Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Huge new energy source

A discovery by scientists may have more than doubled the world’s energy reserves. They have found vast amounts of natural gas frozen into the sea bed, potentially containing more energy than all the world’s known coal, oil and gas reserves combined. The methane gas is mixed with water, and frozen solid by the high pressure and low temperatures in the deep sea.

Methane hydrate, as the substance is known, has long been regarded by oil and gas companies as a nuisance, because it can block marine drilling rigs. Now a study by Statoil, Norway’s state oil firm and a leading global gas producer, suggests it should be reclassified as a significant fuel resource, with enough buried in the oceans to power the world for decades or even centuries.

“The energy content of methane occurring in hydrate form is immense, possibly exceeding the combined energy content of all other known fossil fuels,” said Espen Andersen, Statoil’s exploration manager in unconventional hydrocarbons, who will present his study at an energy conference next week.

Such claims will anger environmentalists, who fear that global exploitation of the deep sea bed would put marine life at risk, especially whales and dolphins, which are sensitive to noise. It would also mean an increase in the burning of fossil fuel — so worsening climate change.

The research follows the growing excitement generated by Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (Jogmec), which has been drilling test wells into methane hydrate reserves in the Nankai trough, off Japan’s southwest coast.

It predicts the first gas will be extracted this year, and suggests there could be enough methane hydrate in the trough to supply all Japan’s energy for 300 years.

Such discoveries have sparked a global search to find other areas with high concentrations of methane hydrate, with Statoil one of the leading companies involved. Huge reserves are already believed to lie off China, South Korea and India, countries that are all currently reliant on imports.


Unreal: CBS News Identifies Eleven 'New Solyndras'

As regular readers are well aware, Solyndra was a troubled "green energy" firm into which the Obama administration poured half-a-billion taxpayer dollars as part of their "stimulus" program. They did so over multiple red flag warnings from both their own and Bush-era accountants. Despite the generous infusion of cash, the company went bankrupt last year, destroying 1,000 jobs and flushing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars down the toilet.

Luckily for the firm's top investors -- who happened to be major Obama campaign donors -- the administration generously refinanced the loan to ensure that said investors would recoup the first $75 million in losses when the company went under. And as the ship was sinking, Obama officials and Solyndra executives (who are now lining up for bonuses) assured the public and Congress that everything was fine and dandy. It was a disgrace. Now CBS News' Sharyl Attkisson, who is already in hot water with the Obamites for daring to report accurately about Fast & Furious, has filed a new report detailing eleven "new Solyndras." These companies were given billions in taxpayer subsidies, despite serious financial problems, and have subsequently (and predictably) gone bust. Hey, remember this? Behold, President Obama's economic handiwork:

Ed Morrissey has more on this mess. American taxpayers have seen this movie before, and we're bracing to see it over and over again. As Democrats gear up to wage a class envy-laden attack campaign against GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, these cases will be very instructive. Romney was a successful private sector investor, who used private money to back upstart and struggling companies. The vast majority of his decisions were sound, resulting in growing companies, more jobs, and yes, profits. If his track record had proven lackluster, he would have been forced to answer to his board, his shareholders, and his investors. Obama's 'green' ordeal is venture socialism. He and his team pushed billions of public dollars out the door in order to temporarily delay ideological allies' inevitable demise. As CBS explains, they did so knowing full well that their bets were foolish at best. To whom is Obama responsible? Voters, that's who. November is coming.

UPDATE - Americans for Prosperity has unveiled a new multimillion dollar ad buy, hitting Obama on Solyndra. Today's CBS report will give them a lot of fresh material for future spots. Well done:


Revealed: There are more charging points than electric cars in UK as sales slump

Sales of electric cars have slumped so badly that there are now more charging points than vehicles on the road. Just 2,149 electric cars have been sold since 2006, despite a government scheme last year offering customers up to £5,000 towards the cost of a vehicle.

The Department for Transport says that around 2,500 charging points have been installed, although their precise location is not known.

