February 14, 2009
Mark Henderson, Science Editor
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fourteen people were cited by State Police today in two separate protests against Massey Energy's mountaintop removal operations in Southern West Virginia.
Early this morning, five activists chained themselves to heavy equipment at a Massey Energy strip-mining operation near Pettus to protest the company's plans to blast apart Coal River Mountain. A sixth person at the protest identified himself as a member of the news media, but was also cited, police said.
All 14 people were given tickets for misdemeanor trespassing, said Sgt. M.T. Baylous, a spokesman for the State Police. The violation carries a fine of up to $100, according to state law.
The actions by the groups Climate Ground Zero and Appalachian Mountain Justice are part of a campaign to block Massey's mountaintop removal plans and put a windmill operation at the site instead.
At the mining site, the activists hung one banner that said, "Windmills, Not Toxic Spills" and attached windmill blades to an excavator at the Massey operation near Pettus.
"The governor and county legislators have failed to act, so we're acting for them," said one of the activists, Rory McIlmoil, who has led the Coal River Wind Project campaign.
"They shouldn't allow the wind potential on Coal River Mountain to be destroyed, and the nearby communities endangered, for only 17 years of coal," McIlmoil said. "There is a better way to develop the mountain and strengthen the local economy that will create lasting jobs and tax revenues for this county, and that's with wind power."
Massey Energy officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment this morning.
Citizen groups are opposing Massey's latest mining operation along Coal River Mountain ridges. They argue a windmill project would provide more long-term jobs without blasting apart the hilltops and burying nearby streams. In December, Coal River Mountain Watch issued a report by consulting group Downstream Strategies that concluded a wind operation in the area would provide more jobs and tax revenue than a mountaintop removal mine.
Massey officials have said if environmental groups think wind projects are such a good idea, they should buy land, obtain permits and build such projects themselves.
Gov. Joe Manchin has declined to intervene in the DEP permit reviews for the Massey operation, or to voice any public support for putting a wind project at the site instead. Last year, Manchin aides said the mining already had all of the required approvals. But it turned out that DEP had not signed off on several permit changes and authorizations. DEP has since issued those approvals, and the Sierra Club and Coal River Mountain Watch have appealed them to the state Surface Mine Board.
Previous rallies four years ago led to arrests outside Massey's Goals Coal Co. operations adjacent to an elementary school at Sundial, Raleigh County, and at Massey's headquarters in Richmond, Va. And in March 2007, 13 people were arrested after they occupied the reception area outside Manchin's office at the state Capitol to draw attention to Massey's plan to build a new coal silo near that school.
Citizen groups said today's action was also aimed at protesting Massey's plans to begin blasting at the Coal River Mountain operation, which is near the company's huge Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment.
"Massey could flood the towns of Pettus, Whitesville and Sylvester with toxic coal sludge," said Judy Bonds of Rock Creek. "Blasting at a multi-billion-gallon sludge lake over underground mines could cause the sludge to burst through and kill thousands of people."
The coal industry — which suffers from an image problem to begin with — has had a particularly rough few days. Without additional interpretation, we present a selection of articles, published over just the last 48 hours, from around the Web:
THE GREAT FALLS TRIBUNE
A Bad Week for Coal Plants in North-Central Montana
Last Thursday, the Air Force announced that it had rejected proposals to build a large coal-to-liquid-fuels plant at or near Malmstrom Air Force Base. Tuesday, Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission announced it is giving up on a proposed coal-fired power plant northeast of the city, at least for now.
THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Anti-Coal Activists Chain Themselves to Equipment at Massey Operation
Fourteen people were cited by State Police today in two separate protests against Massey Energy's mountaintop removal operations in southern West Virginia.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
W.Va. Towns With Bad Well Water Sue Coal Companies
About 250 people with orange and black water in their taps are suing eight coal companies they believe poisoned wells in two southern West Virginia communities.
Georgia Bill Proposes Moratorium on New Coal Plants
Georgia legislators introduced a bill on Tuesday that, if passed, could limit utility use of certain Appalachian coal beginning in 2011 and place a moratorium on new coal-plant construction in the state.
