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[1THING] Blog: Archive for the ‘Great Energy Challenge’ Category

[ The Future of Coal Passes Through Kosovo ]

A 1930s-vintage coal plant in Kosovo

A 1930s-vintage coal plant in Kosovo

In 2013, the World Bank pledged to stop loaning money for new coal energy projects, unless no financially feasible alternatives exist. President Obama has said the same for the United States, in a 2013 speech: “I’m calling for an end of public financing for new coal plants overseas—unless they deploy carbon capture technologies, or there’s no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity.”

In Kosovo a proposed coal-fired power plant has been under discussion for over a decade. The prime funders, ironically, are the World Bank and the U. S. government.

The landscape of energy no longer favors coal. Renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies costs continue to plummet. The World Bank and the U. S. government’s decision to fund this project or not will set a critical precedent for the future of coal financing, making Kosovo the global gatekeeper for new coal projects.

In fact, coal has become an increasingly risky investment in terms of energy, climate, and health. In a recent analysis performed in conjunction with colleagues from the Balkans we have found that the clean energy path is not only better for human and environmental health — it is simply less expensive.

Solar hot water and IT in Prizren, Kosovo

Solar hot water and IT in Prizren, Kosovo

The World Bank and the U.S government now have the opportunity and to set the international energy and climate investment agenda. Distributed renewable energy resources and energy efficiency are simply faster to deploy to meet local needs than the arduous process of building out new centralized coal facilities. Delay on adopting a clean energy policy for the region slows down not only the provision of critically needed energy resources that can spur economic growth, but also the larger process of EU integration, which is a regional priority.

The range of options available to the World Bank to replace an aging coal-fired power plant in Kosovo allows for technological innovation that avoids a one-size fits-all approach. Solar, wind, small-scale hydropower, biomass, and energy efficiency projects can all combine to form a reliable electricity mix and shift the conversation away from single-technology solutions. Not every site may be appropriate for solar, wind, small-scale hydropower or biomass, but winners can emerge based on local conditions. The highly adaptive nature of renewables and energy efficiency investments distributes capital investment risk instead of channeling all resources into coal projects.

New research on the hazards of particulate matter to human health and the environment from low-quality lignite coal intensifies the concern for the current generation of Kosovars. Pollution control technologies that claim “clean” coal are expensive patchwork investments that do not address problems of coal mining, climate change, or ash byproducts. A price on carbon hammers the nail in the coffin. World Bank President Jim Kim has already publicly advocated for the inclusion of a $30/ton carbon shadow price on all proposed World Bank projects. Therefore, it only makes sense that coal, the highest carbon-emitting electricity generation source per kilowatt-hour, becomes the most expensive option among the abundance of low-cost, low-carbon renewables including solar, wind, small-scale hydropower, biomass, and energy efficiency.

The World Bank and the U.S. government face an historic choice and a chance to tip the energy and climate conversation. They can side with the emerging data and studies of clean energy economics to chart a reliable low-cost, and low-carbon pathway to renewable energy and green jobs. Failure to seize the moment would violate the prohibitions on coal projects that each institution has recently pledged. It is time to chart a sustainable path for people in need of energy now.


[ Sustainable Cities: Challenges and Opportunities in Jakarta ]

By Jon Heggie


JAKARTA, Indonesia–Some of Indonesia’s foremost thought leaders on sustainability, energy and environment convened in Jakarta for “Sustainable Cities: Challenges and Opportunities in Jakarta,” a roundtable discussion on how we plan, create and manage the sustainable city of the future from an energy perspective.

The experts were invited by National Geographic and Shell, partners in the Great Energy Challenge, which has been sponsoring gatherings around the world to consider big energy questions. Taking a global view but with a focus on Jakarta and Indonesia, the forum in February 2015 addressed overarching themes of energy demand and reducing carbon emissions, while considering the role of smart planning, including the transformation of infrastructure and transportation and the adoption of new systems and technologies.


Clay Chandler, The Barrenrock Group, moderates the roundtable discussion. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Clay Chandler, The Barrenrock Group, moderates the roundtable discussion. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Wendy Koch, National Geographic Senior Energy Editor. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Wendy Koch, National Geographic Senior Energy Editor. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.


A global context for the discussion was provided by Wendy Koch, Senior Energy Editor, National Geographic. Koch explained that as the world’s population soars, Indonesia is expected to remain the world’s fourth most populous country, bringing increased demand for food and energy. With around 15 percent of Indonesians having no access to the electric grid, the country is racing to boost its power production. This is currently mostly based on coal—Indonesia is the world’s largest coal exporter—which is contributing to air pollution in Jakarta.

Koch noted that Jakarta is sinking and its flooding problems have led to the U.S.$40 billion Great Garuda project to build a taller sea wall. Koch also referenced the construction of the Net Zero 99-story Pertamina Energy Tower, which opens up to the sky with a wind tunnel.

