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Obama Orders Sharp Tightening of Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

This morning, as expected, President Obama told the Transportation Department to draft implementing rules, pursuant to 2007 legislation, calling for a 40 percent improvement in automotive fuel efficiency by 2020. Even more importantly, he instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to act on an application by California and 13 other states to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks (including, notably, SUVs). That decision reverses Bush Administration policy and comes the same day Lisa Jackson was sworn in as new EPA Administrator.

If EPA gives California the go-ahead to set its preferred standards, the effect could be to increase the average required fuel efficiency of cars and trucks to 35 mph from 27 mph now, by 2016. Thatâ''s four years faster than the Federal government proposes to have the industry achieve that efficiency, and itâ''s a technically challenging goal. To put it in a personal perspective, my own Mini Cooper, which is one of the smallest vehicles on the road in the United States, gets only 37 mph under optimal conditions and on average no better than 32 mph. The Mini is in some respects a high-performance sports car cleverly disguised as just a cute family sedan, to be sure; but taking Americansâ'' historical preferences into account and the ways the U.S. auto industry has sought to satisfy them, the new rules will represent a radical shift.

How much is the industry at fault for current problems, and how much public support does it deserve to get, as it retools? In a February Scientific American column, Columbia Universityâ''s Jeffrey Sachs argues that four fundamental points deserve more emphasis; two seem noteworthy. â''The automakersâ'' plight is the result of the dramatic collapse of all domestic vehicle sales rather than the U.Sâ''s declining share of those sales,â'' writes Sachs, and â''the public and political leadership bear huge co-responsibility with industry for the misguided SUV era.â''

Sachs argues that a new public-private partnership will be vital to reviving and reorienting the U.S. automobile industry. He points out that in recent years, the Federal government has spent about as much on energy r&d each year as the Pentagon has spent in two days.

NOTE: EPA Administrator Jackson came under some fire for her environmental record in New Jersey, especially from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. But efforts by a few Republicans to stall her confirmation appear to have been pro forma.

SEPARATELY: the Atlantic Monthlyâ''s Marc Ambinder reported in his blog earlier today that Obama would appoint Washington lawyer and climate change expert Todd Stern as his chief envoy on global climate change, with the title Under Secretary of State. Stern most recently worked as a senior deputy to John Podesta at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Japan Launches Carbon Monitoring Satellite

Earlier today, the Japanese space agency JAXA launched the first orbiter dedicated strictly to monitoring the worldâ''s greenhouse gas emissions. (This in itself is a rather surprising fact, as much of what we know about the greenhouse effect and global warming comes from direct measurement of gases in the atmosphere.) Ibuki will gather information from 56,000 locations around the world, according to JAXA, using two sensors: an infrared instrument to measure backscattering of solar radiation from the earthâ''s surface, enabling calculation of GHG densities; the other to take readings of clouds and aerosols, which can either reflect or absorb radiation.

Ibuki will not be alone for long. Early this year, the United States plans to launch an Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which will be able to measure CO2 entering and leaving the atmosphere close to ground level, so that the major sources and sinks can be more closely specified. Of course many of these are well known and precisely accounted for: emissions from every sizable power plant and every major cement plant are measured and recorded; in gross terms, the oceans absorb about half the carbon thatâ''s pumped into the atmosphere.

But there are important large-scale phenomena such as forest burning and clearing, or dramatic changes in specific ecosystems (sometimes themselves a result of climate change), that can have important carbon effects. For example, the boreal forests of Canada and Siberia are huge absorbers, but those environments are changing frighteningly fast right now because temperature increases have been so disproportionate close to the Arctic.

The United States already has a CO2 monitor on its Aqua satellite, but that instrument takes measurements only of carbon in the upper atmosphere. OCO is the first U.S. satellite dedicated entirely to carbon monitoring. It joins, with Aqua, the â''A Trainâ'' of U.S. satellites that study environmental processes on a global scale.

Was There a Winner in Russia-Ukraine Gas Dispute?

Were the Ukraine and Russia equally losers in the drawn-out gas dispute that ended earlier this week, after causing severe disruption in a number of European countries? A commentary that appears in todayâ''s Financial Times concludes that â''the battlefield is littered with losers and there are very few winners to be seen.â'' Russiaâ''s Gazprom lost an estimated $1.5 billion in foregone revenues, and Russiaâ''s most loyal energy clientsâ''Bulgaria, Serbia, and Slovakiaâ''were the most adversely affected. â''The Russians overplayed their hand,â'' an EU official is quoted as saying, by writer Quentin Peel.