THE DETROIT NEWS
Michigan Governor Says No to Coal
Gov. Jennifer Granholm, in her seventh State of the State address, called Tuesday for a near-moratorium on new coal-fired power plants and a major reduction in reliance on coal for electricity generation over the next decade.
ENVIRONMENT NEWS SERVICE
Kentucky Utilities Must Spend $140M on Clean Air Settlement
The Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposed a $1.4 million civil penalty on Kentucky Utilities for violations of the Clean Air Act at a Mercer county coal-fired plant. In addition, the company is required to spend $135 million on pollution controls.
Dow Jones Newswires' Mark Peters reports:
King Coal may have been knocked to the canvas, but it hasn't been knocked out yet.
A federal appeals court Friday overturned a lower court ruling restricting the controversial coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia reversed the two-year-old decision by Judge Robert Chambers of the Southern District of West Virginia, who had ruled the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers had violated the Clean Water Act in issuing permits for four coal mines.
The case involves a mining practice in which companies shear off the tops of mountains to gain access to seams of coal. Mining companies and environmental groups have been battling in court over where the waste material is dumped and the effects of this type of mining on streams and rivers.
The case has been watched closely by producers in the region, such as Massey Energy Co., that rely on mountaintop removal for some of their output.
Friday's ruling reverses the injunction against four Army Corps of Engineers permits for subsidiaries of Massey Energy. Judge Chambers' 2007 ruling had effectively tied up several additional permit applications from coal producers.
The court's ruling confirmed the Corps of Engineers' authority to decide on the permits needed to dump the materials. The Corps' job is to balance both the Clean Water Act and other federal rules requiring a balance between the environment and the nation's need for energy.
"The Corps is attempting to harmonize the two statutes' goals: ensuring that mining operations can proceed while maintaining the highest level of water quality possible outside of the mining area," wrote Judge Roger Gregory in the majority opinion.
The fight over the future of coal, which provides about half the electricity in the U.S., has intensified in recent months. Many states are reconsidering building new coal-fired plants, given concern about the environmental impacts of mining and burning coal. That's one reason Congress is offering billions of dollars to research ways to make coal-fired plants operate more cleanly, which many environmentalists oppose.
With Friday's court ruling, the battle over coal's future is set to get even hotter.
from the February 13, 2009 edition
Washington - Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California announced this month she intends to move ahead with legislation designed to lower the emission of greenhouse gases that are linked by many scientists to climate change. But the approach she's taking is flawed, and the current financial crisis can help us understand why.
The centerpiece of this approach is the creation of a market for trading carbon emission credits. These credits would be either distributed free of charge or auctioned to major emitters of greenhouse gases. The firms could then buy and sell permits under federally mandated emissions caps. If a company is able to cut emissions, it can sell excess credits for a profit. If it needs to emit more, it can buy permits on the market from other firms.
"Cap and trade," as it is called, is advocated by several policymakers, industry leaders, and activists who want to fight global warming. But it's based on the trade of highly volatile financial instruments: risky at best.
The better approach to climate change? A direct tax placed on emissions of greenhouse gases. The tax would create a market price for carbon emissions and lead to emissions reductions or new technologies that cut greenhouse gases. This is an approach favored by many economists as the financially sensible way to go. And it is getting a closer look by some industry professionals and lawmakers.
At first blush, it might seem crazy to advocate a tax increase during a major recession. But there are several virtues of a tax on carbon emissions relative to a cap-and-trade program.
For starters, the country already has a mechanism in place to deal with taxes. Tax collection is something the government has abundant experience with. A carbon trading scheme, on the other hand, requires the creation of elaborate new markets, institutions, and regulations to oversee and enforce it.
Another relative advantage of the tax is its flexibility. It is easier to adjust the tax to adapt to changing economic, scientific, or other circumstances. If the tax is too low to be effective, it can be raised easily. If it is too burdensome it can be relaxed temporarily.
In contrast, a cap-and-trade program creates emissions permits that provide substantial economic value to firms and industries. These assets limit the program's flexibility once under way, since market actors then have an interest in maintaining the status quo to preserve the value of the assets.
