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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 Cohenís Latest New Atlantis Articles

 Energy Incrementalism” (Spring 2006)

 Energy Dreams and Energy Realities” (Spring 2004)


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Power Politics

Monday, June 23, 2008

Floods and Food 

Midwest floods could mean less ethanol production

According to an article in the New York Times on Saturday, the Bush administration may allow farmers to plant crops on millions of acres of conservation land to offset the four million acres of land washed out by the recent floods in the Midwest. Senator Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa) is pushing the White House to approve the plan.

At the same time, various industries are reportedly asking the government to relax federal ethanol production requirements, a move that would free up more corn for animal feed. From the Times article:

In disasters, the Environmental Protection Agency can roll back requirements for ethanol production, which could free up a large amount of corn for animal feed. Mr. Grassley, a strong ethanol backer, rejected that proposition, but in recent days many industries that depend on corn have urged the government to act.

A quarter of the United States corn crop is used for biofuels rather than animal or human food, and the percentage is rising. What this has done to the price of gasoline is debated by ethanol’s critics and defenders, but it has certainly benefited farmers, who have not seen such demand for their corn crop in decades.

On the losing side of the equation have been cattle, hog and chicken producers, as well as consumers. The government’s latest projection, released Friday, is that food prices this year will rise as much as 5.5 percent. Some products, including cereals and eggs, are expected to rise about 10 percent.

An Agriculture Department spokesman said Friday that the Grassley proposal would be considered. This week, the agriculture secretary, Ed Schafer, said his department would consider “everything possible” to aid farmers.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 3:10 pm
File As: Biofuels

Monday, June 23, 2008

Obama and Ethanol 

The New York Times today looks at Senator Barack Obama’s support for the domestic production of ethanol, an alternative fuel that has come under fire recently amid global speculation that turning crops into fuel is connected to rising food prices. The article contrasts Obama’s pro-ethanol position to Republican nominee John McCain’s opposition to federal subsidies for ethanol.

The article finds a contradiction in Obama’s efforts to classify himself as a reformer and his support for one of the most powerful and successful lobbies in Washington:

Mr. Obama is running as a reformer who is seeking to reduce the influence of special interests. But like any other politician, he has powerful constituencies that help shape his views. And when it comes to domestic ethanol, almost all of which is made from corn, he also has advisers and prominent supporters with close ties to the industry at a time when energy policy is a point of sharp contrast between the parties and their presidential candidates.

The article also examines Obama’s ties to ethanol-industry companies and groups, and cites Tom Daschle as a central figure.

Nowadays, when Mr. Obama travels in farm country, he is sometimes accompanied by his friend Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader from South Dakota. Mr. Daschle now serves on the boards of three ethanol companies and works at a Washington law firm where, according to his online job description, “he spends a substantial amount of time providing strategic and policy advice to clients in renewable energy.”

Mr. Obama’s lead advisor on energy and environmental issues, Jason Grumet, came to the campaign from the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan initiative associated with Mr. Daschle and Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican who is also a former Senate majority leader and a big ethanol backer who had close ties to the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland.

Not long after arriving in the Senate, Mr. Obama himself briefly provoked a controversy by flying at subsidized rates on corporate airplanes, including twice on jets owned by Archer Daniels Midland, which is the nation’s largest ethanol producer and is based in his home state.

The article also looks at McCain’s opposition to ethanol subsidies, a stance that may well end up hurting him in the general election in farm states:

[McCain and Obama] offer sharply different visions of the role that ethanol, which can be made from a variety of organic materials, should play in those efforts.

Mr. McCain advocates eliminating the multibillion-dollar annual government subsidies that domestic ethanol has long enjoyed. As a free trade advocate, he also opposes the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff that the United States slaps on imports of ethanol made from sugar cane, which packs more of an energy punch than corn-based ethanol and is cheaper to produce.