A commentary in the Wall Street Journal concludes, somewhat in the same vein, that Ukraineâ''s beleaguered president Viktor Yushchenko could emerge stronger. The crisis forced him and his rival Yulia Timosheshenko, Ukraineâ''s prime minister, to bury the hatchet at least temporarily, which could work to Yushchenkoâ''s ultimate benefit. â''If he [now] redirects his energies to constructive dialogue, he can help promote sound fiscal policy and accelerate privatization efforts which the political deadlock has blocked,â'' opines Europe correspondent Adrian Karatnycky, writing from Kiev.

My own dissenting view is somewhat less sanguine. Though Russia paid very high tactical prices, it may have achieved its strategic objective. This is because the crisis left the impression that both countries are equally to blame. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso condemned the conduct of both and said â''I will not soon forget that.â'' Though the details and implications of the deal are obscure, it seems almost certain that the dispute will resurface, with Ukraine continuing to have trouble paying its bills, as Peel observes.

Unless Europe acts aggressively to build gas reserves and diversify supply arrangements in anticipation of another crisis, Russia will still hold a winning hand. Renegotiation of the dealâ''s terms could precipitate a rerun that could end with Ukraine forced to sell its transit pipeline company to Gazprom. Or worse.

Some Big Footprints Next to Carbon's

nejm-logoThe U.S. carbon footprint looms large as Washington prepares to finally begin, in earnest, a shift away from fossil fuels under a new President promising international action to, "roll back the specter of a warming planet," as Agence France Presse highlighted in its reporting of Obama's inaugural address. Debate is already raging, for example, around whether President Obama will allow California and other states to ratchet up the fuel efficiency improvements automakers must make in the years to come.

But research published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine provides a needed reminder that burning less fossil fuels can also directly reduce mortality from air pollution, as reported yesterday by CNN's health desk. (Energywise readers will recall that the network's sci/tech/environment desk is currently unavailable, having been eliminated by CNN last month.)

Tracking mortality data from 1980 to 2000 in 51 cities, the team led by Brigham Young University epidemiologist Clive Arden Pope found that reductions in air pollution over that period added an average of five months to life expectancy. And those living in the cities that cleaned up most, got to spend the most extra time with their grand-kids: the CNN report highlights Pittsburgh, for example, where life expectancy jumped nearly 10 months.

A link between mortality and air pollution -- particularly particulate matter or soot -- is hardly new. It was, for example, a primary driver behind California's Zero Emissions Vehicle program, created years before the state tried to regulate CO2 emissions. And it is part of the reason why a low-carbon fuel standard on the way from California is unlikely to reward drivers switching from gasoline to diesel, which increases soot emissions.

However, this week's study appears to be the first report to show a direct correlation between pollution reduction and longer life.

For balance to the notion that going low-carbon is purifying in all ways, I add the following note of caution from Carnegie Mellon researchers. Their study published in Environmental Science & Technology last month predicts that states that add lots of renewable energy to reduce their carbon footprint could experience an increase in emissions of smog-forming NOx from conventional power plants. That's because the power plants must ramp up and down more than usual to balance out the variable power from wind turbines and solar panels.

This is tough news for air quality regulators, who were anticipating NOx reductions. The Carnegie Mellon team estimates that they could still realize up to half of the NOx reductions anticipated, if the mix of generators providing balancing power is favorable. If not, NOx emissions could quadruple.

Further Evidence of Human Induced Warming in Antarctica

Nature magazine has published this week a scientific report by Eric Steig of the University of Washington, Seattle, in which further evidence of human-induced warming in Antarctica is adduced. Steig and colleagues combined historical data from weather stations with satellite measurements, and tested their results against models, to give a more complete record of the continentâ''s temperatures from 1957 to 2006. They find that Antarctica has warmed by about a tenth of a degree per decade.

Summarizing their findings, they said that although warming was â''partly offset by autumn cooling in East Antarctica, the continent-wide average near-surface temperature trend is positive. Simulations using a general circulation model reproduce the essential features of the spatial pattern and the long-term trend, and we suggest that neither can be attributed directly to increases in the strength of the westerlies. Instead, regional changes in atmospheric circulation and associated changes in sea surface temperature and sea ice are required to explain the enhanced warming in West Antarctica.â''

The report adds credence to another report earlier this year that Antarctica has been subject to human-induced warming, contrary to previous scientific opinion.

What Did Obama Visit to Ohio Wind Manufacturer Mean?