What's more, they can be a recipe for trouble. As my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Ken Green, Steve Hayward, and Kevin Hassett pointed out two years ago, "sudden changes in economic conditions could lead to significant price volatility in a cap-and-trade program that would be less likely under a carbon-tax regime."
Recent experience bears this out. Europe has in place a cap-and-trade program that today looks a little like the American mortgage-backed securities market – it's a total mess. The price of carbon recently fell – plummeting from over $30 to around $12 per ton – as European firms unloaded their permits on the market in an effort to shore up deteriorating balance sheets during the credit crunch.
It is this shaky experience with cap-and-trade that might explain an unlikely advocate of a carbon tax. Earlier this year, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson pointed in a speech to the problems with Europe's cap-and-trade program – such as the program's volatility and lack of transparency – as reasons he prefers a carbon tax.
That said, new taxes are a tough sell in Washington, which helps explain the current preference for a cap-and-trade scheme.
Despite this, there are ways to make a carbon tax more politically appealing. The first is to insist that it be "revenue neutral." This means that any revenues collected from the tax are used to reduce taxes elsewhere, such as payroll taxes.
The advantage of this approach is that it places a burden on something that is believed by many to be undesirable (greenhouse-gas emissions) while relieving a burden on something that is desirable (work).
Another selling point is that the tax can justify the removal of an assortment of burdensome and costly regulations such as CAFE standards for cars. These regulations become largely redundant in an era of carbon taxes.
But it may be that a carbon tax doesn't need an elaborate sales pitch today when the alternative is trading carbon permits. The nation's recent experience with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the mortgage-backed securities market should prompt Congress to think twice when a member proposes the creation of a highly politicized market for innovative financial instruments, no matter how well intentioned the program may be.
• Nick Schulz is the DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of The American.
Minnesota's Sage Electrochromics Inc. has been ready for months to move on just the sort of project the Obama administration hopes will bolster the U.S. economy: a $65 million factory that would make energy-saving windows and generate 250 new jobs.
So what's holding it up? The Energy Department, whose fledgling loan-guarantee office has yet to approve a single project, including the proposed Sage glass factory, since the loan program launched in early 2007.
President Barack Obama plans to rely heavily on agencies like the Energy Department to approve contracts and issue loan guarantees and grants at a record clip in the $789 billion stimulus plan.
But there are signs that parts of the federal bureaucracy will need an overhaul to handle the huge workload heading their way. Such worries are apparent at the Energy Department, which will play a key role in Mr. Obama's bid to revive the economy and wean the country off oil.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, with President Barack Obama, says he plans to speed up spending at the DOE.
The stimulus bill nearing a final vote in Congress could pump as much as $170 billion into projects such as highways, Internet broadband and public-housing repairs. Of that, about a quarter -- or some $40 billion -- could go to the Energy Department. The agency would be under the gun to swiftly hand out money to projects that would modernize the electric grid, build electric cars and make homes and buildings more energy efficient.
The new energy secretary, Steven Chu, has barely moved into his office overlooking the Smithsonian Castle. He says he'll have to transform how parts of his agency work if the president's stimulus plan is to succeed.
"We've got to do it," Mr. Chu said in an interview. "Otherwise it's just going to be a bust."
Other agencies face steep challenges, too. An obscure Commerce Department office with a $19 million budget and fewer than 20 grant officers could end up in charge of $7 billion in grants to expand Internet access in rural areas. A Congressional Budget Office report said it could take eight years for those grants to be issued because the amount of money would "far exceed" the agency's traditional budget and require the deployment of technology that is "not widely available today."
The spending demands could prove particularly taxing at the DOE. The Energy Department has had limited experience pulling off big, transformative energy projects. Most of the department's $25 billion budget goes toward maintaining the nation's nuclear stockpile, cleaning up former weapons plants, and doing basic scientific research.
"DOE is going to have to dramatically change how it does business if it hopes to push all this money out the door," says Karen Harbert, a former senior Energy Department official who now directs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's lobbying efforts on energy issues. "They are going to need more people, more oversight and more freedom to waive regulations."