The government grant has boosted sales - from 138 in 2010 to 1,1082 last year - but only £3.9million of the £300million set aside has been paid out. A spokesman for the DFT told The Sunday Times: 'It's fair to say that there hasn't been a huge take-up over the past year.'

The high cost of electric cars has put many off. The Nissan Leaf still costs £25,990 even after the £5,000 grant has been deducted.

Electric cars are also only suitable for short journeys, with a maximum range of around 100 miles on a full charge.

Mark Goodier, former Radio 1 DJ who owns a Nissan Leaf, told the newspaper: 'Nissan needs to work on range. If you travel more than 100 miles, this is not for you. 'You have to think about usage and plan what you are going to do. You can't wake up and decide to drive to Scotland.'

The government is spending £30million on publicly-funded charging points and those in private companies. These range from points which take between six and eight hours, to those which provide an 80 per cent charge in half an hour.

Drivers can pay an annual fee to use the majority of the points, with authorities charging a membership fee for the year but no extra charge for electricity.

It's a similar story in the U.S., with Nissan selling 10,000 Leaf cars last year - compared to almost 13million new vehicles every year, The Sunday Times reported.

A spokesman for Nissan said: 'The Leaf is meeting its business plans but it's a car that's going to take a while to be accepted in the market.'

More fuel-efficient petrol engines are also affecting electric car sales.

Norman Baker, transport minister, said the availability of electric cars was the main challenge to the market.


Moisturizing the EPA

Property rights advocates had reason to be optimistic this week, as the Supreme Court heard arguments in Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. At stake is landowners' right to challenge bureaucratic control of their lands without redress or any meaningful right to appeal. The Justices seemed receptive to arguments on behalf of the plaintiffs, Mike and Chantell Sackett. A ruling in their favor would help restore some of the property rights protections that have been eroded over the past century.

The Sacketts had purchased a small lot in Priest Lake, Idaho, to build their home. The lot was in a residential area and they obtained all the necessary permits, graded the lot, and dumped gravel for the foundation. Then the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suddenly declared their lot a federally protected wetland under the Clean Water Act, and told the Sacketts they must restore it to pristine condition or face a fine of $37,500 per day.

They were told they could not appeal until they had exhausted all administrative remedies. Therefore, they must restore the land at considerable cost and then appeal for a permit, a process which could take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars -- and likely result in a denial of their appeal. Only then would they be able to go to court -- by which time they might be facing bankruptcy.

The Sackett case provides the Court an opportunity to revive the orphan child of the Bill of Rights -- the Fifth Amendment, specifically due process and the takings clause. For much of the past century, various advocates of big government have run roughshod over property rights. Green activists have consistently used environmental legislation not to protect the environment but rather to impose land-use control at no cost to the government. For property owners, the costs can be staggering -- complete loss of the use of their property.

From the day the Clean Water Act was passed, giving the federal government the authority to protect navigable waters, the bureaucrats at EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have stretched the definition of navigable water beyond all rational bounds to include almost any surface that is ever wet -- no matter how seldom, for how short a time, or to what degree or depth. As one attorney has put it, the government is now trying to regulate the "moistures of the United States."

Rather than work to reduce fill and pollution in the nation's genuine navigable waters, agency regulators have spent ever-increasing amounts of time harassing small landowners, functionally "taking" their lands by preventing their use, entangling them in costly permit battles that often stretch out over several years, and even imprisoning some of them.

Consider the case of Gaston Roberge, a retiree in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. He owned a commercial lot where he had allowed the town to dump clean fill. Attempting to sell the lot for his retirement, the Army Corps charged him with illegally filling a wetland. After six years and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees fighting to get a permit, it turned out he didn't need the permit after all, as his lot was finally designated as not a wetland. He then sued for a temporary taking of his property. During the proceedings, a Corps memo was discovered, saying, "Roberge would be a good one to squash and set an example."

That is how the Clean Water Act is being used -- to set an example in order to prevent citizens from using their own land. The EPA may well be trying to set another example at Priest Lake to slow development. Mike Sackett is in the construction business -- who better to make an example of?