Koch highlighted that Indonesia has enormous geothermal potential and has introduced a new geothermal law to spur development. However, Indonesia is still a net importer of oil, raising the question of whether falling global oil prices and reduced gasoline subsidies will provide the financial savings to enable Indonesia to invest in alternate energy sources.

Moderator, Clay Chandler, with the Barrenrock Group, then launched the forum, guiding the discussion with a number of questions:

  • What are the biggest energy issues facing Indonesia’s cities?
  • How do we power Indonesia’s cities of the future?
  • How do we meet growing energy demand with an eye for the environment?
  • How do we develop resilient cities adaptive to the impacts of climate change?
  • How can Jakarta manage the impact of urban sprawl?
  • What’s next for improving transport efficiencies in Indonesia’s cities?


I Made Ro Sakya, PLN. Photograph by Rony Zakaria. 

I Made Ro Sakya, PLN. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Naning S. Adiningsih Adiwoso, Green Building Council Indonesia. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Naning S. Adiningsih Adiwoso, Green Building Council Indonesia. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.


Key challenges surfaced during the roundtable discussion included the need to address gridlock wasting time and energy, and the need to electrify several thousand islands. Among the solutions discussed were establishing trust in government and reducing subsidies for petrol and perhaps electricity as a spur to greater energy efficiency and green buildings. Other ideas include increasing government funding for basic infrastructure, better city design and better land use being really the key for limiting greenhouse gas emissions.


Left to right: Ketut Sarjanaputra, Conservation International Indonesia; John Russell, Shell; Utama Kajo, Chamber of Commerce and Industry Indonesia (KADIN) and Transparency International Indonesia. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Left to right: Ketut Sarjana Putra, Conservation International Indonesia; John Russell, Shell; Utama Kajo, Chamber of Commerce and Industry Indonesia (KADIN) and Transparency International Indonesia. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Komara Djaja, University of Indonesia. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Komara Djaja, University of Indonesia. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Andriah Feby Misna, Directorate General of New Energy, Renewable and Energy Conservation, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Andriah Feby Misna, Directorate General of New Energy, Renewable and Energy Conservation, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.


Unique Challenge

Indonesia faces the unique challenge of having a projected 300 million people dispersed across thousands of islands. This complicates energy supply and infrastructure, further exacerbated by a particular vulnerability to natural disaster. The rapid growth of its cities, especially medium-size cities, sees projections of 75 percent of the population concentrated in urban areas by 2030. Cities already produce up to 60 percent of Indonesia’s GDP so city planning is crucial.

However, the country’s cities are poorly designed, with aging and inadequate infrastructure and major inefficiencies. There is large-scale development without regard for the environment, including extensive urban sprawl: 40 percent of Indonesians describe their city as unlivable. Better city design can foster good habits, such as using public transport, but this relies on successfully implementing sustainable action, and requires greater collaboration between public and private sectors—with the latter driving development especially in creating green and smart cities. There is widespread public distrust of government and business following years of mismanagement; however, the new government is addressing this positively.


Hanan Nugroho, National Development Planning Agency (BAPPENAS). Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Hanan Nugroho, National Development Planning Agency (BAPPENAS). Photograph by Rony Zakaria.


One bold move is the reduction and removal of fuel subsidies in place for decades and worth 2.5 percent of GDP. The low price of petrol and electricity has led to energy not being valued by consumers and so widespread waste is endemic. Education and trust are central to solving this. There are varied suggestions of what should replace subsidies, including following the market price, limited targeted subsidies, and a fixed price system. There are calls to protect the poorest consumers from sudden change, including using the estimated U.S.$10-30 billion saved to improve public health thereby improving productivity and income.

Strong arguments were also made for infrastructure investment, both in energy to connect the 15 percent of Indonesians without electricity, and in transport where gridlock looms by 2020 and congestion costs billions of U.S. dollars and is hampering economic growth.

Increased urbanization is contributing to an annual 8-9 percent increase in energy demand, which is not being met. The government plans to add 35GW, around 300 power plants, to the nation’s capacity, but transmission challenges across the archipelago makes localized solutions essential. These would largely be fossil-fuel based, and may tap into Indonesia’s vast supply of coal.


Moray McLeish, PwC Indonesia. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Moray McLeish, PwC Indonesia. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Amy Long, Shell. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Amy Long, Shell. Photograph by Rony Zakaria.


Solar and hydro projects are being contemplated, and Indonesia has a huge geothermal potential of which only 3 percent is currently exploited. However, it was suggested that renewables could not meet Indonesia’s demand quickly enough and so fossil fuels will dominate the next 10-15 years.

Nor does national energy policy promote renewables and there is a track record of poor maintenance of power projects. Improvements are urgently needed to increase sustainability and minimize bureaucracy. This could be supported by a major government initiative to improve broadband infrastructure, an essential component of the smart grid, and beyond that the smart city.


Sibarani Sofian, AECOM Indonesia and Thomas Suhartanto, PT Pertamina (Persero). Photograph by Rony Zakaria.