The department has a history of delays and of letting costs spiral. It has missed so many deadlines for setting energy-efficiency standards for appliances, for example, that Mr. Obama last week ordered the agency to get it done by August this year. The approval process for guaranteeing loans to energy projects, meanwhile, has dragged on for roughly two years and counting. And last month, the Government Accountability Office cited the agency's "inadequate management and oversight of its contractors" when it put the department on its list of agencies at "high risk" for waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement.
Gregory Friedman, the DOE's inspector general, whose office acts as the agency's in-house watchdog, knows the department's weak spots well after holding the position for more than a decade. The House version of the stimulus bill before Congress gives Mr. Friedman's office $15 million to track how all the new money coming into the DOE will be spent.
"Forty billion dollars is a huge amount of money," says Mr. Friedman of the DOE's potential windfall. "Absorbing the money, making sure it's spent appropriately and gets into the hands of the right recipients...are going to be significant challenges."
Mr. Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose last job was running the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, says one of his first priorities at the DOE is getting projects that are already in the pipeline, like the Sage glass factory, up and running. To agency employees who say such projects need months of additional consideration, "we're saying, 'Tell us what you need to do in order to get them [decided] in four weeks,'" Mr. Chu says.
Sage and more than a dozen other companies have so far labored for more than two years to win loan guarantees through a program authorized by Congress in 2005. Wary of financing projects that might default, the Bush administration took another two years to adopt regulations governing the program. Congress eventually authorized the DOE to issue $42.5 billion in loan guarantees for ventures that many lenders would otherwise consider too risky.
The program is now seen as a test of the department's ability to speed up projects that could both create jobs and help steer the country away from a reliance on oil. But the experience of some of the companies still awaiting their loan guarantees raises questions about whether the DOE will be able to radically change its ways fast enough.
Sage Electrochromics makes windows that can get darker or lighter on command, making rooms easier to cool in summer or warmer in winter. Sage first approached the Energy Department in late 2006 about securing a loan guarantee that would allow the company to build its first commercial-scale glass factory about 40 miles south of the Twin Cities in Minnesota.
In October 2007, Sage was one of 16 companies that won initial approval. The company, which is seeking a $65 million loan guarantee, is now awaiting a ruling from the DOE on whether it will have to pay a fee for the service. After that comes a due-diligence review that will require a team of lawyers, engineers and market researchers, and could cost up to $1 million, according to Sage estimates.
"I'm guessing that we will have the money by the end of the year at the earliest," says Mike Kennedy, Sage's chief financial officer. "There has to be a way to do this faster."
In Massachusetts, Beacon Power Co. has stood in line for 25 months to win approval for a $50 million loan guarantee that would let the company break ground on an electricity-storage plant about 30 miles southeast of Albany, N.Y. The plant would absorb power and feed it back onto the grid when the supply drops, a function that traditional power plants do much less efficiently.
The vetting has been so thorough, says Beacon spokesman Gene Smith, that the company to date has supplied the Energy Department with 96 documents, which together fill six thick, three-ring binders. One of the documents is a draft 87-page environmental-impact study for the proposed two-acre site. That study required Beacon to hire archaeologists to scour the site for signs of prehistoric remains. The team found a mound of debris from a century ago that was deemed of no historic value.
David Frantz, who directs the DOE's loan-guarantee program, said he couldn't comment on specific applications, but said the agency is moving to "significantly shorten the cycle time from application to loan guarantee to ensure good projects get funded quickly."
On Thursday, Andy Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy under President George W. Bush, told a Senate panel that a combination of "bureaucratic dysfunction," "organizational intransigence," and "institutional barriers" had contributed to the agency's "painfully slow" progress on loan-guarantee applications in recent years.
The Energy Department has missed deadlines and misjudged the costs of projects before. Shortly before Mr. Obama took office, the agency halted contract talks on more than $2 billion worth of energy-efficiency projects at federal buildings, after realizing belatedly that the projects' costs would exceed the limits the department had set for them. An Energy Department spokesman said the agency didn't "adequately keep track of the value of projects in the pipeline," but that most of the affected projects were still in their early stages and that the department is working to move them along "with as little disruption or delay as possible."