En route from Chicago to DC for his inauguration, President-Elect Obama stopped in Ohio today to visit a company near Cleveland that bills itself as the nationâ''s largest manufacturer of the steel bolts used to anchor wind turbine towers to their concrete foundations. Itâ''s only too tempting to speculate about what exactly this might portend.

Is Obamaâ''s drop-in visit to Cardinal Fastener & Specialty Co. a mere reminder of his strong general commitment to promote green energy technology and reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Did he stop by Bedford Heights to specifically highlight his desire to see wind-generated electricity doubled in three years, consistent with the Department of Energyâ''s assessment that we could get a fifth of our electricity from wind by 2030? Does Obama know that wind jobs are taking a hit, as well as jobs in the solar industry, and does he want to show support?

Is the president signaling those Ohio blue-collar voters who helped put him over the top in November that as the U.S. economy is retooled to be greener in the coming years, Midwestern manufacturing jobs will not be forgotten? Could he even be signaling that he may side with those of his advisers who favor a carbon tax, with an eye on using tax proceeds to create green jobs? Or could it be almost the oppositeâ''he still prefers a cap-and-trade system, but one in which auctioning of emission credits could provide subsidies for manufacturing jobs creation?

We donâ''t know! It could be just about all of the above or almost none of it. Maybe Obama just wanted to learn more about how a wind turbine is made, given that he has time on his hands and not much to worry about.

Natural Gas Exploitation Provokes Controversy in New York and Utah

If a fossil fuel could still have animal magnetism, natural gas would be the sexiest of them all. Not only is its intrinsic attractiveness at the root of the unfolding and still unresolved price and supply conflicts between Russia and the Ukraine, itâ''s arousing conflict everywhere it can be found and exploited. The Marcellus Shale formation in upstate New York is a case in point. More than a dozen companies have filed 77 applications to drill, many hoping to take advantage of a new boring technique, but critics of hydro-fracking fear that it could jeopardize New York Cityâ''s singularly pristine water supply. If the city ended up having to filter water that now goes unfiltered, the capital cost could go as high as $20 billion.

Across the country, in Utah, disputes over gas exploitation are pitting the movie star and indy film impresario Robert Redford against CORE, an organization representing African American interests that goes back to the Sixties. It seems a blast from the past as well as a harbinger of things to come. The Congress of Racial Equality originated in the black power movement, but subsequently, Roy Innis aligned it with the Republican Party and business interests. Today, Jan. 14, CORE sponsored a press event to publicize its claims that restricting development of natural gas in Utahâ''a predominantly Mormon state not known for its black populationâ''would threaten supplies of affordable gas to African Americans living in Chicago.

EV Watch

Electric cars, so recently declared dead with the â''killingâ'' of GMâ''s EV-1, are back with a vengeance at this yearâ''s North American International Auto Show, which opened yesterday Jan. 12 in Detroit. Among the announcements made or expected to be made:

â'¢ Toyoto will introduce a plug-in hybrid by the end of this year, to be powered by lithium ion batteries ahead of GMâ''s Chevrolet Volt, which is expected on the market next year at a price of about $40,000.

â'¢ GM will build a factory in the United States to assemble batteries for the Volt, in cooperation with Koreaâ''s LG Chem.

â'¢ Honda showed off its new Insight Hybrid, which it plans to sell as little as $18,000.

.â'¢ Ford showed off its new Fusion hybrid and has announced plans to introduce an all-electric commercial van next year, to be followed by a similar electric car the year after that.

â'¢ Chinese lithium-ion battery maker BYD has unveiled its F3DM hybrid, which it will sell in China for the equivalent of about $22,000 and which it hopes to introduce in the United States and Europe next year.

BYD, based in Shenzhen, is the worldâ''s second leading manufacturer of lithium ion batteries and has been trading publicly on the Hong Kong exchange since 2002; Warren Buffettâ''s MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. has a 10 percent state in the company, according to a detailed account in todayâ''s Wall Street Journal.

Nissan already has announced plans to market an electric car in the United States and Japan as early as next year, and Chrysler hopes to do the same; Hyundai will start selling a hybrid next year. Toyota, still with its Prius by far the world leader in hybrids, has two new models, a third-generation Prius and the luxury Lexus HS250s.

U.S. automakers are hoping to get r&d support from the government, as part of the automotive bailout package. â''We donâ''t want to go from being dependent on other nations for petroleum to being depending on other nations for inow-how,â'' GMâ''s research chief Larry Burns has said.

