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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


While protestors surrounded the White House, Obama was golfing with oil executives

Obama playing golf closer to home
Obama playing golf closer to home.

When some 35,000 protestors descended on Washington, D.C., on Sunday, they hoped to send a message to President Obama: Kill the Keystone XL pipeline. Show real leadership on the climate. From the Mall up to the White House they marched, hoping that Obama would see the crowd and read the signs and be moved.

But Obama wasn't there to see the crowd. He wasn't in the White House. He was in Florida, playing a round of golf with two directors of Western Gas Holdings, a subsidiary of Anadarko Petroleum focused on natural gas fracking. From the Huffington Post, which broke the story:

Obama has not shied away from supporting domestic drilling, especially for relatively clean natural gas, but in his most recent State of the Union speech he stressed the urgency of addressing climate change by weaning the country and the world from dependence on carbon-based fuels. …

But on his first “guys weekend" away since he was reelected, the president chose to spend his free time with Jim Crane and Milton Carroll, leading figures in the Texas oil and gas industry, along with other men who run companies that deal in the same kinds of carbon-based services that Keystone would enlarge. They hit the links at the Floridian Yacht and Golf Club, which is owned by Crane and located on the Treasure Coast in Palm City, Fla.

Not only are Crane and Carroll with Wester Gas Holdings, Carroll is also the chair of CenterPoint Energy, which provides residential and commercial electricity and natural gas -- and which just today announced it is accepting bids for proposals to transport its oil out of the North Dakota Bakken region.


Honda partners with SolarCity to subsidize solar panels for customers

Among the options that will soon be available to Honda customers in certain markets: cruise control, automatic transmission, solar panels for your house. Which is admittedly odd.

The New York Times explains the car company's new offer:

Through a partnership with SolarCity, a residential and commercial installer, Honda and Acura will offer their customers home solar systems at little or no upfront cost, the companies said on Tuesday. The automaker will also offer its dealers preferential terms to lease or buy systems from SolarCity on a case-by-case basis, executives said.

The deal, in which Honda will provide financing for $65 million worth of installations, will help the automaker promote its environmental aims and earn a modest return, executives said. …

And SolarCity, one of the few clean-tech start-ups to find a market for an initial public offering of its stock last year, will potentially gain access to tens of millions of new customers through Honda’s vast lists of current and previous owners.

A United States Marine Corps engineer opens solar panels on a solar-powered water purification system in Afghanistan
United States Marine Corps
Another satisfied Honda customer, in the future, maybe.

It's an interesting strategy by Honda, a reinforcement of the company's ongoing efforts to sell itself as environmentally friendly. And it's not only buyers of efficient Hondas who stand to benefit from the offer; you can buy a giant gas-guzzler from another car company and still take Honda up on its deal.


The Keystone XL pipeline could create as many as 20 long-term jobs

anti-Keystone protestors
There are more people in this picture than may have long-term jobs with the pipeline.

Last week year, Bloomberg did a little digging into the oft-mentioned "thousands of jobs" that would result if the Keystone XL pipeline were built. What they found, as they say, might surprise you, if you are surprised when fatuous political arguments turn out to be erroneous.

From the article:

The debate in Washington has focused on short-term construction and manufacturing jobs, rather than on permanent ones. Estimates for construction and manufacturing employment range from 2,500 to 20,000, depending on assumptions of how much of the project’s budget will be spent in the U.S. The company says some of the steel will be made in Canada and India.

TransCanada Vice President Robert Jones said permanent jobs would be “in the hundreds, certainly not in the thousands,” in a Nov. 11 interview on CNN.

Calgary-based TransCanada says construction will create 20,000 “new, real U.S. jobs.”

TransCanada left out one adjective: temporary. Over the long term, though, that number drops a little bit. Once construction is complete, there won't be 20,000 jobs -- there will be more like 20.


In a blow to Republican rhetoric, China announces plan for a carbon tax

When Marco Rubio says that America "is a country, not a planet," he's saying that we don't need to bother cutting pollution because we're not the worst offenders. If China, which burns nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined, isn't trying to limit its pollution, why should we? Rubio's wording may be unique, but his rhetoric isn't -- it's a key argument for the Republican Party. As long as China's emitting unchecked carbon pollution, why can't we?

Premier Hu Jintao meets with President Obama
Premier Hu Jintao meets with President Obama.

Well, so much for that argument. From Xinhua, the official press agency of the Chinese government:

China will proactively introduce a set of new taxation policies designed to preserve the environment, including a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, according to a senior official with the Ministry of Finance (MOF).

The government will collect the environmental protection tax instead of pollutant discharge fees, as well as levy a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, Jia Chen, head of the ministry's tax policy division, wrote in an article published on the MOF's website. …

China is among the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gas and has set goals for cutting emissions. The government has vowed to reduce carbon intensity, or the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output, by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 in comparison to 2005 levels.


The success of London’s congestion charge, in three maps

Bike commuters in London
Bike commuters in London.

Streetsblog, a network of sustainable-transportation-focused websites that you should read regularly, used the occasion of the 10th anniversary of London's congestion pricing system to review its effectiveness. As you probably know, congestion pricing is a tool by which cities limit automobile and other traffic to certain areas by charging a fee for access. In London, that fee is £10, or about $15.

Has it worked? Streetsblog says yes -- or, it did for a bit.

In its first few years, the London charging scheme was heralded as a solid traffic-buster, with 15-20 percent boosts in auto and bus speeds and 30 percent reductions in congestion delays. Most of those gains appear to have disappeared in recent years, however. Transport for London (TfL), which combines the functions of our NYCDOT and MTA and which created and operates the charging system, attributes the fallback in speeds to other changes in the streetscape and traffic management …

The congestion charge also raised millions in revenue, some $435 million in 2008 alone.