“We made a series of mistakes by not adopting a sustainable energy policy, one of which is the subsidies for corn ethanol, which I warned in Iowa were going to destroy the market” and contribute to inflation, Mr. McCain said this month in an interview with a Brazilian newspaper, O Estado de São Paulo. “Besides, it is wrong,” he added, to tax Brazilian-made sugar cane ethanol, “which is much more efficient than corn ethanol.”

To read the rest of the article, go here.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 2:40 pm
File As: Energy Policy, Biofuels

Thursday, June 19, 2008

John McCain's Views on Drilling 

This week, Republican presidential nominee John McCain ventured to Houston, the Oil Capital of America, to lay out his proposed energy policy. When it comes to domestic oil production -- drilling -- McCain told the audience, “We do have resources, and we do have a choice.” He called for lifting the federal moratorium on offshore drilling (which has been in place since 1981), saying that he believes states should get to decide whether or not they want to grant access to energy companies off their shores:

In oil, gas, and coal deposits, we have enormous energy reserves of our own. And we are gaining the means to use these resources in cleaner, more responsible ways. As for offshore drilling, it’s safe enough these days that not even Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could cause significant spillage from the battered rigs off the coasts of New Orleans and Houston. Yet for reasons that become less convincing with every rise in the price of foreign oil, the federal government discourages offshore production...

But the stakes are high for our citizens and for our economy. And with gasoline running at more than four bucks a gallon, many do not have the luxury of waiting on the far-off plans of futurists and politicians. We have proven oil reserves of at least 21 billion barrels in the United States. But a broad federal moratorium stands in the way of energy exploration and production. And I believe it is time for the federal government to lift these restrictions and to put our own reserves to use.

We can do this in ways that are consistent with sensible standards of environmental protection. And in states that choose to permit exploration, there must be an appropriate sharing of benefits between federal and state governments. But as a matter of fairness to the American people, and a matter of duty for our government, we must deal with the here and now, and assure affordable fuel for America by increasing domestic production.

Although later in the week, Senator McCain suggested that he might possibly rethink his position on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (video available here), in his Houston speech on Tuesday he reaffirmed his anti-drilling stance:

Quite rightly, I believe, we confer a special status on some areas of our country that are best left undisturbed. When America set aside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we called it a “refuge” for a reason.

Even before Senator McCain delivered the Houston speech, the Democratic National Committee released an advisory about McCain’s “flip-flop” on offshore drilling, saying he used to oppose it but now says he is in favor of it.

Not so fast. Senator McCain’s position on oil drilling doesn’t actually seem to be a switch -- at least not based on his votes in the Senate and his past comments on the subject. It seems more accurate to say he has had a “mixed position” on this issue over time -- consistently opposing drilling in ANWR and allowing for state preferences when it comes to offshore drilling. Using records from Project Vote Smart and the Library of Congress’s Thomas database, it is possible to track whether and how Senator McCain’s position has evolved.

Senator McCain has repeatedly said that he is opposed to drilling in ANWR. A search of the congressional record shows McCain has made a distinction in the past between drilling in ANWR and drilling elsewhere.

A December 10, 2007 Associated Press report of a McCain speech in Aiken, South Carolina notes that, “in response to a question from an audience member, McCain said he believed offshore drilling should be left the coastal state closest to the proposed project. He also said he did not support opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.”

The DNC memo, however, pointed back to articles from 1999 describing Senator McCain’s support for a moratorium on offshore oil drilling when he last ran for president. And going back further to 1992, Senator McCain voted to kill an amendment to energy legislation that year which would have strengthened the role of coastal states in federal offshore drilling decisions.

In 2000 (USA Today and AP reported), the candidates were asked “Should companies that together spent over $1 billion to secure oil leases off the California coast be allowed to drill on them or should an existing moratorium be expanded to ban drilling in those waters?” McCain’s answer:

The leases for offshore oil drilling should never have been granted without allowing Californians a legitimate voice in the decision-making process. I believe it is up to the voters of California to determine the fate of these leases, and as president, I will respect the decision they make regarding the leases. The people of California deserve to be heard, without being forced to resort to legal action against their own government. As president, I will see to it that the interests of the people of California rise above the special interests of Washington, D.C.

