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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


House GOP finds perfect energy committee staffer in the energy industry

The Republican leadership of the House Energy and Commerce committee needed a staffer for the redundantly named Energy and Power subcommittee. And they found the perfect guy for the job, somehow.

From The Hill:

[Tom Hassenboehler is] returning to Capitol Hill from his role as vice president of policy development and legislative affairs with America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a trade group for gas producers.

Hassenboehler previously worked on the committee staff from 2004 until 2008, and then served three years as counsel to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee before going to the gas trade group.


Natural gas is eating coal’s lunch in the Southeast

The natural gas revolution will not be televised, because it's not fun to watch. But it might provide the power for your television, if that counts -- and if you live in the Southeast, the odds that it does are climbing.

States in the Southeast use a lot of coal. On this map, the darker states produced the most coal power in 2011. The Southeast is pretty dark, though less so than Texas and the Rust Belt.

coal use by state 2011

But that percentage is dropping, year-over-year, as the U.S. Energy Information Agency noted today.


China’s going greener, even if it means flattening 700 mountains

China's economic growth may be slowing for the first time in decades, but its air pollution is still going gangbusters. The city air is choked with fine particulates, and experts are projecting 3.6 million global deaths due to air pollution by 2050, many of them in China. The country announced this week it would be investing $56 billion in cleaning that up over the next three years, in part to appease, as Reuters reports, "increasingly prosperous urban residents."


Henry Paulson, the former Goldman Sachs CEO and treasury secretary who became the face of the 2008 economic collapse, has some advice for this newly struggling China. Paulson says the country's potential "is stifled by traffic and pollution." From The New York Times:

By adopting a new approach to urbanization, its leaders can assure more balanced investment, address a major source of debt, achieve a consumption windfall and clean up the country’s environment. Otherwise, China’s economic and environmental problems will worsen, with vast implications for the rest of the world ...

A flawed system of municipal finance is driving debt, corruption and dissent, while unsustainable urban planning has yielded polluted cities that are destroying China’s ecosystem. Yet China’s future requires continued urbanization, which, absent a new approach, will only make the problem worse.

Cities can, however, be part of the solution: better urban policies can put China on a healthier path forward, economically and environmentally.

Hey, you know what sounds like a better urban policy to me? Destroying 700 mountains! From The Guardian:

Read more: Cities


Unless hell freezes over, 2012 will be the hottest year in U.S. history

Even if the United States has the coldest December in its history -- even if it's a full degree (F) colder on average than the previous coldest December ever -- 2012 will be the hottest year in American history.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

We figured this was coming. But even though November wasn't particularly hot -- coming in 2.1 degrees F above the 20th century average, making it only the 20th-warmest November ever -- it's now almost a certainty.

Read more: Climate & Energy


The 2012 Arctic report card: We’re going to need some summer school

Each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases a "report card" for how the Arctic is doing. This year, the Arctic gets an incomplete and a notice to be signed by its parents stating that it will require tutoring.

Warning: sad polar bears.

The report focuses on two primary findings. First, that the year's record ice loss comes despite a relatively unremarkable year, temperature-wise.

A major finding of the Report Card 2012 is that numerous record-setting melting events occurred, even though, with the exception of a few limited episodes, Arctic-wide it was an unremarkable year, relative to the previous decade, for a primary driver of melting -- surface air temperatures. From October 2011 through August 2012, positive (warm) temperature anomalies were relatively small over the central Arctic compared to conditions in recent years (2003-2010). Yet, in spite of these moderate conditions, new records were set for sea ice extent, terrestrial snow extent, melting at the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, and permafrost temperature.

Read more: Climate & Energy


NYC Mayor Bloomberg calls for climate preparedness, reviews Sandy recovery

Mike Bloomberg's tenure as mayor of New York has been bookended by disaster. The primary election that vaulted him to his position was originally scheduled for Sept. 11. And with just over a year left in his term: Sandy. This morning, in a high-profile speech, Bloomberg made his case for how New York will prepare for the next climate disaster.

The mayor's first two terms, from 2002 to 2010, were largely defined by 9/11 and how he and the city responded. The massive increase in the reach and power of the NYPD happened under Bloomberg -- as did a variety of foiled terror plots of various likelihoods and origins. Bloomberg's mantra has been safety, how even allowing NYPD to infiltrate out-of-state mosques and run a blatantly discriminatory stop-and-frisk system is worth it because crime dropped and no bombs exploded.

In 2007, just shy of halfway through his second term, Bloomberg announced PlaNYC, a push to prepare the city for a changing climate. "We're going to seize this opportunity," Bloomberg said at the time, "to lead the way forward and create the first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city." The plan moved forward without much fanfare, particularly once a signature element, congestion pricing, was killed. Nonetheless, as Bloomberg noted today (and as we've discussed before), the city launched a $2.4 billion green water infrastructure plan, revamped zoning, and restored wetlands.

