Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Green" technology gives China the whip-hand

JAPAN'S increasingly frantic efforts to lead the world in green technology have put it on a collision course with the ambitions of China and dragged both government and industry into the murky realm of large-scale mineral smuggling. The robust international trade in illegally mined, quota-busting rare-earth metals highlights China's near monopoly on the raw materials for environmental technology - a 95 per cent dominance of world supply that is likely to become more widely noticed as China tightens its grip.

The weight and magnetic properties of rare-earth metals have made them important for wind turbines, essential to hybrid cars, and indispensable if the world ever hopes to covert to fully electric vehicles.

One mining company president told The Times that governments that had promised a way out of economic turmoil with bold schemes to subsidise green cars, solar panels and other environmental technology had "spoken without understanding the upstream of modern products". Don Burbar, the chief executive of Avalon Rare Metals, said: "The crux of the matter is that there are now a lot of technologies that can't work without rare earths, and China is currently in effective control of the global supply. China has positioned itself to retain control, and meanwhile politicians around the world do not appreciate how the supply side of green technology works."

In Japan, the world's biggest importer of rare-earth metals, more than 10,000 tonnes per year about a fifth of the country's total annual consumption are thought to enter the country through a thriving black import network without which Japan would already be in a severe supply crisis, a senior government official said.

China has been lowering its export quotas for rare-earth metals by about 6 per cent annually since the start of the decade, with Japan expected to be allotted only 38,000 tonnes in 2009. Toyota and Honda alone will consume about that quantity and experts in Australia have predicted a wider global supply crunch within three years as demand surges beyond existing refinery and extraction capacity.

But rare-earth specialists at two of Japan's largest trading houses said that loopholes and smuggling substantially raise the quantities of rare metals that enter Japan each year. Kazunori Fukuda, deputy director of the non-ferrous metals division at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said: "If the Chinese export quota limits were the reality of what comes into Japan each year, we would be even more worried than we already are. All green technology depends on rare-earth metals and all global trade in rare earth depends on China."

Ginya Adachi, from the Japanese Rare Earth Association, said that China's dominance of rare earths would serve the developed world with a rude shock about global trade: Japan, America and Europe must now realise that some markets are not real, but political. But he added: "The Chinese Government wants full control but it doesn't have it. It is not in control of the rare-earths market in the same way that OPEC is in control of oil. Local miners will sell even if the government tries to control the price or the quotas."

The Japanese Government has begun looking for alternative supply sources in Vietnam and elsewhere; rare earths are not as rare as the name suggests. There are potential supplies around the world, but prospective miners in Australia and the US are experiencing financing difficulties and as soon as new facilities have emerged in Asia and elsewhere, Chinese companies have quickly become majority investors.



Among the many catastrophes that are to befall our world due to global warming, the imminent demise of coral reefs is one of the worst. According to climate change proponents, as waters warm the ocean's reefs will bleach out and die, leaving the seas aquatic deserts, devoid of life. Now comes news that scientists have discovered live, healthy corals on reefs already as hot as the oceans are supposed to get 100 years from now, according to IPCC predictions. Looks like the corals didn't read the IPCC reports.

Climate catastrophists have warned that more than half of the world's coral reefs could disappear in the next 50 years, in large part because of higher ocean temperatures caused by climate change. Supposedly, corals—tiny sea creatures that, working together, manage to build gigantic ocean reefs—are so delicate that a shift in water temperature of little more than 1 degree Celsius can cause them to whither and die. Corals create the most diverse ecosystems in the oceans: the beautiful and vibrant tropical reefs. If corals were to go extinct, the repercussions would likely affect all life on Earth.

Corals live in a symbiotic relationship with tiny, single-celled algae. It's a partnership, with the corals provide a home for the algae and the algae provide nourishment for the corals. Rising temperatures can stress the algae, causing them to stop producing food. The corals evict the deadbeat algae, spit them out to fend for themselves. Without their algal partners, the reefs die and turn stark white, an event referred to as coral bleaching.

In a report this month in Marine Ecology Progress Series, Stanford University scientists have found evidence that some coral reefs are adapting and may actually be able to shrug off the worst of the IPCC's predicted global warming. They discovered that some corals resist bleaching by hosting types of algae that can handle the heat, while others swap out the heat-stressed algae for tougher, heat-resistant strains.

“The most exciting thing was discovering live, healthy corals on reefs already as hot as the ocean is likely to get 100 years from now,” said Stephen Palumbi, a professor of biology and a senior fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment. “Corals are certainly threatened by environmental change, but this research has really sparked the notion that corals may be tougher than we thought.”

