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John Upton's Posts


Obama admin wants hundreds of tiny nuclear reactors built in U.S.

Small nuclear reactors are just like big nuclear reactors, but smaller. And portable.

The Department of Energy is working on a strategy that could see as many as 50 small modular nuclear reactors built by the private sector every year by 2040. Many would be sold to the U.S. government; others would be exported and some more might even be imported.

The strategy is being pitched as a way to plug energy holes as the nation's coal power plants are retired. Never mind all that cheap wind and solar that's coming online, hey Obama?


Obama to require climate assessments for big projects like highways and pipelines

'Say, Jack, what if we used NEPA to slow down them there rising seas?'
White House
"Say, Jack, what if we used NEPA to slow down them there rising seas?"

Industries that warm the globe, take note: It might be time to freak out.

The Obama administration will soon start requiring federal agencies to consider climate change when analyzing the environmental impacts of major projects that need federal approval. This would include pipelines, highways, coal and natural-gas export facilities, and even new logging roads, if they're on public land or subject to federal oversight.

That’s according to Bloomberg, which reports that Obama will be issuing new guidance under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the federal government to conduct environmental impact assessments for significant projects.

The change wouldn't mean that any project affecting the climate would be nixed, but industry lobbyists worry it could lead to more delays and lawsuits.


U.S. to help Pacific islands cope with climate change

International help is on its way for Vanuatu, which is threatened by climate change
Shutterstock / Karin Wassmer
Some help is on its way for Vanuatu, which is threatened by climate change.

Unless you're among the growing number of Americans whose homes are powered entirely by renewable energy, every time you switch on a light you're doing your part to sink a Pacific island.

Many of the thousands of tropical islands that dot the Pacific Ocean are low-lying and will be among the first countries to sink as the world's seas continue their steady rise.

But beyond the risks posed to their very survival, these islands face additional acute threats from freshwater shortages, coral bleaching, higher temperatures, and other hazards wrought by climate change. This despite the fact that their inhabitants have low carbon footprints and are contributing relatively little to the climate problem.

It is against this backdrop that the U.S. has spent the past year preparing aid projects designed to help a dozen Pacific island countries brace themselves against the growing threats posed by global warming.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Pipeline struck by tug still burning, yards away from oil-laden barge

This photo, taken Wednesday, shows how close the barge is to the burning tug and pipeline. Inside the barge and not visible from the outside is 2,200 barrels of crude oil, according to the Coast Guard.
Coast Guard
This photo, taken Wednesday, shows how close the oil barge, on the left, is to the burning tug and pipeline. The barge contains 2,200 barrels of crude oil.

A tugboat and a gas pipeline continued to burn in Louisiana on Thursday -- and connected to the burning tug is a barge laden with 2,200 barrels of crude oil, potentially ready to catch fire or spill.

The tug crashed into the liquid petroleum pipeline in Bayou Perot, 30 miles south of New Orleans, on Tuesday evening in shallow water after its crew steered into an area that vessels are not supposed to enter.

Not only was the no-go area clearly marked with white stakes, but the crew apparently plowed right over the warning stakes. "The tug and barge was in the middle [of a marked pipeline area]," Coast Guard spokesman Tanner Stiehl told WWMT. “It had taken down some of the white stakes and was in the middle of that area.”

Miraculously, all of the barge's crude has remained safely aboard so far, as emergency crews sprayed water over the barge to keep it cool and over the nearby flames. More than a dozen emergency response boats were floating near the fire on Thursday, with 40 emergency workers on hand ready to respond to a spill. A ring of floating absorbent boom was laid around the barge to help contain the oil if it leaks.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Wind power is poised to kick nuclear’s ass

Blowing away the competition in California
Shutterstock / Tim Messick
Blowing away the competition in California.