Sibarani Sofian, AECOM Indonesia and Thomas Suhartanto, PT Pertamina (Persero). Photograph by Rony Zakaria.


Expert Interviews

Go here to watch experts from the Jakarta event discuss their perspectives on issues related to sustainable city development in Indonesia.


Check Back Soon

The complete event summary publication from our Big Energy Question forum in Jakarta will be available for download soon. Be sure to check back here for more details and updates.


Great Energy Challenge Indonesia Coverage

Read more about energy and Indonesia through our recent Great Energy Challenge stories and blogs below.


Participants in the Jakarta Big Energy Question Discussion

NANING S. ADININGSIH ADIWOSO, Chairperson, Green Building Council Indonesia (GBC Indonesia)

DONO BOESTAMI, President Director, PT MRT Jakarta

DAVID BRAUN, Director, Digital Outreach, National Geographic

KOEN BROERSMA, Project Manager Urban Water, Royal HaskoningDHV

CLAY CHANDLER, Managing Director, The Barrenrock Group

TORY DAMANTORO, Environment Transport Policy Specialist, Indonesia Transport Society

SUYONO DIKUN, Member, Executive Board, Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Development and Professor, Transport and Infrastructure Management, University of Indonesia

KOMARA DJAJA, Head, Graduate Program in Urban Studies and Chairman, Urban and Regional Research Center, Graduate Program of Multidisciplinary Studies, University of Indonesia

BERNARDUS DJONOPUTRO, President, Indonesian Assoc. of Urban and Regional Planners and Managing Director, HD Asia Advisory

RACHMAT SUGANDI HAMDANI, Executive Director, Indonesian Institute for Energy Economics (IIEE)

UTAMA KAJO, Chairman, Standing Committee on Land Use and Land Title Utilization, Chamber of Commerce and Industry Indonesia (KADIN) and Vice Chairman, Transparency International Indonesia

RAJ KANNAN, Managing Director, Tusk Advisory

ASHLEY KING, Environment Officer, USAID Indonesia

WENDY KOCH, Senior Energy Editor, National Geographic

AMY LONG, Business Innovation Manager, Shell

MORAY MCLEISH, Director and Technical Advisor, Sustainability and Climate Change, PwC Indonesia

ANDRIAH FEBY MISNA, Deputy Director, Technical Guidance and Energy Efficiency Cooperation, Directorate of Energy Conservation, Directorate General of New Energy, Renewable and Energy Conservation, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources

HANAN NUGROHO, Senior Planner, National Development Planning Agency (BAPPENAS)

DANNY PRADITYA, President Director, PGN Gagas

WIDHYAWAN PRAWIRAATMADJA, Special Advisor to Minister and Head, Performance Management Unit, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources

KETUT SARJANA PUTRA, Vice President, Conservation International Indonesia

I MADE RO SAKYA, Head, System Planning Division, PLN

JOHN RUSSELL, Global Manager, City Development Project, Shell

WIDITA SARDJONO, Senior Partner, IBM Indonesia Global Business Services (GBS)

SIBARANI SOFIAN, ST., MUDD, Executive Director, Building + Places, AECOM Indonesia

THOMAS SUHARTANTO, Vice President, Strategic Planning and Business Development, New & Renewable Energy Directorate, PT Pertamina (Persero)

NUGROHO TRI UTOMO, Director of Housing and Settlements, National Development Planning Agency (BAPPENAS)

JAN VAN REES, ICT Consultant, World Bank

DARWINA WIDJAJANTI, Consultant, Capacity Building for Sustainability

WAYAH WIROTO, Market Development Director, GE Indonesia


Related Big Energy Question Posts


[ New U.S. Fracking Rules Earn Disdain from Both Sides—and a Lawsuit ]

About 36 million acres of public land are under lease for oil and gas development, according to the Department of Interior, which released new rules Friday for fracking on those lands. Shown here: Drilling in Utah. (Photograph by WildEarth Guardians/Flickr)

About 36 million acres of public land are under lease for oil and gas development, according to the Department of Interior, which released new rules Friday for fracking on those lands. Shown here: Drilling in Utah. (Photograph by WildEarth Guardians/Flickr)

No sooner had the Interior Department released new fracking rules for public lands than industry groups announced a lawsuit Friday to halt what they called “a reaction to unsubstantiated concerns.”

The new regulations pertain to hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on about 756 million acres of federal and Indian land. They require companies to publicly disclose chemicals used during fracking, and include stricter standards for storing wastewater and for well construction.

In issuing the rule, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management aimed to update regulations that are more than 30 years old. A lot has changed, of course, about oil and gas development in those three decades—the combination of hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling has opened up vast new stores of oil and gas.

“These newer wells can, among other complexities, be significantly deeper and cover a larger horizontal area than the operations of the past,” the BLM says, requiring additional oversight. The rule notes that 36 million acres of federal land in 33 states have been leased for oil and gas development.

