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Stephanie Cohen

New Atlantis blogger Stephanie Cohen is a journalist who covers energy and environmental issues for a wide range of print and online publications. She can be reached at scohen@thenewatlantis.com.
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Stephanie Cohen’s Latest New Atlantis Articles

 Energy Incrementalism” (Spring 2006)

 Energy Dreams and Energy Realities” (Spring 2004)

 

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Power Politics

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Surprising support for offshore drilling 

Record oil prices are leading energy companies and American consumers to support oil and natural gas exploration off the Florida coast. Even politicians who were wary of the political risks of supporting drilling are jumping on the bandwagon. According to the Associated Press:

In Florida, movement was underway even before President Bush called on Congress last month to lift a federal moratorium that’s barred new offshore drilling since 1981.

The early activity here stems from a 2006 Congressional compromise that allows drilling on 8.3 million acres more than 125 miles off the Panhandle — an area that had been covered by the moratorium, which was enacted out of environmental concerns. In exchange, the state got a no-drilling buffer along the rest of its beaches.

Florida may turn out to be a prelude for other coastal states....

With gas topping $4 a gallon, recent polls show Americans, Floridians included, more supportive of drilling in protected areas. Some politicians — including Gov. Charlie Crist — have switched sides.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 10:03 am
File As: Gas and Oil Prices, Energy Politics

Monday, July 7, 2008

Energy Predictions 

Former Bill Clinton campaign advisor Ron Klain predicts in the New York Times that “If gas is still more than $4 a gallon on Election Day, there is no way a Republican will continue to control the White House.”

The Wall Street Journal has an editorial that says it’s Democrats who “are in a vise this summer, pinned on one side by voter anger over $4 gas and on the other by their ideological opposition to carbon-based energy.” The editorial sees growing support for offshore drilling.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 4:46 pm
File As: Gas and Oil Prices, Energy Politics

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Out of the wilderness and back into the wild 

Stalled solar projects heading back to federal lands

The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced this week that it will resume accepting applications for solar development on public lands. The decision comes after a month-long halt to the agency’s solar program after critics raised concerns about the environmental and economic impacts on six western states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah).

The agency said its decision to start processing solar project applications again will allow it to continue to “accept and process new applications for solar energy projects,” and “aggressively help meet growing interest in renewable energy sources.”

BLM has received 125 applications for solar projects on federal lands and expects more now that it has reopened the program.

In total, BLM manages 258 million surface acres located across a dozen western states, including Alaska. Here is a great map of concentrating collector solar resources on BLM lands and another map of tilted photovoltaic panel solar resources on BLM lands.

The solar industry appreciated this week’s news but said it doesn’t go far enough. “While we applaud today’s announcement, BLM has only resolved half the problem,” the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) said.“They have yet to approve a single solar energy project.Expediting the permitting process is the next step in developing solar energy projects on federal lands.”

According to the BLM’s estimates, more than 20 million American homes could be powered by the more than 100 projects that have been stalled during the review, SEIA said.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 2:26 pm
File As: Energy Policy

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Cashing In 

The Wall Street Journal looks at landowners who are picking up cash in exchange for granting production companies the right to drill on their property. Some companies are targeting landowners in economically depressed areas, who find the leasing payments hard to refuse despite concerns about the impact of drilling (namely, water supplies and potential contamination):

In the current economic squeeze, financial opportunity is outweighing environmental issues for people swept up in a land grab by energy companies targeting gas reserves thousands of feet beneath people’s properties.

Companies eager to secure rights to drill into a deep stratum of shale known as the Marcellus deposit are paying as much as $2,500 an acre, or more, in some parts of the state, up from $25 an acre a year and a half ago, for five-year leases. Meanwhile, royalty rates, which are paid once production starts and could eventually lead to far greater income for mineral-rights owners, have risen to 18% of production revenue in some cases, compared with the state-mandated minimum of 12.5%.

In many cases, energy companies are targeting rural areas that have been depressed for years. "These payments are a real godsend to these people," says Tim Considine, a professor of natural-resource economics at Pennsylvania State University...