At Monday's hearing, the Sacketts' attorney seemed to make a strong argument. Most of the justices seemed somewhat angered by the government's actions, some strongly so. Justice Alito asked: "[D]on't you think most ordinary homeowners would say this kind of thing can't happen in the United States?" Justice Scalia said, "It shows the high-handedness of the agency." Even Justices Sotomayor and Breyer appeared irritated at times.

Rather than wasting taxpayer money to regulate farmers' stock ponds, the federal government should concentrate on the original goals of the Clean Water Act. Those who believe in a free society and a healthy environment can only hope for a wise decision from the Court -- one that will protect landowners' rights to challenge arbitrary agency designations of dry land as navigable waters. Perhaps we are on the verge of seeing a return to the protection of people's inalienable rights, as the Constitution was intended to do.


Take or Pay at the EPA

A story by Matthew Wald in the New York Times on January 9th demonstrates the poverty of governmental attempts to pick “winners” in the realm of green technologies, the wasteful subsidy programs supporting that policy goal and the huge costs for the private sector of being unable to march to Washington’s tune.

Among its other provisions, the Orwellian Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 required the refiners of gasoline and diesel fuel to mix 6.6 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel into petrol products shipped to market in 2011; the quota for this year is 8.65 million gallons.

Cellulosic biofuel is derived from plant materials such as wood chips and corn cobs and, hence, represents a “renewable” alternative to the fossil fuels that are anathema to environmentalists and to those wanting to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

The problem, though, is that processes for producing cellulosic biofuels exist only in laboratories and in small-scale workshops. None is yet commercially available. Of the technologies being worked on to produce such energy sources, “there are some that are closer to the beaker and some that are closer to the barrel,” according to the executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Association.

Yes, Virginia, there is a special-interest group to promote the manufacture and sale of a make-believe product.

The Environmental Protection Agency nevertheless is poised to slap refiners with $6.8 billion in penalties for failing to meet last year’s cellulosic biofuel quota; the penalty for 2012 will be even larger.

Meanwhile, companies are lining up for taxpayer handouts to ramp up production although a scalable technology for cellulosic biofuels is still a pipe dream. Mascoma, partly owned by General Motors, plans to build a plant in Kinross, Mich., to make fuel from wood waste. It will receive up to $80 million from the Energy Department, an unknown amount from the State of Michigan and additional funds from Valero Energy Corp. to start construction.

KiOR, a Texas-based company, hopes to begin producing gasoline and diesel fuel components from yellow pine chips late this year at a plant in Columbus, Miss., where ground has been broken. Perhaps it will be more successful than Range Fuels, which received more than $150 million in government grants for a factory in Soperton, Ga., that was to turn pine chips into fuel. The facility closed more than a year ago after encountering insurmountable technological problems.

Even if congressional dreams would have come true – the 2007 law actually set goals of 250 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels for 2011 and 500 million gallons for 2012 – the program’s contribution to energy “security and independence” would have been miniscule. This year the EPA expects Americans to buy 135 billion gallons of gasoline and 51 billion gallons of diesel.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the EPA continues to believe that the 8.65 million gallon quota for 2012 is “realistically attainable.” In justifying the imposition of production quotas on refiners, EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn was at least honest in saying that quotas “avoid a situation where real cellulosic biofuel production exceeds the mandated volume”, a scenario that in the tortured economic logic of the New York Times, “would weaken demand”!

One of the two, perhaps both, needs to retake Econ 101. What the statements taken together imply is that if refiners actually could produce more cellulosic biofuels than the EPA wants them to produce, the product’s price would fall too far and too fast, too many gallons of it would be purchased and producers’ economic profits (rents) would be in jeopardy.

It could just as well be that the profitability of cellulosic biofuels already has been undermined by the anticipated billions of dollars in penalties the refiners will pay to the EPA, and the agency therefore wants to keep the price of cellulosic biofuels jacked up high enough so that the refiners can recover the penalty payments if and when the product enters the market.