The rule drew scorn from the American Petroleum Institute, which called it “duplicative” and “unnecessary,” and from the Western Energy Alliance, which joined the Independent Petroleum Association of America in filing a suit to stop the regulation in federal district court in Wyoming.

But environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity also took a dim view of the BLM’s decisions. The CBD calls them “weak,” noting that they do not address methane leaks at drilling sites, and that they allow companies to wait until after the drilling is done to disclose chemicals used.

NRDC says they “put the interests of big oil and gas above people’s health, and America’s natural heritage.”

A spokesperson at Interior says that regulation pertaining to methane is a separate process, and that those rules are due “sometime this year.”

Amy Mall, senior fracking policy analyst at NRDC, says the fact that the BLM allows companies to withhold disclosures of chemicals considered “trade secrets” is a “huge concern.” Companies can get exemptions from revealing that a chemical was used during fracking if they submit an affidavit with specific information about why the material needs to be kept secret, according to the rule.

BLM also allows for state or tribal regulations to trump its own if they “meet or exceed the objectives of this rule.”

Mall says that’s too vague, leaving it unclear how exactly standards would be implemented in different states: “The devil is in the details.”


[ The Value of Sugar Palm in Indonesia ]

When conservationist Willie Smits got married in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, in 1981, the dowry cost six sugar palm trees, a fact that intrigued him. The six trees equaled almost one month’s income for most locals. What made sugar palms so valuable?

That question ultimately led Smits on a quest to maximize the tree’s value for Indonesian communities while protecting their land. These communities already understood the dozens of benefits that the sugar palm brought: medicine, fiber, wood, fuel, sugar, drinks, and more. Eventually, Smits discovered additional value the sugar palms add. They stabilize the forest soil, prevent landslides, and resist fire.

In 2001, Smits founded the Masarang Foundation with a mission to conserve nature through collaboration with, and development of, the local population. The sugar palm, or Arenga pinnata, which produces a sap that can be refined into edible sugar or ethanol fuel, plays a critical role in helping to fulfill this mission.

To access the sap, tappers (who have purchased the right to do so) scale the trees twice daily, often using a bamboo pole carved out with an opening large enough only for the big toe. Once in the branches, they slice open the flower stem and collect sap. It’s a skill that takes practice—and, when well-cultivated, it can earn proficient tappers in North Sulawesi up to $2,500 per month, a sum 8.5 times Indonesia’s per capita GDP.

To produce sugar or biofuel from the sap, it is first brought to a mini factory called the village hub, a processing plant constructed with support from the Great Energy Challenge and run by the Masarang Foundation, where Smits oversees operations.

At the village hub, locals turn the sap into a thickened juice and then transport it to a palm sugar factory, strategically located next to a geothermal power plant. The power plant offers up steam, a vital commodity in the sugar-making process, in exchange for water, a by-product of the sugar and biofuel conversion process. This efficiency also saves thousands of trees per year, which are traditionally used as fuel in the sugar-making process.

The resulting sugar is in high demand and the Masarang Foundation has no trouble selling 20 tons per month. They are even beginning to ship palm sugar for sale at Whole Foods. According to Smits, they could sell 20 times more, but they are currently limited by the amount of steam available.

Not to be confused with oil palm, which has led to a rapid expansion of clear-cutting forests to make way for a monoculture environment, sugar palms thrive in a diverse forest ecosystem.

To many people, forests are static. To Smits, they are incredibly dynamic and represent a beautifully interactive system that constantly recycles nutrients from the forest floor back into the trees.

Smits’ journey began in 1980, when he moved to Indonesian Borneo to carry out graduate research. Within a few years, the Indonesian Forestry of Ministry invited him to develop his studies further. Smits left his home in the Netherlands and took up permanent residency in Indonesia.

Today, his work is bringing tangible results. The Masarang Foundation added at least a million trees to the forest in North Sulawesi, including sugar palm trees. According to Smits, this forest now yields more rainfall, generates greater agricultural productivity, and provides more jobs for North Sulawesi. It has also contributed to less flooding, more clean water, and stable water levels year-round.

Those benefits lend value far beyond the market price for sugar, and make Smits optimistic about the future: “There are still opportunities to clear up the mess man has created.”



[ Cheap Oil Won’t Stop Gulf of Mexico’s Resurgence ]

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began April 20,  2010. The BP-operated drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers. Its fire is shown here on April 22, 2010. (John Amos, courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began April 20, 2010. The BP-operated drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers. Its fire is shown here on April 22, 2010. (John Amos, courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

Neither plunging oil prices nor the worst oil spill in U.S. history seem likely to stop oil production from rising in the Gulf of Mexico.

That finding comes from data unveiled Tuesday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which expects the area’s production will increase to 1.5 million barrels per day this year and 1.6 million next year.