So even as far back as 1992, Senator McCain’s position was strikingly similar to his current position: that states closest to the project need to be given a voice.

Based on Senate votes, Senator McCain has supported expanded exploration in non-ANWR areas:

In 2005:

  • He voted yes on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Drilling Amendment; passage would have kept the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge closed to oil drilling.

In 2006:

  • He voted yes on the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 (S. 3711), which would provide “for exploration, development, and production activities for mineral resources in the Gulf of Mexico.”
  • He also voted yes on an amendment that would “provide funding for implementing the Energy Policy Act of 2005 from ANWR.”

In 2007:

  • Senator McCain was not present for the vote on legislation aimed at allowing governor of Virginia to petition the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to allow for natural gas exploration and extraction at least fifty miles from the coastal zone.

In 2008:

  • Senator McCain was not present for a vote (S. Amdt. 4329 to S Con Res 70) that allowed for, among other things, “the development of oil and natural gas resources in coastal areas not covered by a Presidential or Congressional Moratorium.” Senator Obama voted yes.
  • Senator McCain was also not present a vote (S. Amdt. 4207 to S. Con. Res. 70) that allowed for more funding for “the development of natural gas off the coast of Virginia and the development of oil shale resources on public lands.” Senator Obama voted no.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 11:28 pm
File As: Energy Policy

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tracking the Nuclear Renaissance 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has received applications to build fifteen new reactors in eight states. Later this year, existing plants in seven other states plan to seek permits for a dozen more reactors. The first could be built and operating by 2016, according to an AP article.

Meanwhile, at a public meeting for NRC staff (June 19-20 at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Maryland), Energy Department officials are presenting a “walk-through” of the agency's license application for the proposed high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Details here.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 10:23 am
File As: Nuclear Energy

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What the Coal Boom Means for West Virginia Towns 

Soaring prices for coal mean higher tax revenues for state and local government -- good news for small communities, as Bill Byrd of the Times West Virginian notes:

Open this summer after being closed for eight years, Fairmont’s 12th Street pool is a long way from India or China.

But demand for coal in the global energy market played a key role in helping the Marion County Commission pay to repair the pool, a local landmark since 1937.

Local and state governments are collecting much more in severance taxes during the current coal boom....

[T]he fact that the county commission was able to pump over $300,000 into repairing the pool is due to an eye-popping increase in the price per ton of coal.

The article goes on to give some details: the price of a ton of West Virginia coal has gone up from $30 to $55 in the past five years, and that price increase has meant the severance tax (a tax that some states levy on companies that exploit natural resources) on West Virginia mining firms has brought ever more money into state coffers, up from $214 million in 2003 to a projected $340 million this year.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 4:31 pm
File As: Coal

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Drilling deeper and deeper... 

McMoRan Exploration, which describes itself as having been “among the most active drillers in the Gulf of Mexico” in the 1980s, is now planning to drill the world’s deepest oil well there—some 6.6 miles down. As the New Orleans Times Picayune reported last week:

McMoRan Exploration said Thursday that it plans to seek permission from the Minerals Management Service to drill a Gulf of Mexico well as deep as 35,000 feet, a depth that would break a record [of 34,189 feet] currently held by Chevron.

The South Timbalier Block 168 No. 1 well, formerly known as Blackbeard, is currently permitted to a depth of 33,000 feet and has already been drilled to 31,943 feet. But the New Orleans energy company wants to go even deeper.

Drilling at South Timbalier began in August 2006 under the jurisdiction of Exxon Mobil Corp. Exxon had hoped to drill the world's deepest well at the site, but the company encountered higher-than-expected pressure and suspended the operation. The high temperatures and pressure that builds up at the bottoms of wells is a significant challenge to energy companies as they seek to drill deeper beneath the ocean floor.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 4:14 pm
File As: Business of Energy

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Democrats drive Priuses and Republicans drive Yukons? 