For their investigations, Palumbi and Tom Oliver, a former student, traveled to Ofu Island in American Samoa. Ofu, a tropical coral reef marine reserve, has remained healthy despite gradually warming waters. In cooler lagoons, Oliver found only a handful of corals that host heat-resistant algae exclusively. But in hotter pools, he observed a direct increase in the proportion of heat-resistant symbionts, suggesting that some corals had swapped out the heat-sensitive algae for more robust types. “These findings show that, given enough time, many corals can match hotter environments by hosting heat-resistant symbionts,” Oliver explained.

The whole matter of coral delicacy is a bit puzzling, since reef building corals have been around since at least the Permian period. All corals in the sea, particularly the familiar kinds that form reefs, have hard external skeletons. In a 2006 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a team of researchers led by Allen Collins dated the origin of stony corals to between 240 and 288 million years ago, much more closely matching the fossil record of corals than earlier estimates.

This means that corals survived the worst ever mass extinction event in the history of Earth—the Permian-Triassic Extinction, 251 million years ago—and lived through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. During this span of nearly 200 million years, CO2 levels were 5-10 times higher than they are now with temperatures as much as 10ºC higher than today.. After surviving the event that killed off the dinosaurs, corals have remained the ocean's primary reef builders during the Cenozoic era, roughly the past 63 million years. Scientists should have known that any creatures who can live through all that are tough enough to put up with slight fluctuations in water temperature.


Corporate Sellouts on Global Warming

Communist Godfather Vladimir Lenin is alleged to have famously said, "The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them."

Nowhere is that observation more relevant than in the sorry spectacle taking place in Congress as corporations, in exchange for short-term government handouts, fall over themselves to endorse a carbon dioxide regulation bill that will impose a crushing energy tax on the American people.

Sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), the "cap-and-trade" legislation, called the American Clean Energy and Security Act, would put a cost on carbon dioxide by imposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. On May 22, the committee approved the legislation, which will be referred to the House Ways and Means Committee and other committees for consideration. The bill would establish a market in which regulated industries, such as the electric power and petrochemical sectors, would buy and sell allowances in an auction market. As the cap is reduced each year, companies that emit too much carbon dioxide would have to buy an ever-decreasing number of permits from "clean" companies with extra emissions credits.

Besides being complex, the Waxman-Markey bill would be enormously expensive for both companies and workers. A recent Heritage Foundation study estimated it would destroy over 1.1 million jobs, hike electricity rates 90 percent, and reduce the U.S. gross domestic product by nearly $10 trillion over the next 25 years.

That is why it is inexplicable that corporations, some of which used to be against such onerous environmental measures, are jumping on the "Green" bandwagon.

As is too often the case, the reason is that companies are selling out their long-term interests for short-term financial gain -- or at least what they perceive to be short-term gain. Instead of the companies having to buy all of their emissions permits, the government will give most of them away provided the recipient companies spend billions of dollars on supposedly cleaner technologies. In other words, it is a multi-billion dollar Green Bailout.

The list of corporate sellouts reads like a Who's-Who of the Fortune 500: General Motors, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, PepsiCo, Johnson & Johnson, Alcoa, and Caterpillar. Wal-Mart has not officially endorsed the Waxman-Markey bill but is on record as supporting cap-and-trade in principle. This corporate support was pivotal in reviving a bill that appeared to be fatally stalled in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In trying to get his bill reported out of the committee, Waxman ran into stiff opposition from about a dozen Democrats representing districts dependent on coal or petrochemical industries. With near-unanimous Republican opposition, Waxman was forced to make major changes in the bill to lessen the impact on energy-sensitive industries and woo back wayward Democrats.

The original bill, reflecting President Obama's goals, called for the government to sell off all 100 percent of the emissions credits. The idea was to raise $646 billion over ten years to help pay for Obama's massive expansion of government-run health care. The bill set a goal to cut carbon emissions 20 percent by 2020. However, several Democrats balked at a measure they feared would cost their districts jobs. These included Rick Boucher (D-VA), Gene Green (D-TX), and Charlie Gonzalez (D-TX).

The revised plan would cut greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020. The most dramatic change, though, is in the allocation of credits. It would give away 85 percent of the emissions credits for free. That includes 35 percent for the electricity sector, 9 percent for natural gas companies, 3 percent for the auto industry, and 2 percent for oil refiners. All of the free credits will be phased out by 2025. The 15 percent of permits that will be auctioned off is expected to generate $12 billion in 2012, the first year the program could start working.

