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Cautionary tales amid the latest coal revival

Joseph N. DiStefano, Philiadelphia Inquirer
Two views about bituminous and anthracite energy sources explore the deep costs to humans and the environment.
Big Coal: The Dirty Secret BehindAmerica’s Energy Future
By Jeff Goodell

The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century
By Thomas Dublin and Walter Licht

The United States may be, as energy lobbyists and Mountain State governors like to say, “the Saudi Arabia of coal.”

But who wants to live in a desert?

Jeff Goodell sketches the economic and social costs of coal mining and coal burning, as the industry enjoys one of its periodic revivals thanks to record oil prices.

Goodell’s previous books, such as The Cyberthief and the Samurai and Sunnyvale, offer broad social history through well-turned stories and sharply drawn characters.

Big Coal is laid out more like one of Goodell’s long magazine articles. The first section takes readers to “coal colonies” in Wyoming and West Virginia, showing raw scenes that will shock anyone who takes indoor heat and light for granted. Next, Goodell explains the revival of coal as a generator fuel by politically savvy operators. Finally, he traces the sharply rising use of coal in China and other countries and its impact on air and water.

…Yet there’s nothing inevitable about any particular source of energy. In The Face of Decline, two labor historians, State University of New York-Binghamton’s Thomas Dublin and the University of Pennsylvania’s Walter Licht, write of the failure of Pennsylvania leaders and communities to cope with the collapse of a rich, productive, once-ubiquitous energy source – anthracite, or hard coal, found only under the ancient mountain ridges that stretch from north of Harrisburg past Scranton.

What’s not to like about a hard, beautiful rock that – unlike the bituminous coal in use today – burns hot and clean? Anthracite was the fuel of choice for home and industry in the urban East from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.
(2 July 2006)

Gas companies on ‘treadmill’ of demand

Joe Hanel, Durango Herald (Colorado)
IGNACIO – Colorado Highway 172 cuts through a typical southwestern landscape of gentle hills and piñon stands as it winds southeast from Durango. The land is an unlikely source of national wealth and prosperity.

But a quarter mile or more under the earth lies the natural gas of the San Juan Basin, the best gas field in the country. For now.

“You can think of the giant gas fields as a national treasure – the energy equivalent of the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park,” said Randy Udall of Aspen, who is on the board of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA.

For years, the San Juan Basin has been a sort of Old Faithful for the gas industry. It produces almost as much gas every year as the next five biggest fields combined, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. La Plata County alone produces more than 2 percent of the natural gas used in the United States.

Americans use the gas found here when they turn on a light, grill steaks on the barbecue, ride a city bus, turn up the heat in the winter or eat food grown with fertilizer.

But the gas that once came out like a geyser isn’t spouting so high anymore. The average production per well in La Plata County dropped 10 percent from 2003 to 2005, according to a computer analysis of state records by The Durango Herald.

“It’s a big deal when a great field like the San Juan Basin starts getting gray hair. It’s a significant turning point,” Udall said.
(2 July 2006)

Kuwaiti experts predict steady rise in oil prices

Kuwaitt Times
Several economics experts yesterday said they expected oil prices to continue to rise through the second half of this year and to remain above the $50 mark per barrel due to increased worldwide demand for oil and due to the fact that not enough oil was on offer.

Most of the experts interviewed blamed the continued oil price increases on geo-political factors as well as the tough conditions imposed by some countries on oil refineries.
Kuwait’s representative in the Opec, Nawal Al-Fzeih said she expected oil prices to remain above the $50 mark throughout the second half of this year.

…The total value of the crude oil exports in the oil producing Arab states and members of the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (Oapec) reached $327.4 billion in 2005, which is a $99 billion increase compared to 2004.

…Regarding the oil and energy consumption in the Arab states, Oapec said that the consumption increased by 5.6 per cent reaching 8.1 million bpd in 2005 compared to 7.6 million bpd in 2004.

According to the report, the energy consumption in the Arab states is influenced by several factors, namely the tangible increase in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which rose by 15.8 per cent reaching $870 billion in 2004 and played an important role in the energy consumption in 2005.

It added that this major leap in the GDP is mainly due to the increase in the oil national production, which also resulted in the increase of the oil revenues that have a major impact on the economic development especially in the oil producing Arab states.

The demographic factor also has an influence on energy production in the Arab states, where the population increased by 2.1 per cent in 2005 to reach about 312 million people, out of which 200 million (64.1 per cent) live in the Oapec member states.
(2 July 2006)

The False Hope of Biofuels
For Energy and Environmental Reasons, Ethanol Will Never Replace Gasoline

James Jordan and James Powell, Washington Post
Biofuels such as ethanol made from corn, sugar cane, switchgrass and other crops are being touted as a “green” solution for a large part of America’s transportation problem. Auto manufacturers, Midwest corn farmers and politicians are excited about ethanol. Initially, we, too, were excited about biofuels: no net carbon dioxide emissions, reduction of oil imports. Who wouldn’t be enthusiastic?

But as we’ve looked at biofuels more closely, we’ve concluded that they’re not a practical long-term solution to our need for transport fuels. Even if all of the 300 million acres (500,000 square miles) of currently harvested U.S. cropland produced ethanol, it wouldn’t supply all of the gasoline and diesel fuel we now burn for transport, and it would supply only about half of the needs for the year 2025. And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.

It’s difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addiction. Agriculture Department studies of ethanol production from corn — the present U.S. process for ethanol fuel — find that an acre of corn yields about 139 bushels. At an average of about 2.5 gallons per bushel, the acre then will yield about 350 gallons of ethanol. But the fuel value of ethanol is only about two-thirds that of gasoline — 1.5 gallons of ethanol in the tank equals 1 gallon of gasoline in terms of energy output.

Moreover, it takes a lot of input energy to produce ethanol: for fertilizer, harvesting, transport, corn processing, etc. After subtracting this input, the net positive energy available is less than half of the figure cited above. Some researchers even claim that the net energy of ethanol is actually negative when all inputs are included — it takes more energy to make ethanol than one gets out of it.

The writers are research professors in Maglev Research Center at Polytechnic University of New York.
(2 July 2006)
A much better analysis than one usually encounters in the media. The authors don’t seem to have a hidden agenda. They explain the scientific issues clearly without getting lost in jargon and details. Please, WaPo, more of the same! -BA

Report: Malaysia Suspends Biodiesel Effort

Associated Press via Houston Chronicle
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia has suspended giving new licenses for biodiesel production projects amid concerns that an excess of projects could deprive the food market of palm oil, widely used in cooking, a report said Monday.

Malaysia is the world’s biggest producer of crude palm oil, the main ingredient of biodiesel. Spurred by the interest in the fuel, touted as a cheaper substitute for gasoline and diesel, the government has so far approved 32 biodiesel projects with a combined production capacity of about 3 million tons.

But it announced last week that it will stop issuing licenses for new biodiesel manufacturing projects until it completes a study of the palm oil downstream industry, the New Straits Times reported. It didn’t say when it expects to complete the study.

The Times quoted Malaysian Palm Oil Council chief executive Yusof Basiron as saying that the freeze on new projects was largely due to a surge in the number of applications for biodiesel production.

The government received 87 applications since last year, raising concerns that it could eat into crude palm oil, or CPO, reserves meant for food and oleochemical industries, he said.
(3 July 2006)

Helping Air Force blue turn green
AF Civil Engineer Support Agency, U.S. Air Force
The Air Force is known for its high-tech assets, but the service is starting to garner attention for high-tech solutions bases are using to help reduce energy costs. We spend more than $1.2 billion a year on facility energy and fuel for our ground fleet.

To help reduce these costs, we have begun investing in advanced energy technologies like wind and solar to lower the cost of heating and cooling buildings, and hydrogen and renewable energy sources to operate our ground vehicles and equipment. While some of these programs are in their infancy and savings have just started to be realized, others are fully mature and have already proven successful at helping us meet our energy goals and save taxpayer dollars.

We began exploring alternative fuel choices as early as 1990 as congressional and presidential mandates directed federal agencies to further increase energy conservation efforts. Although we had achieved measurable success with “traditional” methods of conservation, the new mandates encouraged our energy managers to begin looking to the alternative fuels industry for ways to do even better.

Initially, most alternative fuels were cost-prohibitive, but as the industry grew and its customer base expanded, prices became comparable to—and, in some cases, lower than—traditional petroleum-based energy sources.

In a few short years, the Air Force has become a leading purchaser of renewable facility energy and we have made major inroads in bringing more alternative-powered ground vehicles and equipment into the inventory.

But there’s more to do as our energy management teams continue to look for ways to help Air Force blue turn green.
(July 2006)
Nice looking 12-page brochure. The U.S. military seems to be more serious about energy than other parts of the U.S. government. -BA