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Utility fees sought for environmental research center

By Marc Lifser

August 26, 2008


SACRAMENTO -- With this year's legislative session in its final days, lawmakers Monday unveiled a bill mandating new fees from electricity ratepayers to fund a University of California-run global warming research center.

The surcharge, amounting to $37 million a year for up to a decade, would be paid by customers of regulated utilities such as Southern California Edison Co. and publicly owned ones, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The fees would partially fund an $87-million-a-year Climate Change Research and Workforce Development Institute, whose location has yet to be decided.

If it becomes law, the bill would add an average of 10 cents a month to electricity bills statewide, backers said.

The proposal, the product of weeks of closed-door negotiations, hits customers of Edison and two other investor-owned utilities with lower fees than a similar plan the California Public Utilities Commission approved in April.

"Dealing with the enormous problems and concerns about global warming may be the biggest challenge of our generation," said Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego), a cosponsor of the bill. "The only way to deal with this challenge is to focus our energy and intellectual capital."

On Monday, the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee approved the bill on a 7-3 vote. It still must win the backing of another committee and both the Assembly and Senate before the Legislature hits a deadline for the passage of bills that are not related to the still-pending state budget.

The bill, SB 1762 by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), is backed by the University of California, the California State University system and the University of Southern California, which could benefit from sharing nearly $900 million in research grants in the first 10 years.

The institute is expected to focus its academic work on four areas, with the aim of bolstering California's drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2025. It plans to develop emissions-cutting technology, research ways to switch to a low-carbon economy, fine-tune forecasts of climate change effects and foster industries that provide high-tech "green" jobs.

Ratepayer advocates are unenthusiastic about piling new fees on residential consumers but say they don't oppose the Perata bill.

"Anything funded through rates is a concern for us, especially in the economic conditions we're in now," said Mindy Spatt of the San Francisco-based Utility Reform Network. "We're seeing more and more shut-offs and expect the situation to get worse."

Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers' Action Network in San Diego, said he saw "no compelling need" for the new research center and predicted it would duplicate the efforts of the California Air Resources Board. That agency is charged with implementing California's landmark global warming law of 2006.

Shames conceded, however, that the late-in-the-session bill was better than a similar initiative by the Public Utilities Commission that would have raised $60 million just from ratepayers of Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

The PUC effort stalled after lawyers for the Legislature concluded that the commission had no authority to set up and single-handedly fund the research center. The PUC has taken no position on the Perata bill. Neither has Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supported the PUC project.

Another agency, the California Energy Commission, supports the thrust of the legislation but opposes the bill because it would transfer $50 million from state programs, including commission funds, to the proposed UC research center. "It's going too fast and too far with a good idea," Commissioner Arthur Rosenfeld said.



http://www.latimes.com/news/science/environment/la-fi-climate26-2008aug26,0,675062.story

Los Angeles Times

Santa Barbara County supervisors expected to back offshore oil drilling


Maria L. Langa

August 26, 2008

Nearly 40 years after a disastrous oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast galvanized the nation and gave birth to the modern environmental movement, the county Board of Supervisors is poised to vote today in support of offshore drilling.

Proponents of the measure argue that America cannot turn away from a homegrown energy source at a time when the country is dangerously dependent on foreign oil and technology has made offshore oil drilling safer than ever.

Opponents, however, deride today's scheduled vote asking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to change state policy and "allow expanded oil exploration and extraction in the Santa Barbara County region" as an exercise in polls, politics and posturing.

The vote is largely symbolic -- the supervisors have no power to approve new offshore drilling, and Schwarzenegger has already come out against it. But it underscores both the issue's volatility and this coastal county's changing profile.

With gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon and a presidential election in the offing, even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and presumptive Democratic candidate Barack Obama in recent weeks have cautiously embraced the possibility of offshore drilling.

The vote is as much about the tension between inland and coast as it is about the price of a barrel of crude, which peaked at nearly $150 in July. Population and political power have been shifting away from the more liberal southern waterfront region, and the Board of Supervisors has a conservative, pro-industry majority for the first time in about a decade.