Free credits for the refiners was the price for winning the support of Texas Democrats Gonzalez and Green. John Dingell was won over because the auto industry's share of the permits is supposed to total $12 billion to $15 billion over the first six years of the trading program. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers praised the allocation of credits as an "encouraging" development.

However, the most dramatic reversal of position came from the utility industry. Given that half the nation's electricity is generated by coal, utility companies stand to get hit especially hard by a punitive program to reduce fossil fuel use. Thus, the industry has always been strongly opposed to any such measure. Not anymore. The utilities are estimated to get $21 billion in free credits in 2012. While not yet giving a full endorsement, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the utility trade association, says it is committed to seeing the bill passed. Said Jim Owen, EEI's media-relations director, "There are probably some things that different people want to see tweaked in the legislation, but…we would like to see it get into the end zone."

Individual power companies are publicly endorsing the Waxman bill. On May 19, David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, wrote a letter to Waxman praising his "admirable" leadership on the issue and said NRG "will do what we can to support you and your colleagues in advancing your critically important bill."

This was all the cover needed for coal-state Democrats to end their opposition to the bill. Rep. Boucher, who led the push for the allocation of credits to the utility companies, said that while he still has "remaining concerns," he is now "committed in the full committee to be supportive of this bill, to encourage others to be supportive."


House Democrats battle new emissions standards … again

Even as some House Democrats moved closer last week to installing first-of-a-kind limits on the carbon emissions blamed for global warming, others are in a full-court press to kill a separate White House effort to curb those same greenhouse gasses.

The episode is just the latest in a series of confrontations between liberal Democrats who favor strict emission-cutting reforms and a number of moderates who have sided with the various industries that would be affected by the changes. Unfortunately for environmentalists, the moderates, thus far, are winning the fight.

On Thursday, for example, the Energy and Commerce Committee passed sweeping climate change legislation sponsored by Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) — but not before the proposal was diluted to satisfy panel Democrats representing the coal, oil and automobile industries. As a result of the changes, many environmental groups are opposing the Waxman bill outright.

In the latest episode, most members of the House Agricultural Committee contend that newly proposed White House emission rules for biofuel producers would hobble the industry and increase the nation’s reliance on imported fossil fuels. Similar to the earlier E&C debate — where key Democrats leveraged their votes in order to water down Waxman’s bill — many of the Democrats on the Agriculture panel are poised to join Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) in opposing the Waxman bill unless something is done to eliminate the biofuel rules being proposed by the White House.

The saga is emblematic of the difficulty facing environmentally minded lawmakers as they push reforms opposed by enormously influential industries like those found in the energy and agriculture sectors. It also highlights the difficulty of moving such reforms in the middle of a recession when any actions imposing additional costs on industry — even if they’re done in the name of public and global health — are quickly labeled job-killers. In what is quickly becoming a common theme in Washington, the Obama administration’s plans to cut emissions are running smack into an industry buzz saw that they just might not escape.

The new White House proposal, unveiled by the Environmental Protection Agency this month, aims to shift the country away from foreign oil by mandating an increase in renewable fuel usage — to 36 billion gallons by 2022, up from 9 billion gallons in 2008. In a controversial move, EPA has also outlined a plan — mandated by Congress in 2007 — for ensuring that the shift to biofuels won’t unintentionally hike carbon emissions elsewhere. For example, there are fears that increasing the U.S. production of corn for ethanol — once the darling in the renewable fuels debate — would lower food supplies on the global market. In that case, EPA’s model is designed to account for deforestation by overseas farmers who might be forced to expand cropland in response to higher food costs. Those fuels failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by certain amounts relative to the gas and diesel they would replace would no longer be eligible for federal subsidies.

Appearing last week before the House Appropriations environmental subpanel, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told lawmakers that the agency “did propose to take into account indirect land use because that’s what the law required us to do.”

Although the proposal exempts most corn ethanol from the so-called “indirect land use” requirements, the biofuels industry and its congressional champions are up in arms. Peterson, who voted for the 2007 energy bill that mandated the EPA’s new rules, said Thursday that the proposed limits “are short on science and long on obstructive and excessive restrictions for domestically produced biofuels.” Tom Buis, who heads Growth Energy, a biofuels lobbying firm, told House lawmakers Thursday that “it’s about the most bizarre concept I’ve ever heard.” Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, said the EPA is preparing to penalize ethanol producers for overseas decisions “over which our industry has absolutely no control.” And Carlos Riva, president and CEO of Verenium Corporation, a cellulosic ethanol company, said the EPA is “putting stumbling blocks in front of the infant before it’s learned to walk.”