A story in CQ Weekly (“The Greening of the Wheels”) looks at the vehicle leases taken out by members of Congress and a little known provision in the energy policy act passed last year that says members may be reimbursed for leasing vehicles only if the vehicles have relatively low levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Apparently lawmakers haven't been too concerned with vehicle emissions in the past when they've been shopping on dealer lots: Two-thirds of the cars at members' disposal will have to be replaced when their leases are up, according to the story.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 1:20 pm
File As: Energy Politics

Friday, June 13, 2008

Exxon to give up selling gas 

With the price at the pump around $4 per gallon, why is Exxon getting out of the business of selling gas? The company says it’s just not profitable enough any more.

From the Associated Press:

Exxon Mobil Corp said on Thursday it is getting out of the retail gas business in the United States as sky-high crude oil prices squeeze margins.

Those branded service stations may be the most public aspect of Exxon’s business, but they account for a small part of the company’s profits.

Out of the roughly 12,000 Exxon Mobil branded stations in the United States, Exxon, the world’s largest publicly-traded oil company, owns about 2,220.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 11:02 pm
File As: Business of Energy

Friday, June 13, 2008

Sweet Louisiana 

Forget corn-based ethanol -- the South tries a sweeter alternative

The Ecogeek blog takes a look this week at Louisiana Green Fuels, a group that plans to make sugar-based ethanol:

Over the next ten years, expect to see three new sugar mills and four new ethanol plants open shop in Louisiana, generating an estimated 100 million gallons of sugar-based ethanol annually. Louisiana Green Fuels, an investment group owned by Inverandino and the Lake Charles Cane Cooperative, has purchased three sugar mills ruined by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, one of which was state owned and purchased for $60 million. Funding for the projects is coming from the Santacoloma family of Columbia, which controls Inverandino.

Additional financial help is coming from the state of Louisiana itself, including issuing $133 million in industrial development revenue bonds through the Louisiana Public Facilities Authority, $100 million of which is tax exempt. With the likelihood of these mills and ethanol plants creating thousands of jobs and significant revenue for the state, it is no wonder Louisiana is doing what it can to help the project along. LGF has also said it plans to buy the bulk of its sugarcane and sweet sorghum locally, further helping the Louisiana economy. However, it will be importing high-test molasses, refined sugar and common molasses. It is thought that sugar, which produces an eightfold return on the fossil energy used in producing it will outstrip corn, which only yields a 1.3 ROI. With the politics of and misunderstanding around corn ethanol already making biofuels socially messy, it will be interesting to see how a solid run towards sugar ethanol might change the farming industry, as well as our ideas about crops-as-biofuel.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 10:44 pm
File As: Biofuels

Friday, June 13, 2008

Wired goes nuclear 

The cover of Wired magazine’s June 2008 issue says it all:

Click to enlarge

The article inside even more directly takes on the environmental movement, starting with its title: “Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green.” The article outlines a list of ten “inconvenient truths” (a play on the title of Al Gore’s documentary and book, which has also been recently parodied by Iain Murray). The article argues that “winning the war on global warming” -- the paramount goal of today’s environmental movement -- “requires slaughtering some of environmentalism’s sacred cows.” That means greens cannot “afford to ignore...the carbon-free electricity supplied by nuclear energy.”

Although this is Wired’s most blunt statement in favor of the use of civilian nuclear energy, it’s worth noting that a few years ago the magazine also dedicated considerable space to a friendly profile of Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace co-founder who now advocates for nuclear power.

The ten “inconvenient truths” are here:

  1. Live in Cities
  2. A/C Is OK
  3. Organics Are Not The Answer
  4. Farm the Forests
  5. China Is the Solution
  6. Accept Genetic Engineering
  7. Carbon Trading Doesn’t Work
  8. Embrace Nuclear Power
  9. Used Cars — Not Hybrids
  10. Prepare for the Worst

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 10:12 pm
File As: Energy Policy, Nuclear Energy

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