Try as it might, Washington cannot pass a law that makes a new technology commercially viable. The policy effort to promote cellulosic biofuels is another example, if one were needed, that the private sector and taxpayers sometimes will have to double-down, financing investments in an unproven technology and paying penalties for not using the product of that technology even if it is available only in beaker-sized quantities.

Unless or until the process of turning plant materials into fuels usable in gasoline and diesel engines, the only “green” from this ill-conceived governmental program will be flowing into the coffers of the EPA.


Tacky environmental journalism

In the fall of 2006, honey bees began dying in strange and unsettling ways. Entire colonies flew off en masse and simply vanished. More than a third of America's commercially managed hives collapsed in 36 states. In Europe, India, and Brazil, many beekeepers saw up to 90 percent of their colonies fail. Scientists named the phenomenon "Colony Collapse Disorder," or CCD, and the news of the honey bee's alarming decline was reported in media outlets everywhere. With one-third of the nation's crops pollinated by bees, concerns grew about what the honey bee's decline might portend for us. How would we feed ourselves if all the bees disappeared?

Speculation about the causes of the disorder ran from genetically-modified corn, to a sinister Chinese fungus, to cell phone transmissions that led foragers astray ("They get distracted talking and never get any work done," someone quipped in a beekeeper chat room). But very quickly, many journalists settled on neonicotinoids -- pesticides that are applied to more than 140 different crops -- as the likely culprit. It seemed a familiar story of human greed and shortsightedness. With their callous disregard for nature, big chemical companies and big agriculture were killing the bees -- and threatening our own survival.

With the benefit of time, it has become clear that the story was a lot more complicated than that. But the rush to judgment and the end-of-days narratives it spawned should serve as a cautionary tale for environmental journalists eager to write the next blockbuster story of environmental decline. I should know. I almost wrote that story myself.

1. As fate would have it, I was preparing to publish a feature about a colorful commercial beekeeper named John Miller in High Country News, a Colorado-based environmental magazine, when the colony collapse story broke. Miller keeps around 10,000 hives, trucking them around the country to pollinate crops and struggling mightily to keep his charges alive. With bees in the headlines, I did a quick rewrite and the story garnered more views on the magazine's website than any article in its history.

It was just the kind of break every journalist hopes for, and soon I was fielding inquiries from publishers interested in producing a book on the subject. They envisioned a hard-hitting investigation into big beekeeping, big agriculture-, and the looming pollination crisis -- with heroes, villains, and impending-- ecological apocalypse. It would, like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring -- the 1962 bestseller that linked DDT to plummeting bird populations and human cancer and launched the modern environmental movement -- chronicle the crimes of industry against nature. Substitute bees for birds and neonicotinoids-- for DDT, add a dollop of outrage, and voil…: Silent Spring II.

This sounded appealing. I had more to say about John Miller, his bees, and his daft and unrequited passion for these difficult creatures, and I had always-- wanted to write a book. But there was a problem: I had just had my first child, who brought me great joy but also considerable delays in putting together-- a book proposal. As I swaddled and dandled, other environmental journalists got to work. In 2008, a number of bee books hit the bookshelves.

These books had a lot in common with the original idea I had bandied about with publishers: they expounded on CCD and America's pollination crisis--; they chronicled the crimes of the pesticide industry against bees; they evoked Silent Spring. Some also prominently employed a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein, one that had appeared in numerous articles since the crisis began: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live." This was an eye-opening quote, impressing upon readers the gravity of the situation: if the smartest guy ever was alarmed about the disappearing honey bee, we too should be afraid, right? Right -- except there's no evidence that Einstein ever said it. Einstein died in 1955; the first known mention of the quote appeared in 1994, in a pamphlet distributed during a political protest staged by French beekeepers objecting to the high cost of sugar for feeding bees and a proposed reduction of tariffs on imported honey.

And there's also this: it simply isn't true. Honey bees are a crucial link in our agricultural system. They pollinate over 90 fruits and vegetables, including-- blueberries, canola, cherries, watermelon, lettuce, and almond trees. Bees are industrious, they are prolific, and they are mobile; there is no pollinator better suited to plying the landscape of modern agriculture. Without them, many crops would sputter or fail and our diet would be a far more lackluster affair.