The concerns are timely. Following the passage of the Waxman bill through Energy and Commerce, Democratic leaders must decide how to bring it to the floor without diluting it even further. On Wednesday, they dodged a bullet when the panel killed an amendment, sponsored by Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry (R), that would have prevented the EPA’s indirect land use proposal from ever taking effect.

Peterson, for his part, is pressing for the entire bill to pass first through his Agriculture Committee, where members would surely be more successful than Terry in killing the land use provision. Indeed, Peterson and Rep. Frank Lucus (Okla.), the senior Republican on the Agriculture panel, have already introduced legislation to do just that.

Waxman’s office said Friday that it will be Democratic leaders who decide how the bill will reach the floor. Peterson’s office did not return calls for comment.

If opponents of the indirect land use proposal are successful in stripping it out, environmentalists argue, it would spell bad news for the fight against climate change.

Kate McMahon, an energy policy expert at Friends of the Earth, was quick to point out that the EPA’s proposal is intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not prop up biofuel industries that might be contributing to the problem more than they’re solving it. “If we’re going to call these advanced biofuels,” McMahon said, “then they should be better than what’s already out there.”

The EPA’s proposal is similar to new emissions standards adopted by California in April. The California framework rates the “carbon intensity” of the various fuels imported into the state — everything from oil squeezed from the tar sands of Canada to corn ethanol produced by coal-fed refineries in the mid-West. The state is currently gathering data from the industries that will reveal baseline carbon intensity figures by 2010. Those baselines will then have to be reduced by 10 percent by 2020.

Like the EPA proposal, the California strategy also takes into consideration the use of food crops to create fuel — an international land use standard designed to see to it that the cumulative effect of using the renewable isn’t to add to global emissions. That international approach, said Dimitri Stanich, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, “accounts for emissions that would overwhelm our effort to reduce climate change.”

Stanich said the pushback from the corn ethanol industry is probably an indication that those companies recognize that corn-based fuels could be phased out in coming years in favor of more advanced recipes that emit fewer greenhouse gasses. “They’re feeling bullied,” he said, “but [California’s rule] doesn’t single anyone out … The regulation is designed to gravitate toward any of the cleanest fuels.”

Even some farm state Republicans are beginning to doubt the powers of corn-based ethanol to solve the world’s energy and climate change problems. At last week’s Appropriations hearing with Lisa Jackson, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) conceded that the popular fuel is beginning to lose its luster. “I’m not sure ethanol, in retrospect, will have turned out to have been as wise a choice as we thought when we started down this road,” Cole said. “But it’s got quite a political constituency behind it now.”


Sarkozy in climate row over reshuffle

President Nicolas Sarkozy's desire to appoint an outspoken climate-change sceptic to a new French super-ministry of industry and innovation has drawn strong protests from party colleagues and environmentalists. Claude Allègre argues that global warming is not necessarily caused by human activity. Putting him in charge of scientific research would be tantamount to "giving the finger to scientists", said Nicolas Hulot, France's best-known environmental activist.

Mr Sarkozy wants to bring Mr Allègre, 72, a freethinking, former socialist education minister, into the government in a reshuffle after next month's European parliamentary elections. The president appears to reckon that appointing someone from outside his own centre-right party will help to counter perceptions that he is a polarising, sectarian leader who decides everything himself. Several portfolios are already held by figures from the left and centre.

Alain Juppé, the former centre-right prime minister, said the appointment would send a "terribly bad signal" ahead of international negotiations to secure a successor to the Kyoto treaty on cuts to carbon emissions. One critic said that associating Mr Allègre with the government's ambitious environmental policy was like putting "organic farming alongside Chernobyl". Mr Sarkozy is said to value Mr Allègre's experience, his plain speaking and his convictions on the need to free up the economy and shake up the public sector - particularly the university research establishment.

The president's allies rode to Mr Allègre's defence yesterday. Xavier Bertrand, the general secretary of the ruling UMP party, paid tribute to his qualities as a "reformer", saying Mr Allègre had "an interesting profile in French political life".

Mr Allègre hit back at his critics and their "lies and distortions" about his record and beliefs. The climate was certainly changing, he said, but not all the reasons for it were known. "As a scientist and citizen, I, unlike others, do not want environmentalism to accentuate the crisis or make the least well-off suffer more," he said.