The EIA attributes the increase to the long timelines associated with Gulf projects, some of which were launched last year and others are expansions of older fields. It says four companies—Stone Energy, Chevron, Murphy Oil and Hess—began five deepwater projects in the last three months of 2014.

“The relatively high number of fields that came online in 2014 and are scheduled for 2015 and 2016 production start-ups reflects the revival of interest and activity” in the Gulf of Mexico, says the EIA report. After the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010, the worst in U.S. history, the United States imposed a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling that lifted in Oct. 2010 but left a temporary pall on development. Relatively few new fields were started in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Industry hesitation appears to be over. In the next two years, EIA expects 13 fields to begin, followed by eight in 2015 and five in 2016.

The EIA report says current low oil prices add “uncertainty to the timelines” of deepwater projects, putting those in the early stages of development most at risk of delay. “In an effort to reduce this risk,” it says, “producers are collaborating to develop projects more cost-effectively, to shorten the time to final investment decision and first production, and by sharing development costs.”

For example, it says Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips recently announced a collaborative effort to explore and appraise 24 jointly held offshore leases. The EIA estimates the Gulf’s oil production will account for about 16 percent of total U.S. production this year, rising to 17 percent next year.

Oil production in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to increase in the next two years, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported March 3, 2015.

Oil production in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to increase in the next two years, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported March 3, 2015.


[ Tracing the Northern Gateway: View from the East ]

Shell Oil Refinery, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. Photo credit: Ann Chen

Shell Oil Refinery, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. Photo: Ann Chen

Standing on the outskirts of Edmonton and looking northeast, a cluster of twinkling lights amid tall silvery smokestacks puffing out steam and smoke rises up out of the horizon.

Driving northeast towards those lights, following along the North Saskatchewan River, you will pass through the industrial city of Fort Saskatchewan, where petrochemical processing plants and bitumen upgrading facilities line the roads heading out of town. Train tracks run alongside the road and cylindrical rust stained train cars sit dormant, waiting to be filled with petrol products and sent along their way.

Here between Fort Saskatchewan and the next town, Bruderheim, is where the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline would start. I am on a reconnaissance mission to aerially map the beginnings of the pipeline, which would carry crude from the oil sands here in Alberta west to the British Columbia coast for export.

The last few big box stores fade into the background as the landscape empties out into fields, telephone poles, and industrial facilities. The roads empty out too. A few passenger vehicles whiz by, but the traffic is mostly industrial.

Range Road 214, Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Range Road 214, Fort Saskatchewan, AB. Photo: Ann Chen

Driving along the road, I feel out of place in my station wagon. This feeling is confirmed soon after I pull off the road to take some photographs. A truck coming in the opposite direction makes a quick u-turn and pulls up alongside me. Worried about being questioned for taking photographs, I pull my camera slightly behind my back as I turn towards the men in the truck. “Is that your car up there?” the driver’s friend asks. Did your car break down? Do you need help?

I smile in relief at their friendliness and concern and quickly reply, no, no, I’m fine, my car is fine. They look slightly confused as to why anyone would be walking in the gravel pitch alongside this empty corner of the world, but refrain from asking me more probing questions. I’m grateful for their concern, but it emphasized how out of place I am in this remote landscape.

Photo: Ann Chen

These large haulers are a common sight along this mostly empty road. Photo: Ann Chen

I am standing in what Alberta calls its Industrial Heartland, aka Upgrader Alley. It is also where the eastern terminus for the Northern Gateway pipeline is proposed to be built. The transformation of this agricultural zone into an industrial one did not take place without some nudging. In 1998, the five municipalities in this region just north of Edmonton partnered to form Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association, a non-profit association whose aim is to develop the region into a gas, oil, petrochemical and chemical processing powerhouse.

The initiative has succeeded in transforming the region into a heavy industrial zone, with many other energy infrastructure projects proposed or under construction. It is currently Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing region, a fact evident in the patchwork of energy companies that dominate a recent landholdings map.

The air is heavy and sour with an unidentifiable—to me—chemical smell. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it makes sense that the terminus of the pipeline would be at an oil transfer facility in an industrially zoned area and not in the center of a cluster of residential communities or farms, although the pipeline will eventually cut through both farther down the line.

The Northern Gateway will start in a region named the Heavy Astotin Industrial Area, within 1 mile (2km) west of the Astotin Natural Area, a provincially protected natural habitat. While it is “a relatively small area of forest for a nature reserve,” according to Travels and Trails, an online trail rating site, there are plenty of trails running through this rectangular wilderness zone.

In an environmental sensitivity and sustainability assessment report made in 2005, this northern section of Strathcona County is labeled “a large area of highly sensitive lands” because of its “extensive native vegetation cover and a broad groundwater recharge area.” The sandy composition of the soil made it inhospitable for agricultural development, creating a largely intact area of natural vegetation. The highly permeable soil–again due to its sandiness–meant that surface water could percolate through the soil rapidly to recharge groundwater aquifers.