The result: An expected 3-2 vote to support increased oil drilling off the same beaches that were covered with the corpses of birds, seals and dolphins after more than 3 million gallons of crude oil leaked from an offshore drilling site in 1969.

Supervisor Brooks Firestone co-wrote today's measure to voice support for offshore drilling. Just a year ago, however, he voted with the board majority in support of a federal moratorium on such drilling.

Back then, he said in an interview Monday, "we didn't need the revenues. Property values were such that we were paying our own bills. We didn't need the jobs. Employment was very sound. But the threat to the tourist industry, if we were going to have sticky beaches, that would be a disaster."

Firestone has since changed his mind, he said, because "technology has preempted that last argument. We do need the jobs. We do need the money. We do need the oil."

It is unclear, however, just how much oil is there and how much its recovery would benefit the cash-strapped county, which receives about $5.5 million in annual oil revenue.

A Board of Supervisors staff report quotes the federal Minerals Management Service, which estimates that there could be "technically recoverable, median-value reserves" of 5.74 billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of gas in the area covered by the federal moratorium from the northern tip of San Luis Obispo County to the Mexican border. There is no separate breakdown for Santa Barbara County.

Although the revenue picture is complicated, Firestone said, "by gradually and sensitively expanding offshore exploration and drilling, the estimated revenue to the county runs in many millions of dollars." In addition, he said, the new oil would help offset the 20 million barrels America uses each day.

Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, argues that because the region covered by the federal moratorium has yet to be explored, it is impossible to know just how much oil is actually there. She also noted that the benefits would be in the distant future.

Krop said the expected vote does not mark a sea change in the region but rather underscores the county's long-term divisions. "The north county has always been pro-oil," she said. "Santa Barbara city has been anti-oil for 40 years and is still anti-oil."

Krop also notes that there are 36 oil leases off the county's coastline -- granted between 1968 and 1984 -- that have never been developed by oil companies.

The main question raised before the board by opponents to the measure, she said, is: "Why should we be opening up brand new areas when there are already leases the oil companies are sitting on?"

Supervisor Salud Carbajal -- whose district includes much of the city of Santa Barbara, along with Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito -- calls lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling a "Trojan horse" that would allow oil companies to purchase leases that are not available to them now.

Today's expected action, he said, "is a short-sighted, limited, symbolic vote that would be in keeping with the whole confusion on the national level that we can drill our way out of this, and that it's the panacea."

Congress first passed a national ban on new offshore drilling in 1981 and has renewed it annually ever since. In 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush passed an executive order prohibiting such drilling until certain studies could be completed. President Clinton extended that prohibition.

The current political discussion was jump-started in July when oil prices peaked and President Bush rescinded the executive order. Congress still needs to act before any leasing can occur.

Shortly after Bush's action, Schwarzenegger joined the governors of Oregon and Washington state to urge the federal government not to allow new offshore drilling and to ask that more money be spent to improve the health of the Pacific Ocean.

Which calls into question just what effect today's Santa Barbara County vote could have. Still, the measure's proponents say drilling is long overdue for reasons both economic and environmental.

Bruce Allen is co-founder of an advocacy group called SOS California, an initialism for "Stop Oil Seeps." The group believes that the thousands of barrels of oil per year that naturally ooze up from the ocean floor are a serious form of pollution.

Its members also cite the work of UC Santa Barbara researchers -- including Bruce P. Luyendyk, a professor of marine geophysics -- to support their contention that oil drilling releases pressure that causes natural seeps in the region.

"Maybe there's an argument that if you expand offshore oil production, you reduce the seeps and reduce marine pollution and provide California with more energy and the tax revenues to pay for the transition to solar energy and electric vehicles," Allen said.

But in a letter to the Board of Supervisors in advance of the vote, Luyendyk warned against extrapolating the results of his group's 1999 study and said that labeling naturally seeping oil "to be pollution is not so simple."

http://www.latimes.com/news/science/environment/la-me-oilvote26-2008aug26,0,3207999.story

Globe and Mail

Renewable energy technology stores the wind underground

By Ernest Scheyder

August 26, 2008


NEW YORK — One problem perhaps more than any other has proven a drag on the long-term prospects for wind power: how do you turn on the lights when the wind isn't blowing?

