in the White House (their ads notwithstanding) and they’d better clean up their clean-coal image as an Obama administration-basher before the election was called? Maybe so.

More importantly, were those ads a sign that the coal industry was ready for a détente with the Obama team including the folks at EPA? Not likely, but you never know. The ACCCE has not released a press release since late October. And this quote from its Web page on “Clean Coal Technology” suggests that an olive branch to the administration could be in the offing:

“We share the Obama administration’s commitment [to clean coal]. As an industry, we are committed to a clean energy future with coal — and that future involves the use of advanced technologies to further reduce emissions including the capture and safe storage of [carbon dioxide] CO2.”

In trying to read the tea leaves from such a statement, the critical issue ultimately comes to be what is meant by “clean coal.”

What about reducing air pollution?

Clean coal is often thought of as technology (like carbon capture and storage) that removes the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from the effluent that is produced when coal is burned. (And, by the way, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office report, the technology for carbon capture and storage may “exist,” but it is a long way from becoming commercially viable.)

But in fact clean coal, in the ACCCE’s own parlance, means a whole lot more than that — clean coal technology is actually a range of different technologies that, among other things, remove, in the ACCCE’s words, “traditional pollutant emissions like sulfur dioxide (SO2); nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are a precursor to smog; and particulate matter.” (Now if we’re really talking clean, we’d need to also consider issues related to mountaintop mining and disposal of coal ash, but let’s not for now).

The ACCCE claims to on board with all this:

“We’re committed to ensuring that America’s energy future is a clean one. Of course, commitment is more than a word — it requires action. We have a long history of deploying clean coal technologies to reduce air emissions.”

Of course, claiming a commitment that goes beyond words is just that — words. How could they really demonstrate that commitment?

Here’s an idea: remove opposition to the new EPA regulations that promise cleaner air using existing technologies. And while you’re at it, try being a constructive partner with EPA as it develops a sound policy for dealing with the roughly 130 million short tons of toxic coal ash we generate each year. Deal?

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[ Local farmer, brewer, environmentalist unite to call on Congress to save wind subsidies ]

For Immediate Release

Fort Collins – With the severe drought plaguing Colorado prompting more Coloradans to call for action to tackle global warming and the rise in extreme weather, Environment Colorado released an Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center report this morning: this recent report shows that Colorado’s current power generation from wind energy displaces as much global warming pollution as taking 525,000 cars off the road per year. Colorado has also suffered from severe water shortages this year, and the Environment Colorado report shows that wind power saves enough water to meet the needs of 23,300 Coloradans. Nationwide, the water saved annually by wind power would cover Fort Collins’ water needs three times over.

Environment Colorado was joined by Doug Odell of Odell Brewing, Michael Baute of Spring Kite Farm, and Pamela Shaddock of Senator Udall’s office in releasing the Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center report, Wind Power for a Cleaner America: Reducing Global Warming Pollution, Cutting Air Pollution, and Saving Water, and in touting wind energy’s environmental benefits to date, as well as future benefits if wind power continues to grow. With a particular focus on the impact of drought on Colorado industries, the speakers urged Congress to extend critical federal incentives for wind power—the renewable energy production tax credit (PTC) and the offshore wind investment tax credit (ITC)—before they expire at the end of the year.

“Wind power is already replacing the dirty and dangerous energy sources of the past and creating a cleaner, healthier future for Coloradans,” said Margaret McCall of Environment Colorado.  “We can continue on this path of cutting global warming pollution and saving water if Congress acts now to extend critical wind incentives. Our message to Congress is clear: Don’t throw wind power off the fiscal cliff.  Water-starved Coloradans can’t afford it.”

Wind energy now provides 9.2% of Colorado’s electricity, making Colorado sixth in the country for its percentage of power generation from wind. If wind development continues at a pace comparable to that of recent years through 2016, Colorado would reduce global warming pollution by as much as taking an additional 457,000 cars off the road, and would save enough water to meet the needs of an additional 20,300 Coloradans.

In 2012 in particular, Coloradans can’t afford to waste water: apart from the droughts of 2002 and 1934, 2012 is the worst drought year in Colorado history; in the area around Fort Collins, the drought is even more severe than it was 10 years ago. Farmers are being hit hard: this year, Michael Baute’s irrigation ditch ran dry, and he was forced to pay top dollar for municipal water. “In the local food business there is a fine line between paying your bills and closing shop,” said Baute.

Doug Odell built on this message, emphasizing that a consistent supply of water is critical to the brewing process. Odell stated that his brewery invests in wind energy “because the water conservation aspect is so important to our company and our people.”