The area’s dense forest, which includes the only stands of jack pine in Alberta, provides a habitat for wildlife including the broad-winged hawk and northern goshawk, two bird species ranked as sensitive in Alberta.


Shell Oil Refinery off in the distance. Photo: Ann Chen

It’s winter now and most of the ground and vegetation is covered in a thick layer of snow, obscuring most definable landmarks. It’s hard to spot the vegetation that I read about in the report. It would be interesting, I think to myself, to return in the summer to map the park vegetation with an infrared camera, which would help highlight all the vegetative growth. The environmental assessment report mentioned above came out in 2005. What has changed in the interim decade, and could these new maps I intend to make provide any clues?

I get back in my car and drive farther down the road, continuing past the Shell* plant on my left and looking for the beginning of the pipeline. I am scouting the area before returning the next day for the mapping event I had planned. Since it’s legal to take photos on public roads, I want to make sure there are accessible roads we can walk along during the mapping session of the landscapes the pipeline will cross through.


A section of the Northern Gateway Pipeline will run alongside this road. Photo: Ann Chen

“You have arrived”, announces my Google assistant. I step out of the car with my camera, to look around.

Ann Chen is a photographer, multimedia artist and researcher from New York City. She is currently in Western Canada tracing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline through collective storytelling, community mapping and citizen science. Read her earlier posts here or follow her project on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

This post originally appeared on National Geographic’s Voices blog.

*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.


[ Obama’s Keystone veto elicits outcry—and Hollywood applause ]

Keystone XL potesters gather outside the White House in 2012. The controversial project has been in limbo for six years. (Photograph courtesy 350.org)

President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill approving the controversial Keystone XL pipeline is kicking off a new round of denunciations from critics and support from Hollywood A-listers, including Oscar winner Julianne Moore.

Obama vetoed a bill, passed by the GOP-controlled Congress Feb. 11. and delivered to the White House Tuesday afternoon, to allow a 1,179 mile pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. His veto, only the third of his presidency, came as no surprise. White House officials had indicated he would take such action on the multi-billion project.

“The presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously,” Obama said in his veto message to the Senate. “But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our security, safety, and environment — it has earned my veto.”

The pipeline, first proposed by Calgary-based TransCanada in 2008, has become one of the most divisive issues of Obama’s administration. Opponents see it as a test of  the president’s commitment to the environment, arguing it would promote extraction of viscous Canadian oil that emits more greenhouse gases when burned than conventional crude. Proponents, including GOP lawmakers and the fossil fuel industry, say it would create jobs and bolster North American energy security by securing delivery of Canadian crude.

Even before Obama vetoed the bill, conservatives began denouncing the expected move. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity, partly funded by the billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, launched a media campaign to criticize it.

“This veto proved once again that it’s politics as usual here in Washington.,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute. “Instead of standing with 72 percent of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, who support the pipeline, this decision continues us down the path of indecision and delay.”

Environmentalists hailed the veto as a huge victory. “Today, the pen was mightier than the pipeline,” said Anna Aurilio of the advocacy group Environment America. “President Obama deserves credit for standing up to Big Oil,” she said, adding that it’s time to stop global warming and Keystone would only accelerate it.

Also backing the president was a diverse coalition of more than 100 high-profile individuals that include actors Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Redford, Alex Baldwin. In a “Unity Letter” sent to the White House, the signatories called Keystone a “classic boondoggle” that won’t create many jobs but will pose risks to health and safety and only benefit “a handful of rich oil companies.”

Obama’s veto is hardly the end of the Keystone debate. The president could still approve the project although he’s made critical comments about its environmental impact. Because it crosses an international border, Keystone has undergone lengthy environmental reviews by the State Department.

Congressional Republicans have said they’ll continue to fight for Keystone, possibly by attaching provisions that force its approval to must-pass spending bills. Also, TransCanada says it remains committed to the project, even though it faces other obstacles that go way beyond Washington politics. (See related story: “Two Reasons Why Obama’s Veto Won’t Decide Pipeline.”)

Currently, the proposed northern leg of the pipeline lacks an approved route through Nebraska and a viable construction permit in South Dakota. Until those two issues are resolved, what happens in the White House or on Capitol Hill won’t really matter.



[ U.S. Homes Are Getting Bigger, Again, But More Energy Efficient ]

More McMansions, such as these in Greenwich, Conn., are appearing in affluent U.S. suburbs. Despite the upsizing of American homes, U.S. data show they're using less energy overall because of efficiency gains. (Andrew Watt/Flickr)

More McMansions, such as these in Greenwich, Conn., are appearing in affluent U.S. suburbs. Despite the upsizing of American homes, U.S. data show they’re using less energy overall because of efficiency gains. (Andrew Watt/Flickr)

During The Great Recession, the small-is-better crowd seemed to be winning. After decades of upsizing and the spread of suburban McMansions, the average size of new U.S. single-family homes fell. Yes, it actually shrank—about 5 percent from 2007 to 2010.

