New York state Sen. Steve Saland (R) crafted the religious protections that helped the state’s marriage equality law pass last year and was one of four Republican senators to vote for it. Groups like the National Organization for Marriage have tried to counter their reelection, but Saland’s latest campaign finance disclosure report indicates that his vote hasn’t hurt him. He has raised over $425,000, from pro-equality donors like Robert Ziff and Proposition 8 attorney Ted Olson as well as conservative business interests like David Koch.
If We Have Trouble Delivering Fuel on Land, How Would We Handle a Winter Oil Spill in the Arctic Ocean?
The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker vessel Renda Tuesday evening.
By Kiley Kroh
Today the Russian tanker Renda, escorted by the United States’ only operating icebreaking vessel, will attempt to make its final push in delivering much-needed fuel to the remote, icebound community of Nome, Alaska. The ships’ progress has been impeded by high winds, strong currents, brutal cold, and thick sea ice. They moved just 50 feet on Tuesday and slowed even further on Wednesday. With a 25-foot ice ridge still blocking access to the harbor, the tanker will be forced to attempt offloading its cargo through a mile-long hose to shore.
The tanker Renda and ice-breaker Healy arrive in the area of the ice-choked Nome harbor today. Photo KNOM.
Ordinarily, the last delivery is made prior to the ice closing in, but this year it was delayed by a “monster storm” that hit Alaska in early November covering an area twice the size of Texas. The tempest produced hurricane-force winds, blizzard conditions, coastal flooding, and spurred evacuations of many coastal communities. The 3,500 residents of Nome, a city located on the western coast of Alaska, rely on tanker barges to deliver home heating oil, gasoline, and diesel for the winter months. The village has enough fuel to last until March, but ice in the Bering Sea won’t clear until midsummer. In a bid to avoid the $9 per gallon gasoline that would likely result from flying fuel into the isolated city, the Nome-based Sitnasuak Native Corporation signed a contract to have a double-hulled Ice Classed Russian tanker deliver the 1.3 million gallons of fuel.
The unprecedented effort has captured worldwide attention and also brought serious concerns to light about the nation’s insufficient resources and infrastructure in the Arctic. With the President of Royal Dutch Shell expressing confidence yesterday that his company will begin drilling in the fragile Arctic waters off Alaska’s northern coast this summer, addressing these concerns becomes even more urgent.
The Coast Guard is responsible for search and rescue, spill response and the national defense missions in the Arctic. Their capacity in the region is limited and includes woefully inadequate icebreaking capacity.
The Coast Guard’s only working icebreaker is the 12 year-old Healy, which is mainly deployed on scientific missions and can only break through thinner ice. It has two other heavy-duty polar icebreakers, but both are out of commission at the moment. By comparison, Russia currently operates 20 icebreakers, including seven powerful nuclear-powered vessels, and China is in the process of building its second icebreaker.
As the Arctic melts at an alarming rate, the infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic is incapable of supporting the imminent increase in activity that will come from greater access to marine resources. Alaska has no deepwater offshore port or on-shore harbor along its western or North Slope shores. As a recent E&E report explains, the Army Corps of Engineers has undertaken a three-year, $3 million study to determine whether or not to build at least one deepwater port in the US Arctic. However, “once a site is selected, the financing, planning, design and construction could take 20 years to complete. Industry officials privately estimate that the cost of the project could climb to $1 billion.”
The extremely harsh environmental conditions complicate any effort to industrialize the Arctic, and put pristine natural resources in jeopardy. Testifying before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard in July, Dr. Andrew Metzger of the University of Alaska Fairbanks stated,
“The rigors of the Arctic cannot be overstated. People and facilities in this environ must contend with extreme cold, permanently frozen soil (permafrost) and lack of daylight in winter. In addition, coastal communities and marine infrastructure must contend with intense wind and wave conditions, subsea permafrost, accelerating erosion and potentially catastrophic hazards from sea ice. These harsh conditions will significantly shape development of marine infrastructure in the Arctic as well as stakeholder activities.”
An upcoming report from the Center for American progress, due to be released later this month, will examine in greater detail America’s deficiencies in regard to Arctic infrastructure and oil spill response preparedness, and suggest steps to be taken before activities, such as drilling, commence in the world’s last unspoiled frontier.
Today the world watches as the Renda and Healy wait until daylight to begin the final stage of their 10-day journey. If the mission is successful, it will bring temporary relief to the residents of Nome. But the challenges associated with a permanent U.S. presence in the Arctic will be much more difficult to overcome.
– Kiley Kroh is Associate Director of Ocean Communications at the Center for American Progress.