Mr. Chu has heard an earful about such delays. He says when it comes to loan guarantees, the level of documentation the agency requires from companies "may be too much." He says he's talking to officials at other agencies that he says have "a better track record" of getting financial aid to companies quickly. Some of those agencies' employees could be temporarily reassigned to the DOE to help it mete out funds.
His aides are also pressing the agency's lawyers and loan-guarantee managers to identify ways to speed up the process. The agency's legal department, says Mr. Chu, has been "very conservative," in waiting to vet loan-guarantee applications until after the deadline for submissions has passed, rather than "triaging" them on a "rolling" basis.
David Hill, who was the Energy Department's general counsel under President Bush, says there are reasons for the DOE to tread carefully in funding alternative-energy projects. During the 1970s, he says, the DOE made multiple loan guarantees to support the development of synthetic fuels and geothermal power, only to see many of those projects default and the projects' sponsors abandon them.
"We have to be careful to not make the same mistakes that we made before," Mr. Hill says.
Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce have called for expediting federal environmental reviews to help speed spending. Otherwise, they say, many stimulus-funded projects will be delayed for years. Environmental groups object to such proposals. "The way to ensure stimulus money is spent quickly is to fund the right initiatives, not waive solid laws," says Erin Allweis, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The frenzy of activity is unfolding as government watchdogs are warning the Energy Department not to lose sight of its traditional duties. A report in December by the agency's inspector general, Mr. Friedman, said the department still faces a "monumental task" in cleaning up the more than 1.5 million cubic meters of solid radioactive waste and 88 million gallons of radioactive liquid waste left over from more than 50 years of nuclear defense and energy research work across the country.
Another challenge: making sure money designated for states gets funneled through quickly to the people it's meant to help. A good chunk of the DOE stimulus money, around $5 billion, will flow in the form of grants to states for programs to supply insulation for homes in low-income neighborhoods. There, too, states are scrambling to prepare to handle unprecedented sums of money. Massachusetts, which is farther along than most states in weatherizing homes, expects an injection of upwards of $161 million into a program that last year spent $14 million.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican who sits on a House panel that controls the DOE's budget, worries that the scale of the stimulus will throw the agency off track. "You have a huge policy shift here of moving a bureaucracy that's been focused on research and development to being a manager of a massive amount of money," he says, calling it, "a prescription for abuse and waste."
by Damien Newton on February 13, 2009
Yesterday, transit advocates from around the state strove to grapple with the new reality that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state legislature's "compromise" on the state budget completely abolished the State Transit Assistance (STA) and the $536 million that it dedicated to subsidizing transit operations.
There are multiple villains in this story, but the blackest hat is reserved for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. While the governor was out-in-front supporting a glitzy high speed rail line to connect San Francisco to San Diego last November; this budget will cause major fare hikes and service reductions from around the state. As Joshua Shaw, executive director of the California Transit Association notes in a press release:
We will see fare increases. We will see service cuts. We will see layoffs. I can say that with certainty simply because we've already seen those things happening even before the state apparently decided to abandon its responsibility to fund public transportation.
Of course, the Governor couldn't slash transit funds without the support of the state legislature. While the League of California Environmental Voters, Environmental Defense and the National Resources Defense Council placed the blame at the feet of a "radical minority" of Republicans who used the state's super-majority requirement for any budget to effectively stall democratic efforts, other transit groups blamed the Democratic majority for not not holding firm on protecting the environment.
In the short term, readers should call their legislators and demand that transit funding be restored to the budget. In the long term, the environmental groups want to change the super-majority law so that a small group of legislators can't hijack the entire budget process.
So what does this mean locally? While Metro promised that there would be no fare hikes in the next fiscal year and their proposed service adjustments and cuts are modest compared to previous years; their current budget is balanced assuming that the agency would receive $227 million in operating assistance from the STA. Last year, the MTA proposed cuts to 20 service lines in a move that was universally panned by advocates, the local press, and even Mayor Villaraigosa as "draconian." Those cuts were proposed to close a $100 million dollar funding gap, less than half of what Metro will lose if the state eliminates the STA as currently planned. While the Mayor and the rest of the Metro Board were able to hold off on the service cuts last year, the serious cuts the proposed cuts could seem small compared to what is coming.