What Sandy showed was how spotty the city's preparation actually was, five years down the road. While large portions of New York City woke up the day after the storm, yawned, and went about their business, hundreds of thousands woke up in the dark. Thousands woke up above flooded first floors. Dozens never woke up. Today, five weeks afterward, parts of the largest, richest city in America are still dark; just blocks from the arhythmically beating heart of the world of finance, massive buildings are still not ready to be reentered.

Mike Bloomberg makes his speech.
Mike Bloomberg makes his speech.


Nearly 50 percent of new electricity generation capacity added in 2012 was renewable

Every month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission puts out a report called the "Energy Infrastructure Update" [PDF]. It is done in Microsoft Word by someone whose first priority isn't aesthetics.

But it does contain interesting information! Among which, this time: From January through October, 46.2 percent of new electricity generating capacity added in the U.S. was renewable.

breakout by type jan to oct new generation
From Renewable Energy World:

During the first ten months of 2012, 92 wind projects (5,403 MW), 167 solar projects (1,032 MW), 79 biomass projects (409 MW), seven geothermal projects (123 MW), and 9 water power projects (12 MW) have come on-line. Collectively, these total 6,979 MW or 46.22% of all new generating capacity added since the beginning of the year.

By comparison, new natural gas capacity additions since January 1, 2012 totaled 67 projects (5,702 MW) or 37.8% while three new coal projects added 2,276 MW (15.1%). Nuclear and oil represented just 0.8% and 0.1% of new capacity additions respectively.

For the first 10 months of 2011, renewable energy constituted just under 30 percent of new generation capacity.


One way to slow Arctic ice loss: Stop flying over it

Right after Sept. 11, the lack of any airplane activity over the U.S. allowed scientists to study the effects of flights on the weather. In doing so, they found a direct correlation: Temperatures dropped when planes weren't overhead. The science of the research is far more complicated than that simple statement, but it showed clearly that air traffic influences weather.

There's another way in which planes likely affect the planet: by contributing to Arctic ice melt. From The Washington Post:

A new study [PDF] suggests one way that humans could slow the melting of the sea ice — by preventing international flights from crossing over the Arctic circle. These cross-polar flights are a surprisingly large source of black carbon pollution in the region. And if those planes diverted course, that could help fend off the day when the Arctic sea-ice collapses for good. …

[T]hese cross-polar flights are just a small source of the greenhouse-gas emissions that are warming the planet. But they are a significant source of pollutants like black carbon, which absorb sunlight and warm the region. And pollutants from cross-polar flights tend to linger in the Arctic for a particularly long time, in part because the planes fly through the stratosphere, a relatively stable layer of the atmosphere. (Indeed, such pollutants could explain why Arctic ice is vanishing so much faster than scientists even expected.)

According to the models used by researchers from Stanford and MIT, rerouting planes to avoid the Arctic Circle could cool the region by .015 degrees C and even increase sea ice.

Carbon output in the Arctic before (left) and after (right) rerouting.
Carbon output in the Arctic before (left) and after (right) rerouting. Click to embiggen.


Hundreds of Nebraskans speak out against Keystone XL pipeline

For eight hours last night, Nebraskans at a public meeting in Albion shared their views on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline -- most of which were unfavorable. From Nebraska Watchdog:

An estimated 800 people filled a huge metal county fairgrounds building Tuesday night to talk about a proposed $7 billion oil pipeline that would be built through Nebraska en route from Canada to Texas. …

It was a sometimes rowdy crowd, as many opponents to the pipeline booed or applauded speakers -- despite admonitions not to -- while supporters of the project were less vocal. At times it seemed like boots versus suits, as many people wearing boots, caps and jeans -- farmers, ranchers and landowners -- testified against the pipeline while many pro-business and free market advocates and people who would help build the pipeline testified in favor of it.

The hearing was the final step in the state's environmental consideration of TransCanada's proposal of a new pipeline route. In October, Nebraska gave preliminary approval to the new plan, noting that it avoids the sandy region of the state over the Ogallala Aquifer. So if the pipeline were to rupture (ahem), the state suggests, the damage wouldn't permanently destroy a critical water source. That would be an improvement.

A man holds up a container of oil and sand as he testifies at last night's hearing
A man holds up a container of oil and sand as he testifies at last night's hearing.


Australian coal mining company resigned to the death of coal

You know who else thinks the coal industry is doomed? The coal industry.

ThinkProgress' Stephen Lacey yesterday shared the story of BHP Billiton, an Australian mining firm that extracts, among other things, coal. But BHP doesn't see a great future in the stuff.

Image (1) coal-queensland-kestrel-mine-wikimedia.jpg for post 32103
A coal mine in Queensland.

Lacey quotes from the Australian Financial Review, which spoke with BHP exec Marcus Randolph about an export terminal on the coast of the country.

“As we see more cyclone-related events ... the vulnerability of one of these facilities to a cyclone is quite high,” [Randolph] said. “So we built a model saying this is how we see this impacting what the economics would be and used that with our board of directors to rebuild the facility to be more durable to climate change.”

Cyclone is to hurricane as Foster's is to beer -- Australian version of the same, but not really.