The big environmental issue is water. Large amounts of pressurized water are needed to fracture rock thousands of feet underground. Once the rocks are free, the gas can flow to the wells. Not only will more of the state’s water be channeled to mining, but some people worry the process could also contaminate wells or parts of the state’s aquifer. Last month, officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources shut two new natural-gas wells in the absence of permits to extract water from local streams.

It’s a fascinating article; read the whole thing. And to learn more about Marcellus shale, click here.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 4:46 pm

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Biofuels’ latest opponent: the weather 

The New York Times reports on the weather’s impact on crops grown for fuel. The piece takes a look, of course, at the recent floods in the Midwest that may devastate some farmers’ yields. Crops, it turns out, are as vulnerable as oil rigs during a Gulf hurricane. Some of the corn wiped out this year was headed to refineries to be blended with gasoline. The article argues that using food for fuel creates a “new economic hazard”:

As America grows more reliant on corn for its fuel supply, it is becoming vulnerable to the many hazards that can damage crops, ranging from droughts to plagues to storms...

We are holding ourselves hostage to the weather,” said John M. Reilly, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an ethanol expert. “Agricultural markets are subject to wide variability and big price spikes, just like oil markets.”

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 3:38 pm
File As: Biofuels

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Blaming Oil 

The Wall Street Journal’s Buzzwatch blog looks at 50 Things Being Blamed on Rising Oil Prices, gathering together newspaper reporting that links high oil prices to cutbacks in school field trips, airline layoffs, the rising price of tires, gas theft, and on and on...

Meanwhile, the cover story of the latest issue of the New Scientist is titled “Oil Shock: The real crisis has yet to hit.” More likely “than ever before,” the article says, is the possibility of “economic catastrophe ... triggered next time there is a glitch in the world's oil supply.” The article can be read online here.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 3:24 pm
File As: Gas and Oil Prices

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Energy Reading 

Speculators, Pension Funds, McCain, and Ducks

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 4:28 pm
File As: Energy Policy, Biofuels, Energy Politics

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Expanding a refinery in Michigan 

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced last week that it has approved a permit for Marathon Oil Corp. to begin a $1.9 billion expansion of a Detroit refinery. Marathon agreed to install, operate, and maintain at least four air monitoring stations located in and around the refinery to chart emissions. Marathon plans to install equipment that will enable the refinery to process a new source of crude oil -- “heavy oil” from Canadian tar sands -- and increase capacity by about 15 percent.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 4:26 pm
File As: Business of Energy

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Former Ag economist delivers report on biofuel, food prices 

Keith Collins, former chief economist for the Department of Agriculture (he stepped down in January 2008), has waded into the ethanol food-versus-fuel debate with a new report commissioned by Kraft Foods Global, Inc. The report is titled “The Role of Biofuels and Other Factors in Increasing Farm and Food Prices: A Review of Recent Developments with a Focus on Feed Grain Markets and Market Prospects.” (It’s available here in PDF format.) Kraft has faced higher dairy and animal feed costs this year, which are used to make Kraft food products.

Collins, an economist, concludes that “Many factors are contributing to higher farm-level and retail food prices.” Collins lists seven factors:

  • strong global economic growth (which thereby increases demand for U.S. commodities),
  • the declining value of the dollar (“although recent real trade-weighted exchange rates suggest that the weakened dollar has been less important to corn and other key crops”),
  • reduced supplies of some crops (like wheat and rice, due to adverse global weather),
  • higher energy prices that have increased farm production costs and food processing and distribution costs,
  • changing foreign agricultural policies that insulate countries from higher global prices,
  • increased investment by index funds and other managed investments that probably have increased price volatility but are not likely to have sustained effects,
  • biofuels (“particularly corn-based ethanol”).

About biofuels, Collins says they have been “a major factor for feed grain and livestock markets, with corn used in ethanol rising from 2.1 billion bushels in 2006/07 to an expected 4.0 billion in 2008/09.”