In 2012, wind energy became the fastest-growing source of new electricity generation in the U.S., providing 42 percent of new generation capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Wind power is becoming so cheap and so commonplace that it appears poised to help blow up the country's nuclear power sector, according to a recent Bloomberg article (which you really should read in full). Other highlights from the piece:

  • $25 billion was spent on wind energy in the U.S. in 2012.
  • The $25 billion outlay increased nationwide wind generating capacity by 13,124 megawatts -- up 28 percent from 2011.
  • That spending spree was fueled in large part by a mad scramble to qualify for federal tax credits that were set to expire at the end of last year (but were ultimately renewed by Congress).
  • Wind-generated electricity met about 3.4 percent of of American demand in 2012, a figure that's expected to reach 4.2 percent next year.
  • $120 billion spent on wind turbines since 2003 has increased wind power supplies 1,000 percent and created as much new electricity generation as could be provided by 14 new nuclear power plants.

In addition to federal tax credits, state-level renewable energy requirements are helping to spur wind's growth, and the nuclear industry thinks that's unfair:


Minnesotan towns say ‘no’ to a fracking sand mine

The main strip in the city of St. Charles, Minn.
The main strip in the city of St. Charles, Minn.

The fracking industry can't seem to buy itself any love.

While lawmakers in New York, Vermont, Fort Collins, Colo., and elsewhere consider or implement bans on hydraulic fracturing, companies that mine the sand that's used by frackers are also finding themselves rejected. And dejected.

Minnesota Proppant is one such company. It wanted to open one of the world’s largest frac-sand processing and rail-loading facilities in St. Charles Township in rural southeastern Minnesota (population 629). Sand in that area is highly prized by the fracking industry: It is just the right size and strength to be pumped with water and chemicals at high pressure into gas-rich shale, where it wedges into cracks that are opened up and holds them open, allowing natural gas to escape.

Unfortunately for the company, townsfolk weren't too keen on the pollution it was expected to produce. Nor were they thrilled that well water would be liberally pumped out of the ground by the miners. Concerns were raised about lung diseases that could be caused by airborne silica. And they worried that the local tourism industry could take a hit.

Do you suppose company officials took a hint and moved on?

They did not.


Conservatives vs. liberals: Who wastes more electricity?

red and blue power plugs

Researchers at UCLA tested whether liberals were all talk when it comes to caring about the environment.

The findings: They are not, at least in the American West.

In a comparison of electricity bills and voter registration records of 280,000 households, left-leaning voters were found to be more likely to leave their lights and air conditioners switched off and conserve more energy -- especially in the summertime -- than were Republicans.


Flammable ice will help power the planet, then make it even hotter

Methane hydrate burning in a laboratory
USGS Gas Hydrates Lab
Methane hydrate burning in a laboratory.

It sounds like an addictive drug.

And that may become an accurate description for the frozen fossil-fuel deposits that go by the name "flammable ice."

On Tuesday, Japan announced that it had tapped into flammable ice beneath the deep-sea floor and burned the methane that it contained. The achievement was a milestone victory in long-running international efforts to extract and burn the world's richest source of untapped fossil fuels.


Oil barge crashes into gas pipeline in Louisiana, triggers big fire

An oil-laden barge crashed into a gas pipeline in Louisiana
Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Office
An oil-laden barge crashed into a natural-gas pipeline off the Louisiana coast.

A grotesque collision of fossil-fuel-laden vessels happened in a bayou south of New Orleans on Tuesday evening, where tug-boat operators crashed a barge carrying crude oil into a submerged natural-gas pipeline.

The result was predictable: A spectacular conflagration erupted that injured two of the four members of the tug-boat crew, including the captain, who reportedly suffered burns covering more than three quarters of his body. Emergency crews on Wednesday were scrambling to contain spilled oil spreading south of the accident.

The crash occurred at about 6 p.m. local time 30 miles south of New Orleans on Bayou Perot, according to the Coast Guard.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Solar power set to shine in 2013

Solar panels in San Francisco
John Upton
Solar panels in San Francisco.

This year is shaping up to be a bright one for solar power.

New solar generating capacity expected to be installed around the world in 2013 will be capable of producing almost as much electricity as eight nuclear reactors, according to Bloomberg, which interviewed seven analysts and averaged their forecasts.

That would be a rise of 14 percent over last year for a total of 34.1 gigawatts of new solar capacity, thanks in large part to rising demand in China, the U.S., and Japan. From Bloomberg: