Ecocentric

America’s Oil Boom Won’t Make It Energy-Independent From Middle East Madness

If the U.S. does strike Syria, the price of oil — already at $115 and rising in the Brent index, largely because of political disruptions in Libya, a major producer — is likely to spike. It’s not that Syria is a major oil producer — even before the war its exports were modest by Middle East standards, and now the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad can manage just 50,000 barrels a day, barely 5% of what tiny Oman can pump. But even limited strikes would raise fears that the civil conflict in Syria could spread, inviting retaliatory action against Israel, moves by Assad’s ally Iran and disruptive protests in Middle Eastern countries that actually do produce a lot of oil. Fear alone would likely be enough to raise the price of oil above $120 a barrel, and if any of those scenarios actually came true, we might see crude beat the record $147 per barrel reached in 2008. Should that come to pass, the International Energy Agency would likely coordinate releases from national petroleum reserves to increase global supply and bring down prices somewhat, just as it did during the Libyan civil conflict in 2011. Nonetheless, U.S. drivers, currently paying an average of $3.61 a gallon, would be hit hard at the pump But wait a minute. The U.S. is in the midst of a boom in domestic oil production, thanks largely to new unconventional reserves in North Dakota and Texas, even as oil demand has fallen thanks to improving energy efficiency (and a still sluggish economy). The U.S. now imports 36% of the oil it uses, down from 60% in 2006. With U.S. oil production projected to increase by 28% between 2011 and 2014, according to the Energy Information Administration, and tougher CAFE fuel standards forcing more-efficient cars and trucks, oil imports will likely keep dropping in the years to come. The U.S. — or at least larger North America — could finally achieve something that politicians on both sides of the aisle have been chasing for decades: energy independence. Finally

As Obama Visits Upstate New York, the Fracking Debate Takes Center Stage

President Obama is planning to tout his education plan when he visits upstate New York this week, beginning with an appearance in Buffalo today—but much of his audience is likely to be interested in only one subject: fracking. Obama has, for the most part, been in favor of using fracking—more properly known as hydraulic fracturing—to exploit the country’s huge resources of shale natural gas. In his 2012 State of the Union speech, Obama pledged to “take every possible action to safely develop” natural gas, promising that shale gas would add hundreds of thousands of jobs to the economy. And he’s been true to his word—the U.S. produced in 2012 8.13 trillion cubic ft. of natural gas from shale deposits, which requires fracking, nearly double the total from 2010, and the Energy Information Administration projects that by 2030 that figure could pass 14 trillion cubic ft. While the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department are working on possibly stronger new national regulations of fracking, for the most part the natural gas industry has had its way under Obama. He may not have intended it when he entered the White House in 2009, but Obama really has been America’s “driller-in-chief.“ That’s exactly why protesters are likely to be out in force tomorrow in Buffalo, and even more so when Obama continues his visit to Binghamton, NY. Fracking remains controversial throughout the U.S., thanks to concerns over potential water contamination and pollution from wells, as well as fears that the new supplies of natural gas will bind the country more permanently to carbon-heavy fossil fuels. Ground zero for that emotional debate is New York state, which has both a massive potential reserve of shale gas and a determined community of environmentalists and activists working to ensure that fracking never happens in the Empire State. “We’re going to be present in Binghamton by the hundreds, if not the thousands,” Walter Hang, the head of Ithaca-based Toxic Targeting, told WNYC. (MORE: The War Over Fracking Comes to the English Countryside) In New York so far, environmentalists have

The War Over Fracking Comes to the English Countryside

It may seem like an unlikely place, but the quintessentially English village of Balcombe in the southeastern county of Sussex, has become the scene of an emotional war over fracking. More than a thousand activists have descended on this rural community over the past few weeks, protesting against the exploratory oil drilling that is currently taking place in the lush green countryside on the outskirts of Balcombe. Fracking — or, as it is properly known, hydraulic fracturing — involves pumping a mix of water and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to fracture the rocks and release oil or natural gas that’s trapped inside. While fracking has become widespread in the U.S., where 25,000 new fracked wells are being drilled every year, it has become a major environmental controversy in Britain. Although British Prime Minister David Cameron has lauded its potential economic benefits — which he says will include lower energy bills and thousands of new jobs — environmentalists and activists have voiced worries about water contamination, seismic tremors and the industrialization of Britain’s venerable countryside. (MORE: Amid Economic and Safety Concerns, Nuclear Advocates Pin Their Hopes on New Designs) For all the noise, no shale gas has yet been commercially produced onshore in Britain, but exploratory drilling for gas and oil has been under way across the country since 2011, apart from an unofficial suspension between June 2011 and April 2012 after the process was widely blamed for triggering two minor earthquakes. The protests against fracking in Balcombe, which began on July 25, were given a renewed injection of energy over the weekend with the launch of a high-profile protest camp, initiated by U.K. environmental group No Dash for Gas. In addition to causing the energy firm Cuadrilla to temporarily suspend its test drilling program for six days (from Aug. 16 onward), the campaign culminated in direct action on Aug. 19, with 20 protesters blockading Cuadrilla’s headquarters in Staffordshire, six activists gluing themselves to the glass door of the central London offices of Cuadrilla’s p.r. company and 200

The Surprisingly Large Energy Footprint of the Digital Economy [UPDATE]

Which uses more electricity: the iPhone in your pocket, or the refrigerator humming in your kitchen? Hard as it might be to believe, the answer is probably the iPhone. As you can read in a post on a new report by Mark Mills — the CEO of the Digital Power Group, a tech- and investment-advisory firm — a medium-size refrigerator that qualifies for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating will use about 322 kW-h a year. The average iPhone, according to Mills’ calculations, uses about 361 kW-h a year once the wireless connections, data usage and battery charging are tallied up. And the iPhone — even the latest iteration — doesn’t even keep your beer cold. (Hat tip to the Breakthrough Institute for noting the report first.) [UPDATE: You can see the calculations behind the specific iPhone comparison, which was done by Max Luke of the Breakthrough Institute, at the bottom of the post. It's important to note that the amount of energy used by any smartphone will vary widely depending on how much wireless data the device is using, as well as the amount of power consumed in making those wireless connections—estimates for which vary. The above examples assumes a relatively heavy use of 1.58 GB a month—a figure taken from a survey of Verizon iPhone users last year. (Details at bottom of post.) That accounts for the high-end estimate of the total power the phone would be consuming over the course of a year. NPD Connected Intelligence, by contrast, estimates that the average smartphone is using about 1 GB of cellular data a month, and in the same survey that reported high data use from Verizon iPhone users, T-Mobile iPhone users reported just 0.19 GB of data use a month—though that's much lower than any other service. Beyond the amount of wireless data being streamed, total energy consumption also depends on estimates of how much energy is consumed per GB of data. The top example assumes that every GB burns through 19 kW of electricity. That would be close  to

Amid Economic and Safety Concerns, Nuclear Advocates Pin Their Hopes on New Designs

For 28-year-old Leslie Dewan — and for a growing number of other young scientists interested in energy — nuclear energy isn’t about meltdowns and catastrophe. They see atomic power not as an existential threat to the planet but instead as the best way to save it, and they’re trying to revive the stalled industry with next-generation reactor designs that could change the way a skeptical public views atomic energy. Dewan just finished her doctorate* in nuclear engineering at MIT, and in her spare time she co-founded a start-up called Transatomic Power, which has plans to build a safer and cheaper nuclear reactor, one that couldn’t melt down like the older plants at Chernobyl or Fukushima. “I’ve always been concerned about global warming,” she says. “It seemed to me like working in nuclear power was a logical way to do something to help the environment.” But the nuclear industry today faces major challenges. Yes, there are scores of nuclear reactors being built around the world — including in the U.S., where new construction ceased for more than three decades beginning in the mid-1970s. But existing nuclear plants are being shut down out of concern for safety and cost. Germany has already announced that it will be phasing out all of its atomic plants over the next decade, and the U.S. has seen plants close early — including the San Onofre nuclear plant in southern California, which is being decommissioned because of equipment failure. The Fukushima disaster — while unlikely to have a measurable health effect — could cost more than $100 billion to clean up. This past weekend brought news of a scandal in South Korea over faked safety tests and bribes at nuclear plants. Last week Duke Energy shelved a planned new plant in Florida because of licensing problems and concerns about cost recovery. With fracking keeping the cost of natural gas so low, any new nuclear plant faces both economic and safety headwinds. (MORE: Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?) So if nuclear is going