In short, advocates rallying to save proposed cuts on lines such as Northeast LA's "Line to Everywhere," are facing a much steeper hill today than they were earlier in the week. While the full scope of how Metro will deal with a nearly quarter billion hole in its operations budget isn't yet known, it's almost certain that the cuts they proposed before Schwarzenegger's irresponsible budgetdeal will be made and that more cuts could be coming.
On December 31st, the last ecopaper-printed issue of my eco-magazine, elephant journal, sold off the last newstands in Whole Foods and Pharmacies, etc., around the US of A. A few weeks later, Plenty, the leading 'green' magazine, went kaput. And then there was one.
One print mag that can take it into the endzone: Ben Goldhirsch's GOOD. Of course, plenty of magazines are great. But few are (mission-) driven to spread the green, lifestyle, social activism gospel in a hip, fun, not-half-as-holy-as-thou manner. So while little elephantjournal.com marches on, GOOD is already in a position--with its videos, magazine, daily blog, deep pockets and connections to put together a real nightly talk show on a real, old-fashioned TV channel.
A mainstream talk show would reach millions of Americans each night--and in so doing, do for sustainability, organics, fair-trade, social activism, conscious consumerism, yoga and non-new-agey spirituality etc. what Jon Stewart has done for politics: make it accessible to those who thought they didn't give a damn.
GOOD magazine's latest video series is stylish, and full of vital info re: what's going on with our world. Too bad they're also just on YouTube, where the sum total of all GOOD's videos, ever, might equal half of the viewership of one night of Oprah, Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, Rick Mercer, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan, Moyers, Rose, Letterman or Ferguson. Why can't the charming, smart, ambitious zillionaire Mr. Do-Goodhirsch make a few calls to a few bigwigs who want to corner the emerging green/LOHAS market...and get a green/political/social activism talk show on Planet Green or some hungry cable channel? Or why can't Arianna Huffington, with her kajillions of views each day, feature a daily video talk show in a corner of her home page? Isn't video a major driver of internet traffic--and isn't daily, original video content the one thing Huffington Post isn't acing, thus far?
Want to change the world? Media, as Lester Brown said in our recent interview, is the key. Not 'a' key. 'The.'
Won't someone create a fun, yet fundamentally serious show that can get the good word out re LOHAS [the female-driven demographic described as Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability]? Do Stewart and Oprah have to do all the heavy lifting around here? God knows we need it, and we're running out of time.
Below is the latest vid from GOOD--stylish, cool, full of good info, but slightly boring if you have a severe case of ADHD (as does most of the iPhone/Blackberry/IM'ed US). Raking in say 20- to 40,000 views (the average GOOD video), GOOD's vids won't change our cultural dialogue compared with great guests and music on a fun talk show, five nights a week. Yeah, we here at elephantjournal.com are trying, and having fun doing so, but we don't even have a publicist or agent, let alone the ability to snap our fingers and make a big-platform talk show rise out of our 5280-elevation thin air.
Photos (1 of 1)
With one foot planted in a pile of corn cobs, Mark Stowers explains how agricultural waste, transformed into ethanol, will turbocharge the US economy, boost its energy security, and help save the planet, too.
This holy grail of biofuels, called cellulosic ethanol, has been "five years from commercialization" for so long that even Dr. Stowers admits it's become a joke.
But now the research director for POET, the nation's largest ethanolmaker, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., says that despite bad economic news and major obstacles, cellulosic's time is near. Other scientists agree.
Corn-based ethanol, which many critics argue does not do enough to slow climate change, is nearing US production limits. In Washington, cellulosic ethanol is gaining political traction. And cellulosic technology seems ready for prime time – at last.
'Cellulosic ethanol is real'
The proof, Stowers says, lies inside a nearby windowless, high-roofed single-story metal building. Filled with a maze of pipes and vats, this $8 million test facility is a miniature cellulosic ethanol plant that pumps out 20,000 gallons a year of nearly clear alcohol extracted from cobs like the ones beneath his feet.
"This pilot plant shows cellulosic ethanol is real – that the technology is here," Stowers says. "Ultimately, cellulosic will allow us to make significant inroads to replacing oil for our nation's gasoline needs."