Ohio residents weren’t happy about the “dog and pony show” at a town hall Thursday, where environmental officials gathered to discuss whether the wastewater from fracking for natural gas caused recent earthquakes. The crowd jeered when a geologist said he did not think gas drilling caused the quakes. One resident, Barry Steffey said he was disappointed by the meeting: “They brushed around it a lot,” he said.
The EPA Appeals Board on Thursday rejected challenges to Royal Dutch Shell’s federal air pollution permits to drill exploratory wells in the pristine Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska, home to endangered polar bears and Alaska Native groups. “Achieving usable permits from the EPA is a very important step for Shell and one of the strongest indicators to date that we will be exploring our Beaufort and Chukchi leases in July,” Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said. The waters of the Arctic are under siege from oil and gas producers eager to accelerate the global warming pollution that is melting the region. Shell still needs approval for its oil spill response plan from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
After the EPA unveiled the first-ever inventory of greenhouse gas polluters in the United States, the American Petroleum Institute’s scientific affairs director questioned whether the 185 million tons of carbon pollution the oil refineries listed emit each year have anything to do with climate change. When the EPA established an inventory of toxic mercury pollution 20 years ago, public pressure brought down pollution levels. “The major difference between this and air toxics is that there is no local effect with climate change, if there is any effect at all,” said Howard Feldman, regulatory and scientific affairs director at the American Petroleum Institute, told the National Journal.
With a glut of shale gas on the market, natural gas prices continue to tumble in the U.S. And they’ll only fall more throughout the year.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, average natural gas prices on the wholesale spot market dropped another 9% in 2011, falling to the second-lowest price average since 2002. And the agency expects prices to fall substantially in 2012 due to record-high inventories of supply.
In a few short years, domestic energy supply has undergone a major shift in favor of natural gas, challenging the economics of renewable energy technologies that compete directly with the resource. It’s not exactly the kind of shift that renewable energy proponents imagined. But it has helped keep electricity and heating prices low, while also shifting enthusiasm away from coal. Those are notable short-term victories — assuming renewables don’t get swept aside in the process.
The picture is mixed. Although wind development has dropped off a cliff in states like Texas, in part because of low gas prices, Bloomberg New Energy Finance believes that wind will be competitive across the board with natural gas by 2016. And in utility-scale solar, large photovoltaic projects are also keeping pace with projected prices of natural gas.
However, a study released earlier this month by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology modeled an energy scenario with and without shale gas, finding that renewables were indeed being negatively impacted:
The continued need for strong renewables prompts concerns, as the study finds that shale use suppresses the development of renewables. Under one scenario, for example, the researchers impose a renewable-fuel mandate. They find that, with shale, renewable use never goes beyond the 25 percent minimum standard they set — but when shale is removed from the market, renewables gain more ground.
We should also always remember that some of the leading (center-right) economists in the country — Nicholas Z. Muller, Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus — publishing in a top economics journal found that natural gas damages were larger than its value added for electricity generation even at a low-ball carbon price of $27 per ton. At a price of $65 a ton of carbon, the total damages from natural gas are more than double its value-added.
That means renewable energy deserves strong support by state and federal policymakers even in the face of low natural gas prices.
So will the slide in gas prices continue? Not according to some forecasts. EIA expects prices to rise again in 2013. With an increase in exports, a build out of new combined cycle power plants and continued questions about how much shale gas is actually in the ground (it’s still a lot, even on the low end of estimates), IDC Energy Insights Analyst Sam Jaffe doesn’t see how prices can stay as low as they are today:
Electric power production accounted for approximately 24% of overall U.S. gas consumption. Keep in mind that much of that power production is done with peaker plants, not baseload plants. The new plants that are being built are mostly combined cycle baseload plants, thus if we were to double NG-sourced electricity over the next decade, it would actually end up with a tripling of NG consumption by the power sector. That means an overall doubling (approximately) of NG demand. There’s no way that you can double demand in a product and expect its price to remain the same.
The MIT researchers who found that shale gas has a substantial impact to renewable energy argued the same thing:
But [Henry Jacoby, co-director emeritus of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change] warns, “Natural gas is a finite resource. We will eventually run into depletion and higher cost.” He adds, “It still releases greenhouse gas emissions. So if we’re going to get to a point where we strictly limit those emissions, we need renewables.”
In the meantime, however, gas prices are very low. And aside from the political freeze in Washington, this will be one of the biggest challenges for renewable energy in 2012.
However, it does say a lot that renewable energy technologies continue to nip at the heels of natural gas, even with a “revolution” underway in shale gas production.