But the honey bee's disappearance wouldn't necessarily mean the end of humanity. It wouldn't even mean the end of industrial agriculture. Much of our agricultural production does not require the pollination services of bees, and people have lived in lots of places where honey bees haven't. Humans dwelled for millennia in North America, for instance, before the European honey bee (the species found in most of the world's apiaries) arrived from England around 1620, on the same boats that brought the nation's first colonists and their crops. Honey bees have traveled the paths of human migration from Africa to Europe and Asia, then to North America, and they have flourished in most places. If they weren't so useful, you might even be tempted to call them an invasive-- species.

Honey bees have also disappeared before. In 1853, Lorenzo Langstroth, the 19th century beekeeper who invented the modern hive, described colonies that were "found, on being examined one morning, to be utterly deserted. The comb was empty, and the only symptom of life was the poor queen herself." In 1891 and 1896, large clusters of bees vanished in a case known as "May Disease." In the 1960s, bees vanished mysteriously in Texas, Louisiana, and California. In 1975, a similar epidemic cropped up in Australia, Mexico, and 27 US states. There were heavy losses in France from 1998 to 2000 and also in California in 2005, just two years before CCD was first diagnosed.

In fact, honey bees have been on human-assisted life support for a long time now. Much recent coverage of CCD has implied that America's recent honey bee apocalypse began in 2006, but it really began 20 years ago, when a vicious little mite arrived from Asia and wreaked havoc on American apiaries. Thanks to a relentless onslaught of global pests and pathogens since then, "wild" bees (which were never in fact wild, but feral -- the offspring of swarms that had escaped from managed hives) have been wiped out across much of the United States. The bees that have survived are, with very, very few exceptions, commercially managed ones, kept aloft only by the efforts of determined beekeepers like John Miller.

Indeed, there's nothing at all "natural" about the presence of honey bees in most places in the world. They're not native. Most of the plants they pollinate aren't native either. The modern honey bee is largely a human creation. You wouldn't know it from the media coverage, but for all the carnage in recent years, the actual number of honey bee colonies in the US has held steady, thanks to a robust queen-rearing industry that churns out hundreds of thousands of new queens each year. While honey bees are now experiencing worldwide die-offs, their populations are still much higher than in the past, thanks almost entirely to the commercial beekeeping industry.

So maybe the fictitious French Einstein had it backwards: if man disappeared off the face of the earth today, most European honey bee colonies would certainly have no more than four years to live.

2. Covering the fate of the bees, and all the symbiotic relationships in which they are enmeshed -- with flowering plants, with their keepers, with the farmers who need commercial beekeepers to pollinate crops -- has called my attention to another troubled symbiotic connection: the one between journalists and environmental disaster.

Take last summer's BP oil spill in Louisiana. Covering the spill was the Super Bowl of environmental journalism. You couldn't have asked for a better disaster: the never-ending gusher, the oiled birds and tar balls, the callous foreign corporation-- and corrupt government agency. Everyone wanted in on the story, and many of my journalist friends sent delighted updates on Facebook about being sent to the Gulf Coast to cover the environmental story of the decade. I viewed their messages with envy -- because after having another baby, I was in no position to go off chasing oil slicks -- but also with a certain discomfort I couldn't put my finger on until recently, when New Yorker staff writer Raffi Khatchadourian published an exhaustive investigation into the spill.

Khatchadourian disputed the notion that the BP-funded response to the spill was mismanaged and willfully negligent, as much of the contemporary coverage implied. He described an enormous effort that, while necessarily improvised-- and Byzantine, was mostly effective in cleaning up and dispersing the oil.

More of a disaster, he argued, was the media coverage of and political response to the spill. In the early days after the Deepwater Horizon sank, says Khatchadourian, there were lots of tight-focus shots of oily marshes, with "suffocating swirls of shimmery crude and sickly pelicans. The scenes were riveting and heartbreaking," he wrote, "but they fundamentally misrepresented the situation." There was, in fact, very little oil to be found in Louisiana's marshland. With just 25 miles of "heavy oiling" on the entire 1,600-mile Gulf coastline, "One had to travel, sometimes an hour or more, to see the oil -- one had to hunt for it."