The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) calls for boosting production of biofuels to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022 – about 15 billion gallons of it corn ethanol, the rest cellulosic. (By contrast, the US produced about 9 billion gallons of corn ethanol last year.) That would replace about one-fifth of the nation's gasoline needs without displacing current crops.
But looking forward, biofuels could play a far larger role. By 2030, biofuels may reach 60 billion gallons, according to a new report released Feb. 10 by Sandia National Laboratory. That would require 480 million tons of biomass, including 215 million tons of dedicated energy crops like switchgrass. Such fuel crops would require 48 million acres of what is now pasture or idle land, the report says.
Such a shift would slash annual US tailpipe carbon dioxide emissions by 260 million tons a year – about equal to the emissions from 45 coal-fired power plants. Cellulosic ethanol feedstock crops would require little or no irrigation, a big advantage over corn. The cost: about $250 billion, the same or less than that of boosting US oil production by the same amount.
One-third of nation's needs by 2030?
With a few key technology improvements, the United States could do even better, creating up to 90 billion gallons of ethanol by 2030, enough to meet one-third of the nation's transportation fuel needs, Sandia found. In that scenario, about 75 billion gallons would be cellulosic fuel. Just 15 billion gallons a year would come from corn, the report said.
Getting there will be a huge challenge. The handful of pilot cellulosic plants in the US produce maybe 1 million gallons a year. Production would have to be ramped up a thousandfold to meet the 2013 federal goal of 1 billion gallons. That seems unlikely, given the economy's tailspin.
Of the six commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel plants funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE), two have bowed out. Another smaller-scale project supported by DOE, a partnership between Lignol Energy of Vancouver and Calgary-based Suncor, withdrew Feb. 9.
Not on track at the moment
As of right now, "we're not on track" to produce 1 billion gallons of biofuel annually by 2013, says Thomas Foust, biomass technology manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. "Obviously, the credit crunch and recession have put dampers on and delayed commercial plants. But a number of companies are still pursuing it very vigorously. We're doing the same."
Next year, the POET company will begin construction of its first 25-million-gallon commercial-scale cellulosic plant dubbed "Liberty" in Emmetsburg, Iowa, Stowers says.
The DOE is paying for 40 percent of the $200 million facility, expected to open in 2011. After that, POET plans to "bolt on" similar corn-cob-munching cellulosic factories at its 26 conventional corn-based ethanol production facilities, he says.
Not to be outdone, Range Fuels, a Broomfield, Colo., company, last month won an $80 million loan guarantee from the US Department of Agriculture for the nation's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, now under construction in Soperton, Ga. It aims to begin production next year.
'Blend wall' may crimp ethanol
To succeed, cellulosic will have to buck not only low oil prices, the credit crunch, and recession, but also uncertain demand – thanks to the "blend wall."
The RFS today requires refiners to blend into gasoline about 14 billion gallons of ethanol – about 10 percent of US gasoline consumption. But with ethanol production capacity near that level now, cellulosic producers may not find many buyers – unless the national blend mandate for ethanol is raised to 15 percent or higher, which is what ethanol producers and farmers would like.
"The blend wall has a huge potential impact on cellulosic ethanol development," Foust says. "The No. 1 issue is a stagnant economy. But next to that, the issue that won't resolve itself is the blend wall."
Some environmental groups worry that this means traditional corn-based ethanol will benefit more than environmentally friendly cellulosic. Others say older vehicles' emissions systems will be damaged by a higher percentage of alcohol in fuel, thus worsening air pollution.
Low oil prices hurt ethanol
"We can't afford to play fast and loose with Clean Air Act protections," says Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental activist group.
Another huge hurdle is cost-competitiveness. Cellulosic ethanol requires a more complex process that uses costly enzymes. At present, a gallon of cellulosic ethanol costs about $2.25 a gallon to produce: That's 40 to 50 cents more than corn ethanol and 75 cents more than gasoline. But under Sandia's projections, cellulosic ethanol's retail cost could fall to just $1.72 a gallon without any incentives or taxes and still be competitive with gasoline – if oil costs $90 per barrel.