Will U.S. consumers pay big premiums to drive green, now that gasoline prices are lower and pocketbooks thinner? That's the $64,000 question, as we used to say.

"Shovel-Ready" Criteria May Disqualify Worthy Projects

We've heard an awful lot about â''shovel-readyâ'' projects latelyâ''those not yet funded infrastructure projects around the country that will be the beneficiaries of the Obama administrationâ''s attempt to jumpstart the economy. To qualify for fast-tracking consideration, they will reportedly have to be ready to go within 90 to 120 days of securing funds. Funding may be withdrawn if they encounter significant delays. Unfortunately, if we take the phrase â''shovel-readyâ'' literally as a predictor of which infrastructure projects will receive government financing under the stimulus package, a lot worthy projects are not going to qualify.

â''Betsyâ'' in Raleigh, a respondent to Paul Krugmanâ''s â''The Obama Gap,â'' opinion piece in the January 8, 2008, New York Times says it all too well: â''I question the emphasis on so-called 'shovel-ready' projects. Is there something about paying a planner or engineer in the design stages of a project that is less real than paying a backhoe operator? If the object is to get money and paychecks flowing in the domestic economy, does the income of the engineer not do that as much as that of a laborer?â''

If shovel-ready does turn out to be a literal criterion, one of the most ambitious and forward-looking mass transportation projects under planning in the Northeast, the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge, will fail to secure stimulus funding. The current bridge spans the Hudson River between the counties of Rockland and Westchester in New York State. According to the projectâ''s website, between 140,000-170,000 vehicles cross the 3.1-mile span daily. The average number was 18,000 daily when the bridge was opened in 1955. The replacement bridge, which is estimated to cost $16 billion, will include cars, commuter trains and a dedicated corridor for bus rapid transit. The BRT will connect Suffern in Rockland County to Port Chester in Westchester. The new rail line will connect the Metro North line in Suffern on the Rockland side of the Hudson River with Tarrytown, a Metro-North stop on the Westchester side of the river.

Although the current bridge undergoes regular maintenance it was not built for its current capacity. The extraordinary congestion it experiences during commuter hours is the stuff of urban legends. The New York State Department of Transportation has made the courageous decision NOT to increase the non-mass-transit capacity of the current bridge with the replacement bridge. Instead the DOT hopes to entice drivers out of their cars as they sit trapped in traffic and watch the high speed, high tech buses and trains speed past.

However, the DOT contemplates at least a two year environmental review as communities and policymakers work together to map out the best design for the bridge and optimal roots for the bus and light rail.

These deliberations will take time but it is hard to argue that the new bridge wonâ''t accomplish many of Obama's stated policy objectives--energy independence, improved mass transit, safer infrastructure, and enhanced public health-- across one of the most congested commuter corridors in the Northeast.

So here's hoping the new Congress comes up with a more enlightened definition of "shovel ready" that would not preclude immediate funding for this and other, visionary public sector projects.

Russia-Ukraine Gas Crisis Spreads into Europe

The natural gas price dispute between Russia and Ukraine has begun to have drastic effects on industry and daily life in southeastern Europe, highlighting Europeâ''s radical dependence on supplies from Russia and the â''stans.â'' Because gas is so attractive, being cleaner and greener than any other fossil fuel, Europe uses more of it all the time, and countries like Germany obtain upwards of half their supplies from pipelines ultimately controlled by Russia. The Putin regime would not dare cut supplies for a country as might as Germany, of course, but for countries of lesser weight itâ''s a different story.

The Financial Times reports today, January 9, that in Bulgaria, which depends entirely on Russian supplies, 70 large and medium companies have lost their supplies completely and gas to another 150 is restricted. Slovakia also has had to limit supplies to industry, in Hungary schools and workplaces will not be able to open tomorrow, and Croatiaâ''s government has declared crisis conditions. Serbia and Bosnia-Herzogovina are having to reduce industrial allocations in order to save gas for home heating.

According to a provocative commentary that appeared earlier this week in the FT, not only does the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom have vital pipeline assets in Ukraine, but Ukraine controls most of the gas storage capacity connected with Russiaâ''s pipeline system. Jerome Guillet and John Evans say that traditionally Ukraine got paid in kind for acting as the transit hub for Russian gas, taking an allocation of gas to cover national needs as payment. The trouble began, they say, when Russia privatized part of the gas transfer system in an attempt to extract cash payments. Tycoons and traders in both Russia and Ukraine now have vested interests in the private trading system, complicating the negotiation of new prices.

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