Colorado’s successful development of wind energy results largely from the Colorado Renewable Portfolio Standard—requiring utilities to provide 30% of their power from renewable or recycled energy by 2020— and the federal renewable energy Production Tax Credit (PTC).  Wind power is at a critical time in its growth—now powering nearly 13 million homes across the country and on its way to being cost-competitive with traditional fossil fuels. But the two key federal wind power incentives—the production tax credit and the offshore wind investment tax credit—expire at the end of the year. Without these credits, many planned wind farms will not be built, leaving health and environmental benefits for Coloradans on the table.

“Extending the wind Production Tax Credit is one of the most straightforward ways we can support clean, Made-in-America energy and American manufacturing jobs. We need the PTC to help create more good-paying jobs here at home, including jobs for our veterans who are transitioning from the military into the civilian workforce, ” Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said. “The wind PTC is also a commonsense way to support clean energy and to reduce our carbon emissions. It is critical that Congress extend the PTC ASAP and support clean, renewable wind energy.”

Despite the benefits of wind energy and widespread public support for federal policies to promote renewable energy, fossil fuel interests and their allies in Congress are vigorously opposing the PTC and ITC.

“As our nation is facing financial crisis, we must invest wisely in a future with less pollution, fewer extreme weather events, and smart use of our water resources,” said Margaret of Environment Colorado. “Time is running out. We thank Senators Udall and Bennet for putting Coloradans first and continuing to support clean, renewable wind power, and we urge all members of Congress, including Congressman Gardner, to stand up and make sure that these tax credits are renewed before the end of the year. Our clean air, our water, and our children’s future depend on it.”

In face of drought, wind power saves enough water for over 20,000 Coloradans

Environment Colorado

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[ Wind Power for a Cleaner America ]

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Released by:

Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center

Coal- and natural gas-fired power plants pollute our air, are major contributors to global warming, and consume vast amounts of water—harming our rivers and lakes and leaving less water for other uses. Wind energy has none of these problems. It produces no air pollution, makes no contribution to global warming, and uses no water. America has more than doubled its use of wind power since the beginning of 2008 and we are starting to reap the environmental rewards. Wind energy now displaces about 68 million metric tons of global warming pollution each year—as much as is produced by 13 million cars. And wind energy now saves more than enough water nationwide to meet the needs of a city the size of Boston. There is still plenty of room for growth in wind energy. But the pending expiration of the production tax credit threatens the future expansion of wind power. To protect the environment, federal and state governments should continue and expand policies that support wind energy. Burning fossil fuels for electricity generation has widespread environmental and public health consequences.

  • Combustion of coal and natural gas exacerbates global warming, the effects of which are already being felt across the nation. The average annual temperature in the U.S. has already risen 2° F in the past 50 years, and the number of heat waves has increased. Extreme rain and snowfall events have become 30 percent more common. Sea level has risen eight inches or more along parts of our coasts.
  • Coal- and natural gas-fired power plants require vast amounts of water for cooling, reducing the amount of water available for irrigation, wildlife, recreation or domestic use, now and in the future. More water is withdrawn from U.S. lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers for the purpose of cooling power plants than for any other purpose.
  • Air pollution from power plants threatens the health of millions of Americans.

Wind energy avoids about 68 million metric tons of global warming pollution annually—equivalent to taking 13 million of today’s passenger vehicles off the road—and saves more than enough water to supply the annual water needs of a city the size of Boston. Wind energy also avoids 137,000 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions and 91,000 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions, important contributors to ozone smog and soot pollution.

  • Texas, Iowa and California lead the nation in wind energy capacity, delivering the greatest reductions in global warming pollution, water consumption, and health-threatening air pollution. (See Figure ES-1 and appendices.)

If construction of new wind energy projects continues from 2013 to 2016 at a pace comparable to that of recent years, the United States could reduce global warming pollution by an additional 56 million metric tons in 2016—equivalent to the amount produced by 11 million passenger vehicles. These projects would also save enough water to meet the annual water needs of 600,000 people, and reduce air pollution by an additional 108,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 79,000 tons of sulfur dioxide. America has abundant wind energy potential. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 20 percent of the nation’s electricity could be supplied by wind power in 2030, up from 3 percent in 2011. To achieve that level of generation, construction of new generating capacity would need continue at levels comparable to that of recent years. Wind energy’s success in reducing air pollution and saving water will continue to grow if policies such as tax incentives and renewable electricity standards are continued and expanded at the state and federal level:

  • The production tax credit: The federal renewable electricity production tax credit (PTC) has been one of the most important tools to help grow the wind industry in the United States, but it is set to expire at the end of 2012. The loss of the tax credit could cause new construction to drop by 75 percent—and allow global warming pollution and water consumption to continue unabated.
  • The offshore wind investment tax credit: The offshore wind investment tax credit (ITC) is designed to address the longer timelines for development and construction of offshore wind energy facilities. It covers up to 30 percent of the cost of new wind investments and grants offshore wind developers eligibility for the credit at the point that construction begins. The offshore wind ITC also expires on December 31, 2012.
  • Strong renewable electricity standards: A strong renewable electricity standard (RES) helps support wind energy development by requiring utilities to obtain a percentage of the electricity they provide to consumers from renewable sources. These standards help ensure that wind energy producers have a market for the electricity they generate and protect consumers from the sharp swings in energy prices that accompany over-reliance on fossil fuels. Today, 29 states have renewable electricity standards—other states and the federal government should follow their lead.
  • Tax policies for renewable energy. Changes to the federal tax code could make more private investment available to wind energy nationwide by expanding two tax provisions that have benefited investors in non-renewable sources for decades.

Transmission policies. Upgrading and expanding existing electricity transmission infrastructure can connect areas with high electricity demand to areas of high wind energy output. Transmission upgrades should occur only where clearly necessary and where environmental impacts will be minimal.

Reducing Global Warming Pollution, Cutting Air Pollution, and Saving Water

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[ BP Excluded From Sale of New U.S. Leases for Gulf Oil and Gas ]

Just hours before bidding opened on leases for new oil and gas development on 20 million acres of the western Gulf of Mexico this morning, U.S. environmental officials announced that BP would be temporarily suspended from contracts with the government, effectively barring BP from being awarded any leases in the sale.

But by the time the gavel came down on what turned out to be an auction that garnered relatively modest interest, it was clear the suspension would have little practical immediate impact on BP’s ambitions in the Gulf of Mexico. While the company has agreed to pay the highest criminal penalty in U.S. history, $4 billion, to settle charges related to the disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, BP plans to invest 10 times that sum over the next decade in drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP was not among the 13 companies that bid on leases in today’s sale, which brought in just $133.8 million in high bids. In contrast, the U.S. government drew $1.7 billion in winning bids in a lease sale in June in the central Gulf of Mexico, the region where BP drilled its ill-fated Macondo well. Industry trade press said the western Gulf was considered a less prospective area. BP earlier this fall made clear its intention to focus its Gulf of Mexico business on a fewer number of large high-performing assets. BP, in fact, sold off $5.5 billion in what it termed “non-strategic” assets in September to Plains Exploration and Production Company of Houston. Plains was one of the bidders in today’s lease sale.

The decision to suspend BP marks a reversal for the Obama administration, which allowed BP to bid on new leases in the two previous sales held for Gulf of Mexico acreage since the company’s disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BP, in fact, acquired 43 new deepwater leases in the June 2012 lease sale, and the company remains the largest holder of acreage in the Gulf.

But suspension from future government contracts is a standard practice “when a responsibility question is raised in a criminal action,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in announcing the decision. The suspension process, in effect, was triggered earlier this month when BP agreed to settlement of the criminal charges surrounding the April 2010 well blowout and explosion that killed 11 workers and set off the largest oil spill in U.S. history. (See related photos: “Ten New Studies Show Gulf Oil Spill Impact“)

The suspension action, however, does not affect BP’s existing contracts with the government–noted by both the EPA and BP in prepared statements. BP has a large store of existing leases in the Gulf—700 in all. It was not immediately clear if BP planned to participate in this morning’s auction. The company plans to invest $4 billion annually in the Gulf of Mexico over the next decade.

BP said in a prepared statement that an agreement between the oil company and the EPA was in the works that would “effectively resolve and lift this temporary suspension.”

“As BP’s submissions to the EPA have made clear, the company has made significant enhancements since the accident,” including leadership changes, reorganization of its upstream business, and creation of a centralized safety and risk department, the company said. BP said it had adopted voluntary deepwater drilling standards that exceed current regulatory requirements.

This morning’s auction, conducted at the Superdome in New Orleans, marks the sale of all remaining available acreage for oil and natural gas exploration in the U.S. western Gulf of Mexico, and is the first sale under the Obama administration’s new five-year offshore drilling plan.

U.S. officials characterized the sale as exemplifying the administration’s policy to expand energy development safely. The administration is “committed to promoting the safe development of the Nation’s critical offshore oil and gas resources while taking steps to safeguard the marine and coastal communities,”  said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Offshore Energy Management, in a statement announcing the lease sale. “This sale represents a key component of the President’s comprehensive, all-of-the-above energy strategy and the regionally tailored and responsible approach.”

Said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, “Developing public energy resources in the Gulf of Mexico continues to generate much needed revenue for local communities while helping to power our nation and fuel our economy.”

The EPA’s brief announcement said that BP would be suspended from new government contracts or other transactions “until the company can provide sufficient evidence to EPA demonstrating that it meets Federal business standards.” The EPA said suspension actions are designed “to ensure the integrity of Federal programs by conducting business only with responsible individuals or companies.”

In a news conference this morning, Beaudreau said that he believed that BP had been genuine and sincere in its efforts at reform. But he said the suspension process required that the company address EPA’s concerns before the bar on new government contracts would be lifted.

Only 116 of the 3,878 tracts offered in today’s lease sale received bids, covering an area of 652,500 acres. The highest bid for a single tract was $17.2 million by Chevron, which also  submitted the highest total amount in bonus bids, $56 million on 28 tracts.

The government’s estimate was that the acreage covered by the entire lease sale could result in the production of 116 to 200 million barrels of oil and 538 to 938 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

National Ocean Industries Association President Randall Luthi said in a statement that the level of activity in today’s lease sale would be a good indicator of the industry’s confidence both in the remaining resources in the western Gulf of Mexico, and in the administration’s new offshore drilling policy. “This will be an interesting sale to watch,” he said.

 Updated at 12:47 p.m. EST with BP comments, further comments from Beaudreau.

Updated at 2:00 p.m. EST with lease sale results.

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[ A silver lining in a nightmare cloud ]

When Superstorm Sandy plowed through the Northeast in October leaving behind a battered electrical grid that left millions without light or heat for weeks, there were no thoughts of silver linings.

But as in most nightmares, Sandy also offered up a potentially positive lesson, this one about the resilience of clean energy. Turns out wind farms from Cuba to New Jersey survived more or less intact, and were up and running shortly after the storm.

It’s hard to deny the obvious potential of renewable energy to avert mass blackouts in the future.

Our current electricity grid relies on large power plants delivering power to a large geographical area. Fuel deliveries to large plants get interrupted and floods and storms can take these power plants down for days at a time. And in widespread disasters like Sandy, there simply isn’t enough backup power to pick up the slack. Not so wind turbines, which are constructed to withstand hurricane-force winds (120-135 mph and sometimes higher). Most shut down automatically when gales reach certain speeds, and the blades are tilted (feathered) so wind can pass through instead of engaging them. In other words, the very systems designed to harness wind are also built to withstand it.

And so in the uneasy pre-Sandy hours, wind farm operators up and down the East Coast switched their turbines into “hurricane mode” and hoped for the best. It worked. If more electricity had come from wind power in Sandy-ravaged states (currently at only 3,700 megawatts), chances are far fewer communities would have gone dark, or been back in business sooner.

There’s another thing to consider. Most climate scientists agree that the increasingly destructive force of storms like Sandy is linked to climate change, which is largely driven by rising heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels. Our warming world means rising sea levels and more coastal flooding. It also means more water vapor in the atmosphere, higher precipitation, and probably greater storm intensity. In other words, Sandy is likely a harbinger of more extreme weather to come — if we don’t take steps to stop it.

Ironically, the biggest stationary source of heat-trapping gases is coal-fired power plants, which account for an astonishing 40 percent of total U.S. global warming pollution. But wind energy has no such problem — the source of power is unlimited and pollution-free. More wind power means less warming, not to mention more great jobs and less dependence on foreign energy.

The good news is wind power is growing in the U.S. It now totals 51,630 megawatts (enough to power 13 million homes and businesses) and accounts for more than 35 percent of all new generating capacity since 2007.

But there are challenges. If Congress doesn’t renew the wind Production Tax Credit that is due to expire this year, all that growth in wind power will come to a screeching halt.

Sandy was a blunt-force wakeup call. A choice. We can continue as we’ve done for more than a century, or embrace a clean and secure energy future with wind power.

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[ Car Sharing Widens the Lanes of Access for City Drivers ]

City dwellers are expanding their options for mobility with peer-to-peer car sharing. Can “accessing” replace “ownership” in the love affair with the automobile?

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