Architects like Sarah Susanka, author of the Not So Big House series, cheered. They wondered whether their less-is-more view had, finally, become the new Zeitgeist or whether Americans were simply strapped for cash.

Turns out, it was just the economy. The downsizing didn’t last, and new U.S. homes are now bigger than ever, according to the most recent Census Bureau data. But how bad is this for the environment, since larger homes typically use more energy?

There’s some good news today on that front.  Efficiency gains are offsetting more than 70 percent of the growth in energy use that would result from the increasing size and number of U.S. households, reports the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In fact, energy intensity—energy used per square foot—was 37 percent lower (or better) in 2009 than in 1980. It meant a reduced use of coal, natural gas and nuclear fuel.

Why this progress? The EIA cites factors that include energy prices, shifts in fuel sources as well as new technologies and policies, adding: “Programs designed to increase the adoption of efficient technologies such as residential appliance standards, building codes, incentives, energy labeling (such as the voluntary ENERGY STAR® program), and other informational programs also work to decrease consumption.”

That’s the good news. The EIA also gives the bad: “The gains from energy intensity improvements would have been even larger if it were not for consumer preferences for larger homes and increased adoption of home appliances and electronics.” In the three-decade period studied, the average home size grew about 20%. With more square footage came more and larger devices, such as big-screen TVs that gulp energy. So U.S. households actually used more energy overall, 10.2  quadrillion British thermal units (quads) in 2009—up from 9.3 quads in 1980—even though they used less per square foot.

Moral of the story: Efficiency matters but so does size. An accomplished architect I know was once asked by a client how to make a new 10,000 square-foot home “green.” His response: Don’t build it.

U.S. homes are getting bigger but using less energy because of more efficient appliances and materials, U.S. data show.

U.S. homes are getting bigger but using less energy because of more efficient appliances and materials, U.S. data show.


[ Keystone Pipeline Has New Headaches – Beyond Washington ]

Oil pipeline pumping station in rural Nebraska is shown on Feb. 16, 2013. (Shannon Ramos/Flickr)

Oil pipeline pumping station in rural Nebraska is shown on Feb. 16, 2013. (Shannon Ramos/Flickr)

The controversial Keystone pipeline encounters new obstacles that go beyond the politics of the nation’s capital.

President Barack Obama is expected as early as next week to veto a bill approving the multi-billion project, but he’s not Keystone’s only problem. Pending challenges also await in Nebraska and South Dakota—two states that the 1,179-mile (1,897-kilometer) northern leg of the pipeline would cross as it moves oil from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Neb.

Right now, the pipeline’s owner—Calgary-based TransCanada—lacks an approved route through Nebraska and a useable construction permit in South Dakota. Until these problems are fixed, whatever happens in Washington, D.C. won’t matter.

On Feb. 25, Nebraska’s Holt County will hold a hearing on whether to expedite the schedule for resolving a legal challenge to Keystone’s route.  Last week, a county judge issued a temporary injunction to stop TransCanada from using eminent domain to force landowners to sell rights allowing the pipeline on their property.

As a result, TransCanada agreed not to use eminent domain anywhere in Nebraska until the state’s Supreme Court finally settles the legal wrangling over the state law that approved Keystone’s route across the state. Just when that happens is difficult to say.

“Both sides are looking for clarity. The sooner, the better,” says TransCanada spokesman Mark Cooper, adding the company expects the process will probably take about a year.

“It could take a year or two years for the Supreme Court to hear the case,” says Jane Kleeb, director of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, adding the latest Nebraska injunction is a “huge victory” for opponents.

The two sides are enmeshed in a protracted fight. Proponents say Keystone will provide jobs and bolster North America’s energy security by ensuring delivery of Canadian oil. Opponents say it will foster the development of Alberta’s oil sands, which emit more heat-trapping carbon dioxide when burned, and thus exacerbate global warming. (See related story: “Do Plummeting Oil Prices Weaken Case for Keystone?“)

TransCanada, which first proposed the Keystone XL project in 2008, seemed to be making progress earlier this year. The new GOP-controlled Congress said it would force an Obama decision and for the first time, both the House and Senate approved legislation approving the project although not by veto-proof margins. (See related post: “Keystone XL Veto Threat: Does “No” Really Mean No?

Also, the Nebraska state Supreme Court issued a decision in January that upheld the law approving the Keystone route in that state. Yet that ruling didn’t prevent other lawsuits from challenging the law. (See related post: “Nebraska Ruling Throws Keystone XL Decision Back to State Department“)

So in late January, after TransCanada filed paperwork to begin using eminent domain to acquire land from owners who didn’t agree to sell easement rights, landowners sued. Kleeb says about 40 landowners in Holt County and another 20 in York County object to the pipeline on their property. TransCanada says it has approvals from 90 percent of Nebraska landowners along the pipeline’s path.

“For us, it’s the last resort,” Cooper says of eminent domain, adding TransCanada prefers to work with landowners to reach voluntary agreements.