Why the fracking boom may actually be an economic bubble

Fracking proponents like to use an evocative economic metaphor in talking about their industry: boom. The natural gas boom. Drilling is exploding in North Dakota and Texas and Pennsylvania. Only figuratively so far, but who knows what the future holds.

The Post Carbon Institute, however, suggests in a new report [PDF] that another metaphor would be more apt: a bubble, like the bubbles of methane that seep into water wells and then burst.

PCI presents the argument in its most basic form at

[T]he so-called shale revolution is nothing more than a bubble, driven by record levels of drilling, speculative lease & flip practices on the part of shale energy companies, fee-driven promotion by the same investment banks that fomented the housing bubble, and by unsustainably low natural gas prices. Geological and economic constraints -- not to mention the very serious environmental and health impacts of drilling -- mean that shale gas and shale oil (tight oil) are far from the solution to our energy woes.

PCI's strongest argument may be on the rapid depletion of drill sites. The case is made using the data in this graph, showing the amount of oil extracted over time from wells in the Bakken formation in Montana and North Dakota.


100% of electric capacity added in U.S. last month was renewable

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency which informed us that almost half of all new electricity generating capacity added in the U.S. in 2012 was renewable, has released its data for the month of January. You ready for this?

Here's how January 2013 compares to January 2012 in terms of new capacity:

Notice anything? Let's spell it out directly. Here's how new capacity broke down last January. Brownish sources are fossil fuels. Green are renewable.

And here's this January.

That's right: Every single megawatt of new generating capacity added in the U.S. last month was renewable. Every single one.


BP thinks people are still kind of overreacting to the Gulf oil spill

Not that big a deal, really.
Not that big a deal, really.
There is an attorney who works for BP (and almost certainly makes good money doing so) who is charged with making the following argument: You're blowing the deadly Deepwater Horizon thing way out of proportion.

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

With the start of the civil trial against global oil giant BP only a week away, the company's senior trial lawyer said Monday that he doesn't expect his client to be declared grossly negligent for the 2010 Gulf oil spill, a finding that would result in a four-fold increase in the fines BP would have to pay.

Rupert Bondy, BP's general counsel, also said he's confident the company will pay much less than the maximum $5 billion to $22 billion in Clean Water Act fines often cited by the media.

Why not? In part because Halliburton and Transocean fucked up, too.


How one fracking company bullies residents and elected officials alike


When the EPA last year dropped its inquiry into methane seepage from wells fracked by Range Resources, it seemed like an unusual move. Texan Steve Lipsky's water supply was bubbling over with the explosive gas, after all, which seemed like the sort of thing an agency built around protecting the environment should look into. But Range Resources threatened to pull out of a key fracking study, and the EPA backed off.

Because, according to a report from Bloomberg, that's the game the frackers at Range Resources play: bullying, threatening, intimidating.

Critics say the Fort Worth-based company, which pioneered the use of hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale, has taken a hard line with residents, local officials and activists. In one case it threatened a former EPA official with legal action; in another it stopped participating in town hearings to review its own applications to drill, because local officials were asking too many questions and taking too long.

“Range Resources is different from its peers in that it chooses to severely punish its critics,” said Calvin Tillman, the former mayor of Dish, Texas, and an activist who has been subpoenaed and issued legal warnings by Range. “Most companies avoid the perception of the big-bad-bully oil company, while Range Resources embraces it.”

The Bloomberg article outlines some of that bullying. A lawmaker who criticized Range had emails leaked to the local paper. And Steve Lipsky, he with the methane water, was sued.


American energy infrastructure at risk from hackers in China and elsewhere

The Shanghai office building from which the hackers apparently operate.
The Shanghai office building from which the hackers apparently operate.

The New York Times' front-page scoop this morning outlines an understood-but-not-well-articulated threat: hackers supported by the Chinese military, targeting American companies and infrastructure. The article provides a good overview of how a security firm, Mandiant, uncovered the hacking system -- down to the building from which it likely operates -- but the report from Mandiant itself [PDF] provides much more detail.

What jumped out at us were the targets. While Madiant doesn't identify specific companies (many are the firm's clients), it does provide a matrix of targeted industries by year. One of the first compromised, in 2006, was transportation. Energy companies have been accessed multiple times between 2009 and 2012. As the hackers grow more sophisticated, the focus on infrastructure has increased. From the Times:

While [a unit of hackers] has drained terabytes of data from companies like Coca-Cola, increasingly its focus is on companies involved in the critical infrastructure of the United States -- its electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks. According to the security researchers, one target was a company with remote access to more than 60 percent of oil and gas pipelines in North America.

The Financial Times reported on an attempt to hack natural gas pipelines last May.

A sophisticated cyberattack intended to gain access to US natural gas pipelines has been under way for several months, the Department of Homeland Security has warned, raising fresh concerns about the possibility that vital infrastructure could be vulnerable to computer hackers. …

There was no information about the source or motive for the attack, but industry experts suggested two possibilities: an attempt to gain control of gas pipelines in order to disrupt supplies or an attempt to access information about flows to use in commodities trading.

The original tip-off came from companies that had noticed fake emails sent to staff. The attack uses what is known in computer security jargon as “spear-phishing”: using Facebook or other sources to gather information about a company’s employees, then attempting to trick them into revealing information or clicking on infected links by sending convincing emails purportedly from colleagues.

This is precisely the technique outlined by Madiant in its report.