A New Jersey company said Tuesday it has joined with Michael Nakhamkin, one of the top thinkers in energy storage, to develop new ways to trap wind-generated power in underground reservoirs.

Mr. Nakhamkin has helped develop technology to pull excess energy off the power grid – usually at night when usage has waned – to run compressors that pump air into sealed, underground caverns that once held oil, salt or natural gas.

During periods of higher demand, the air is released and heated to run air expansion turbines. The heating process uses about 100 megawatts of power from natural gas and 200 megawatts of power from the compressed air.

The announcement comes just as a drilling boom for natural gas heats up nationwide. Natural gas has supporters in both the private sector and in Washington because it releases fewer of the greenhouse gases that can lead to global warming and because it has been found domestically in massive quantities.

While this still involves fossil fuels, Mr. Nakhamkin said emissions, compared with traditional turbine systems, are far lower.

“This technology significantly reduces fuel oil and natural gas consumption,” he said.

In urban areas where underground storage isn't feasible, or where bedrock makes drilling expensive, ground-level pipes can be used to store the air, though capacity is diminished.

“We really think this is a game-changer for the renewables industry,” said Roy Daniel, chief executive officer of Energy Storage and Power LLC, a joint venture between PSEG Energy Holdings and Mr. Nakhamkin.

PSEG Energy Holdings is investing about $20-million (U.S.) in the project, and plans to market and license the technology.

“We're pretty bullish on the market right now,” Mr. Daniel said.

Compressed air in a cave about a third the size of the New York Giants' football stadium – roughly 21,500,000 cubic square feet – would be enough to power a 300-megawatt turbine for 8 hours, Mr. Daniel said.

That load could power about 200,000 homes – a small city – for about 8 hours, said John A. Stratton, an electrical power systems professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“That's a healthy load,” he said. “It's going to get us through the peak of the day by using excess energy at night.”

While the process isn't totally efficient – energy is lost while being transferred – it “makes wind a very different kind of energy than it is today,” Mr. Stratton said.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080826.wwindpower0826/BNStory/Business/

San Francisco Chronicle

New Arguments for Offshore Drilling

By Cameron Scott

August 26, 2008

The debate over offshore drilling is heating up in Santa Barbara, site of a 1969 3-million-gallon spill that helped spur environmental protection laws.

The Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors plans to hold a symbolic vote today in favor of lifting the ban against offshore drilling.

Refreshingly, the Sups aren't repeating the abundantly false claim that offshore drilling will bring down the price of gas at the pump. Instead, they are interested in revenue and jobs new drilling sites could generate. While fears of peak oil are largely responsible for holding the American economy in the doldrums, the weakened economy increases political pressure to look for jobs, revenues—and the very oil many think we won't find.

As recently as last year, the Supervisors voted against expanding offshore oil leases, citing concerns about safety. Safety has not improved significantly since last year. It has, however, improved since 1969. Shutoff valves are now mandatory, ostensibly preventing a repeat of the Santa Barbara "blowout." Nonetheless, smaller spills do happen fairly regularly, and drilling releases toxins that are poisonous to coral, fish, and aquatic plants. At one offshore site, the population of marine animals plunged from 8,000 animals per square meter to 1,700 when drilling started.

I'm skeptical that the jobs and revenue (shared with the federal government) would amount to enough to outweigh the environmental effects or give a significant boost to the economy. Especially when green tech promises thousands of skilled jobs which would also benefit the environment. Nonetheless, promises of jobs are a political slam-dunk, and an issue that must be confronted head-on if we are to avoid making our economy even dirtier in the small window of opportunity we've got to deal with climate change.



http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/sfgate/detail?blogid=49&entry_id=29484
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ROWA Media Update

THE ENVIRONMENT IN THE NEWS

8 August 2008
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ENVIRONMENT NEWS FROM THE

UN DAILY NEWS
26 August 2008

Slashing fossil fuel subsidies could curb greenhouse gas emissions – UN
26 August - Challenging the widely-held view that fossil fuel subsidies benefit the poor, a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) calls for cutting back on such mechanisms to curb on greenhouse gas emissions and propel economic growth.
The publication argues that many of these subsidies benefit wealthier portions of society and divert national funds from policies to help the poor.

Some $300 billion – or 0.7 per cent of global GDP – is spent to support the price of energy annually, and most of these funds are used to lower the real prices of fuel, coal, gas and electricity generated by fossil fuels.


Eliminating these price support systems could slash emissions by up to 6 per cent a year while providing a 0.1 per cent GDP boost worldwide, the report contends.

While acknowledging that subsidies can at times generate social, financial and environmental benefits, it makes the case that many of these mechanisms are seldom economically sound and hardly ever tackle poverty.


“In the final analysis many fossil fuel subsidies are introduced for political reasons but are simply propping up and perpetuating inefficiencies in the global economy – they are thus part of the market failure that is climate change,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said.
The report, entitled “Reforming Energy Subsidies: Opportunities to Contribute to the Climate Change Agenda,” was launched today in Accra, Ghana, during the latest round of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) global climate change negotiations.
With talks to conclude a successor to the Kyoto Protocol – whose first commitment period ends in 2012 – expected to wrap up late next year in Copenhagen, Mr. Steiner called on governments to phase out subsidies that contribute to wasting finite resources and delaying the creation of more efficient forms of energy.

According to the report, Russian subsidies are the largest, with the country spending some $40 billion annually to reduce the price of natural gas, followed by Iran, which spends $37 billion, and then China, Saudi Arabia, India, Indonesia, Ukraine and Egypt.


UNEP also announced today that a mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol that allows industrialized countries to offset some of their own emissions by investing in cleaner energy projects in developing countries had made headway in sub-Saharan Africa.
Although the main beneficiaries of this programme have been rapidly developing economies such as China, Brazil and India, six countries – the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Mali and Senegal – have had new Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) initiatives over the past 18 months.

“Whereas fossil fuel subsidies are an example of a blunt policy instrument, perpetuating old and inefficient economic models, the CDM is an example of a more intelligent, market-based mechanism that is fostering the transition to a modern green economy,” Mr. Steiner noted.


The number of CDM projects in sub-Saharan Africa, while still low, is growing steadily and could rise from the current 49 programmes in 12 countries to 230 by 2012. At present there are close to 3,500 CDM initiatives worldwide.

UN agencies join forces to combat environmentally-related diseases in Africa
26 August - A United Nations-sponsored conference that aims to tackle the environmental causes of diseases that claimed almost 2.5 million African lives each year begins in Gabon today.

In 2002 alone millions of Africans died because of unsafe water, pollution, poor sanitation, inadequate waste disposal, insufficient disease control measures and exposure to chemicals.


“African countries share common ecosystems and the impact of the environment on the health transcends national borders. Accelerated efforts are required to deal with the outbreak of diseases caused by changes in the environment,” said Regional Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) for Africa, Luis Sambo.

The WHO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) jointly organized the First Inter-Ministerial Conference on Health and Environment in Africa, which is being hosted by the Government of Gabon, under the slogan “Health security through healthy environments.”


The four-day conference – attended by health ministers, environment ministers, policymakers, bilateral and multilateral institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and high-level experts – will explore the evidence linking health with the environment.
It aims to combat environmentally-related health problems as well as obtain the institutional and investment changes necessary to reduce environmental threats to health.

“This conference is a step toward future collaborative efforts between the WHO, UNEP, and Ministries of Health and Environment to implement integrated activities that promote health and sustainable development,” stressed Dr. Sambo.


UNEP Deputy Director Angela Cropper added: “While our knowledge has been increasing about how ecosystems and species and the quality of the environment relate to human health, there is a lag in concerted policy and action to address this relationship.”
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