Not all landowners agree. In South Dakota, rancher Paul Seamans says he initially opposed Keystone because of the way TransCanada “treated us, bullied us.” Now, he says he’s also concerned about the potential environmental damage, citing possible pipeline spills into waterways and the climate change impact of Canada’s oil sands extraction.

So Seamans, who leads the grassroots group Dakota Rural Action, along with 42 other individuals and groups are challenging TransCanada’s bid to extend its construction permit in South Dakota.

In March 2010, the state’s Public Utilities Commission approved such a permit as long as the company met 50 conditions and began construction within four years. Since TransCanada was unable to begin construction, given legal wrangling in Nebraska and delays in the federal review process, its permit has essentially lapsed.

In September, the company filed paperwork to certify that it continues to meet the 50 conditions. Now it’s up to the PUC to decide.

“It will all culminate in the the first week of May with a public hearing,” says PUC chairman Chris Nelson, noting the hearing could last four or five days. He says there’s no deadline for its decision but the PUC will act quickly. “When I say expeditiously,” he says, “I mean it.”

“We know we have strong support in the state,” Cooper says of South Dakota, adding polls show two-thirds of residents back Keystone and 100 percent of landowners along the pipeline route have agreed to easement rights so eminent domain won’t be needed.

Still, Seamans says there are nearly three times as many groups or individuals challenging the construction permit now than did five years ago. “The tribes have got involved quite a bit more,” he says, noting their concern about protecting tribal lands.

Kleeb, whose Nebraska group is also intervening in the South Dakota case, expects the PUC will grant TransCanada’s certification but might tweak the pipeline’s route through the state. She says such a revision might necessitate a new supplemental environmental impact statement from the State Department, which has responsibility  to review Keystone because it crosses the U.S. border.

The State Department has already spent years studying the environmental impacts of various Keystone routes. TransCanada split the initial, 1,700-mile project into two parts and in January 2014, it finished building the the southern leg—from the Midwest to Gulf Coast refineries.


[ Fiery Oil Train Derailment In West Virginia Involves Newer Tank Cars ]

An oil train derailed and exploded in Canada's small Quebec town of in Lac-Mégantic in 2013, killinh 47 people. (Axel Drainville/Flickr)

An oil train derailed and exploded in Canada’s small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic in 2013, killing 47 people. (Axel Drainville/Flickr)

Another train carrying crude oil has derailed in the United States—this one erupting in flames in West Virginia. Yet it used newer and supposedly tougher tank cars than are most commonly used in the rail industry, which is now facing stricter U.S. and Canadian safety rules.

More than 100 tank cars derailed Monday in a snowstorm in Mount Carbon, W.V., causing fires that continued to burn Tuesday. The accident threatened the local water supply and prompted the evacuation of hundreds of families. Officials are testing the water to determine if any of the oil, hauled from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota, seeped into a tributary of the Kanawha River.

The train’s operator, CSX, said it was working to “contain oil found in a creek that runs parallel to CSX tracks.”

CSX also said that all the oil tank cars on the 109-car train were the CPC 1232 model, designed to be tougher and less prone to puncture than the most-commonly used one —the DOT-111. This newer CPC-1232 model was also involved in an oil train derailment along the same line in April in Lynchburg, Va., that leaked crude into the James River. (See related post: “Oil Train Derails In Lynchburg.”)

The latest derailment, in a small town 33 miles (54 kilometers) southeast of Charleston, is the second major oil-train accident within a week. On Feb. 13, a Canadian National Railways train from Alberta’s oil sands derailed in a wooded area of northern Ontario.

The surging amount of oil moved by rail in North America has led to a spate of derailments, including a July 2013 tragedy that killed 47 people in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. The tank cars that derailed at Lac-Mégantic lacked puncture-resistant steel jackets, thermal insulation, and heavy steel shields that could have lessened the destruction.

As a result, U.S. and Canadian regulators have since proposed stricter rules for rail cars transporting flammable fuels. In July, the Obama administration proposed speed limits for trains carrying these fuels, tougher braking requirements, and new design standards for rail cars. It called for the phaseout, in two years, of the DOT 111 unless retrofitted to comply with the new standards. (See related story: “New Oil Train Safety Rules Divide Industry.”)

“We need a new world order” for transporting fuel by rail, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last year in announcing the proposal, which now faces review by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. He said DOT testing found that oil produced in the Bakken shale region of North Dakota and Montana, compared with other crudes, “is on the high end of volatility” and sometimes improperly classified by shippers as less flammable than it is.

A DOT report, released last year, said Bakken crude shipments travel, on average, more than 1,000 miles to coastal refineries. “There is an increased risk of a significant incident involving this material,” the report says.

In July, Canadian regulators mandated that DOT-111 tank cars built before 2014 be retrofitted or phased out by May 2017. Transport Canada, which regulates rail safety, is also seeking tougher safety standards for new tank cars.