The idea of a super-ministry of industry and research is not favoured by Christine Lagarde, the finance minister. Ms Lagarde has been tipped for an exit, with a possible move to Brussels as France's European commissioner. But government insiders say she is unlikely to be moved.

Mr Sarkozy will have to reshuffle his government before the summer because Michel Barnier, agriculture minister, and Rachida Dati, justice minister, look likely to win seats in the European parliament.

*Mr Sarkozy opened a French military base in Abu Dhabi yesterday. Dubbed "Peace Camp", it is France's first permanent military base in the oil-rich Gulf and will be home to about 500 personnel, writes Andrew England in Abu Dhabi.

The United Arab Emirates has a defence accord with France dating back to the 1990s. However, the opening of the base comes at a time of tensions in the region, with concerns among Arab Gulf states about Iran's rising influence and nuclear ambitions. Mr Sarkozy said the base was aimed at "no one", but was a sign of France's willingness to contribute to regional stability.


Britain: Green homeowner hit with noise abatement order because 40ft wind turbine is driving his neighbours mad

When Stephen Munday spent £20,000 on a wind turbine to generate electricity for his home, he was proud to be doing his bit for the environment. He got planning permission and put up the 40ft device two years ago, making sure he stuck to strict noise level limits. But neighbours still complained that the sound was annoying - and now the local council has ordered him to switch it off.

Officials declared that the sound - which Mr Munday says is 'the same pitch as a dishwasher and quieter than birdsong' - constituted a nuisance, and issued a Noise Abatement Order. This is despite the turbine being more than 164ft from the nearest neighbour's house, as ordered by the planners. The ruling could have serious implications for the Government's drive to promote wind power and the use of renewable domestic energy if repeated across the country.

Electrician Mr Munday, 55, and his wife Sandra, a veterinary nurse, challenged the decision by the Vale of White Horse district council in Oxfordshire. But Didcot magistrates rejected their appeal and they were left to pick up the £5,392 court costs as well.

The turbine generated five kilowatts of electricity a day - the equivalent of boiling 300 kettles - and provided two-thirds of the family's energy needs. It also saved them an average of £500 a year in electricity costs.

Mr Munday, of Stanford in the Vale, near Abindgon, said: 'I am very disappointed. 'We were trying to cut down on our electricity bills and help the environment but have been clobbered for doing so. 'Everyone is encouraged to be environmentally friendly and we wanted to do our bit. We never dreamed that going green would land us in court and £25,000 out of pocket.'

The Government planning inspector granted planning permission on the condition that the turbine did not make more than five decibels of noise above that of the 'prevailing background'. It stands in a paddock 230ft from the Mundays' four-bedroomed detached house. But five neighbours complained about the noise after the turbine began generating power in February 2007.

Patrick Legge, team leader of the council's environmental protection team, said: 'We accept that the noise did not breach the conditions in the planning application but it was decided that the character of the noise was a nuisance. 'There are no strict overall noise limits but each case is examined by their independent circumstances.'

Michael Stigwood, an independent noise and nuisance adviser to the council, told the court that the noise affected people's ability to 'rest and relax'. 'The noise was continual,' he said. 'It's irritating and gets under your skin and is intrusive.'

Neighbour Virginia Thomasson, 49, said: 'I can hear it inside and outside my house - at night, in the daytime, all the time. 'I cannot sleep with the window open. 'I am a tolerant person but with this noise it superimposes itself over everything I hear.' Another resident, Michael Brown, 49, added: 'The rhythmic mechanical noise is very irritating and incessant.'

Chairman of the bench Liz Holford told the Mundays, who represented themselves in court, that the council's order was 'reasonable and necessary'. Now their only option is to appeal to the High Court - but they cannot afford to do so.

According to the BWEA, the wind industry trade body, more than 10,000 small wind turbines have been set up since 2005 and an estimated 600,000 could be installed by 2020.



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1 comment:

John A said...

"Supposedly, corals—tiny sea creatures that, working together, manage to build gigantic ocean reefs—are so delicate that a shift in water temperature of little more than 1 degree Celsius can cause them to whither and die." Which is why Australia loses its reefs every year.
Electrician Mr Munday spent 20,000 to save 500/year? Assuming no maintenance, 40 years to recoup? OTOH, when the rest of the UK goes dark he would have been able to keep some lights on, but probably not the telly. Now, though, he will be looking or a scrap dealer.