But with a barrel of crude now selling for roughly $40, it's difficult for cellulosic or even corn ethanol to compete. Still, POET, Foust, and others are looking ahead to when the global economy stabilizes and oil bounces back to around $90 a barrel.
Economy's long shadow hurts, too
Recession and the credit crunch are the deepest shadows over cellulosic development, Foust says. Of the 20 or so investment banks that financed billions in corn-ethanol development over the past decade, only five are still in business. And with oil cheap and ethanol demand weak, investor appetite for more ethanol production is tepid.
That may change. The new stimulus bill has $500 million allocated for the development of "leading edge biofuels."
Besides economics, critical environmental concerns remain. Key among them: Which method is the most environmentally friendly?
Environmentalists like Mr. Greene aren't eager to support cellulosic ethanol unless it can be proved that the impact from its development – including US and EU policies – is a clear plus for the environment.
Larger climate impact must be weighed
By law, "advanced biofuels" like cellulosic ethanol must be certified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as producing at least 60 percent less greenhouse gas than gasoline does. Mr. Stowers and others are optimistic that that's a slam-dunk.
But what about the climatic impact of biofuels as the result of crop shifts and land-use change worldwide? What would be the impact if farmers plow under marginal grasslands and forests to grow switchgrass? How much agricultural waste can be collected from farm fields before the result is more erosion?
The land-use question over corn-based ethanol has fired debate since last summer, when one study found diversion of US corn production for fuel had cut US corn exports. That, in turn, caused developing nations to plant more corn, a shift that may have negated the advantage of corn ethanol over gasoline in terms of its overall impact on global warming.
Now the same debate is likely to erupt for cellulosic ethanol, not only for its potential effect on food prices but also its net impact on climate.
Food crops vs. fuel crops
"One of the points often made in favor of cellulosic ethanols," says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental activist group, "is that the feedstocks for it, like switchgrass, would be grown on marginal land. But if it is that profitable on marginal land, imagine how profitable it would be on prime crop land. There's nothing to stop it from happening."
The EPA, charged with evaluating the carbon footprint of cellulosic ethanol to determine if it meets the 60 percent threshold, has done a preliminary land-use impact evaluation. But those tentative results haven't been released because the methodology is being refined, experts say.
"Indirect land-use impacts is a new analysis area that's very tough, from a modeling and data point of view," says Wallace Tyner, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "But we're making progress. Within the next year we are going to narrow the bounds considerably."
Getting ethanol feedstock right is key
All of this leaves NRDC's Greene wanting government to take a slower, closer look at potential cellulosic feedstocks like switchgrass, miscanthus, poplar, and other crops in order to get federal policy toward cellulosic right from the start.
"The refining technology is obviously a challenge that will succumb to American innovation," he says. "But getting the feedstock right is key. If we mow down corn to put in switchgrass, well, you've got that food versus fuel trade-off again."
Harvesting agriculture "wastes" for biofuels also raises critical questions and needs closer analysis. POET, for instance, gets high marks from Greene for its careful evaluation of the impact of removing corn cobs from farm fields, which the company and others say appears to deduct only about 2 to 3 percent of the nutrients.
Even so, it turns out most corn stover – which is everything but the corn kernel (stalk, leaves, and cobs) – is badly needed for soil enrichment and to prevent erosion.
Crop waste helps fields, too
"A portion of the [corn] stover can be made available as feedstock for bioenergy purposes," say Douglas Karlen, research leader for soil and water quality at the National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.
Harvesters would have to be outfitted with software to gauge exactly how much corn stover was taken from the field, he says.
"There's not a blanket or uniform amount," Dr. Karlen says. "It has to vary not only by farm, but within an individual field. The amount taken has to vary because the land varies."
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Four more rounds of formal negotiations are scheduled before the Dec 7-18 talks in Copenhagen. These are June 1-12 in Bonn, Germany; Aug 10-14 in Bonn; Sept 28 to Oct 9 in Bangkok; and Nov 2-6, at a venue yet to be decided.In addition, heads of state and government will gather in September at a U.N. climate change summit in New York and President Obama will host a major economies forum on the sidelines of the G8 in Italy in July. Two other meetings convened by the United States will take place, one probably 26-27 May in Paris and another in June.