Key points made by Collins in the report:

  • The index of prices received by farmers for all farm products increased by 34 percent over the period January 2006 through May 2008. The index of prices received for feed grains and hay, led by surging corn prices, increased by 144 percent over that period.
     
  • The expected increase in corn used as a feedstock in ethanol plants from 2006/07 to 2008/09 is equivalent to the production of corn on about 12 million acres. The increase in corn demand due to ethanol is rising faster than growth in corn yields per acre. So long as that situation continues, corn will have to attract acreage from other crops to meet its expanding demand. This shift will mean higher prices for all crops that compete, directly or indirectly, for acreage with corn.
     
  • Ethanol drivers. There are two important factors that have increased the price of ethanol. First, high crude oil prices and correspondingly-high gasoline prices have helped establish the current level of ethanol capacity. Second, Federal biofuels policies are encouraging continued ethanol production even with record-high and steadily rising corn prices. The ethanol tariff limits U.S. access of foreign supplies; the tax credit enables ethanol producers to pay the equivalent of up to $1.43 more per bushel for corn used as feedstock; and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) mandates steady, undeviating annual increases in ethanol demand.
     
  • The increase in farm-level prices has contributed to higher retail food prices, which were up 6.9 percent at a seasonally-adjusted annual rate during the first 4 months of 2008. This increase compared with a 4.9 percent increase during 2007.... Higher energy prices, overall inflation, and biofuels are major contributors to recent food price increases. This latter factor – biofuels – is likely to have more of an impact over the next few years as meat production slows due to higher feed costs.

The entire report can be found here.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 4:23 pm
File As: Biofuels

Monday, June 23, 2008

McCain’s Energy Plan 

A Battery Prize, Reduced Car Emissions, and a Flex-Fuel Mandate

Republican presidential nominee John McCain sees building a more energy-efficient car battery as central to reducing U.S. energy consumption. He announced Monday that, as president, he would establish a $300 million prize for anyone who creates a battery that can be used with plug-in hybrid car, the type of cars U.S. automakers are currently trying to develop:

[I]n the quest for alternatives to oil, our government has thrown around enough money subsidizing special interests and excusing failure. From now on, we will encourage heroic efforts in engineering, and we will reward the greatest success.

I further propose we inspire the ingenuity and resolve of the American people by offering a $300 million prize for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars. This is one dollar for every man, woman and child in the U.S. -- a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency -- and should deliver a power source at 30 percent of the current costs.

(Related: This month, the heads of Ford and GM spoke in Washington at a conference and outlined what they need from Washington to make plug-in hybrids a reality for American consumers.)

McCain also wants to give “substantial” new incentives to carmakers to reduce CO2 emissions:

My administration will issue a Clean Car Challenge to the automakers of America, in the form of a single and substantial tax credit based on the reduction of carbon emissions. For every automaker who can sell a zero-emissions car, we will commit a 5,000 dollar tax credit for each and every customer who buys that car. For other vehicles, whatever type they may be, the lower the carbon emissions, the higher the tax credit. And these large tax credits will be available to everyone -- not just to those who have an accountant to explain it to them.

And he announced his support for the flex-fuel vehicle mandate that New Atlantis contributing editor Robert Zubrin has proposed:

Instead of playing favorites, our government should level the playing field for all alcohol fuels that break the monopoly of gasoline, lowering both gasoline prices and carbon emissions. And this can be done with a simple federal standard to hasten the conversion of all new vehicles in America to flex-fuel technology -- allowing drivers to use alcohol fuels instead of gas in their cars. Brazil went from about five to over 70 percent of all new vehicles with flex-fuel capacity. It did all that in just three years. Yet those same automakers that helped Brazil make the change say it will take them longer to reach the goal of 50 percent new flex-fuel vehicles for America. But I am confident they can do more, and do it faster, in the interest of our energy security. And if I am elected president, they will. Whether it takes a meeting with automakers during my first month in office, or my signature on an act of Congress, we will meet the goal of a swift conversion of American vehicles away from oil.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 5:23 pm
File As: Energy Policy, Biofuels, Energy Politics

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