But of course, hunt we did, and those images -- sensationalized depictions that exaggerated the spill's damage -- often spurred responders and politicians to insist on measures that were costly, ineffectual, and perhaps even harmful. It will be years before we fully understand the long-term effects of the oil and dispersants on the Gulf ecosystem and human health, but the Gulf of Mexico is thought to absorb more than 50 million gallons of oil a year from natural seeps in the ocean floor, and its biology is remarkably well-adapted to absorbing oil. It's less well-adapted to the dredging and building of artificial berms, and the placing of booms that Gulf Coast lawmakers insisted BP install in many ecologically sensitive areas as public outcry-- mounted. In his story, Khatchadourian asked the question that lingered in the back of my head all summer: is it possible that the breathless coverage of and knee-jerk responses to the disaster actually made the ecological damage worse?

The honey bee's recent problems have occasioned a similar rush to judgment. Before any studies had been conducted on the causes of CCD, three books and countless articles came out touting pesticides as the malady's cause. Had I been able to turn a book around quickly, I might have leapt to the same conclusions. But I was late to the party, and as more studies came out and I came to better understand the science, I became less and less convinced that pesticides provided a convincing explanation for beekeepers' losses.

In June 2009, a comprehensive USDA report reached the same conclusion: "It now seems clear that no single factor alone is responsible for the malady." Instead, a combination of factors is probably to blame -- some sort of interaction between pathogens and variables such as nutrition, weather, parasites, pesticides, and the insults of long-distance beekeeping. "I go back to the death by a thousand paper cuts theory," John Miller told me. "That it's some combination of stress, accumulated pathogens, chemical materials, overstimulation, near-starvation -- an accumulation of what we do."

3. With the luxury of time, I was freed from the obligation to write the next Silent Spring. The Beekeeper's Lament, in bookstores in June, does, of course, explore the reasons bees are dying. But it also tells a complicated story about a man named John Miller, who really, inexplicably, loves bees. He loves them so much that he doesn't mind all the insults and indignities of modern beekeeping: pests and plagues and poor honey prices; droughts and deluges and the daunting logistics required to transport 10,000 hives from the northern Plains to the Central Valley and back each year. He loves them despite all the practices he has to engage in that hurt them -- stacking them on semi-trucks, feeding them miticides and fungicides and antibiotics, waking them up early from their winter slumber to make him money pollinating almonds.

There are no neatly presented demons in the story. Miller is a big beekeeper who pollinates crops for big agriculture, but he's not in it to make big money; if he were, he would have gone into software sales, or real estate, or something that actually makes a lot of money. Still, he does manage to earn a living and keep people employed in rural economies that offer few other opportunities. That isn't as sexy or easy a story to tell as the one about the evil chemical companies and the innocent wild creatures. But I hope it's one that can illuminate the complex relationships between the food on our tables, the people who grow it, the bees that pollinate all those millions of acres of crops, and the bee guys, like John Miller, who care for those bees.

By contrast, reflexively blaming pesticides for all of the honey bee's problems may in fact slow the search for solutions. Honey bees have enough to do without having to serve as our exoskeletal canaries in a coalmine. Dying bees have become symbols of environmental sin, of faceless corporations out to ransack nature. Such is the story environmental journalism tells all too often. But it's not always the story that best helps us understand how we live in this world of nearly seven billion hungry people, or how we might square our ecological concerns and commitments with that reality. By engaging in simplistic and sometimes misleading environmental narratives -- by exaggerating the stakes and brushing over the inconvenient facts that stand in the way of foregone conclusions-- -- we do our field, and our subjects, a disservice.



For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when blogger.com is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why people have just recognized this vast "new" source of methane, the warmists have been using it for some time as part of one of their tipping point scenarios where the oceans warm enough to release it.