Top 10 Green Theme Stories of 2010

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Time for my list of the year’s top stories about sustainability news in government, business and beyond. Notice the irrelevance of the United States in positive developments.

1. China goes big time green with new Five Year Plan

You may know that China has overtaken the US, EU nations and other countries in production of solar and wind renewable energy technologies; but may not have heard that China,  which will use 15% renewables by 2020, is committed to greening far more than its energy (note: the US has no goal for renewable energy).

China’s Five Year Plan for 2011-2015 demonstrates that it is serious about tackling its rampant air and water pollution. This recently announced plan also shows that China will be designing scaleable new technologies and approaches for everything from greener urban development to more fuel efficient vehicles, including nationally subsidized electric cars. 

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, a six-month affair that I attended at its close in October (see photo above). Climate change, sustainability, environmental management and the role of citizens in reducing their impact were major themes in the China Pavilion and in other theme pavilions. The Shanghai Expo featured some of the most creative and engaging exhibits that I have seen on climate change, green technology, waste reduction, urban planning, and air and water pollution.

2. India’s GDP will factor in environmental damages by 2015

Now that more than 30 nations have agreed to some kind of price on carbon emissions, India declared in November that it will go a step further. India said within five years it will factor in environmental damages into its Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. In other words, if the country now has an annual GDP of 8 percent that could be adjusted a few percentages points lower once the damages to air, water and species are analyzed and calculated in the equation. Under such “full-cost accounting,” intensified green economic development would likely become a substantially larger component of the GDP. 

3. US Congress fails to pass climate change legislation
(again)

Climate change legislation in 2010 appeared to be dead in the water after passing in the U.S. House in 2009. The Obama Administration is likely to try to enforce greenhouse gas emission reductions using Executive Order, mainly through the Environmental Protection Agency. Lawmakers hunker waiting in revolt.

4. It’s happening: Climate change related flooding in Pakistan, fires engulfing Russia, etc.

Pakistan experienced some of the worst rain and flooding in its recorded history, with the Indus River flooding its banks and occupying more than 30 times its usual width, which covered one-fifth of the country. Russia in 2010 experienced record high temperatures and rampant drought and extreme temperature-related fires, impacting national food crops, health in major cities including Moscow, and commercial aviation. More than 15,000 were likely killed by the Russian 2010 heat wave, cutting more than $15 billion from its GDP. The year 2010, meanwhile, is likely to finish as the planet’s warmest year ever recorded since record keeping began in the late 1800s.

5. Gulf Oil Spill demonstrates future dangers of ever-riskier drilling

The BP Gulf Horizon disaster, the largest US oil “spill” in history (it was more of an uncontrolled gusher than a spill), caught BP, the federal government and the nation at large way off guard. I blogged about the disaster’s potential in April, when estimates of damage were laughingly underplayed by BP through the US government. Who can forget the weird summer with that underwater camera video spewing daily before our eyes? Deep water drilling is not for the timid, especially as such operations will more frequently encounter highly volatile methane gases

6. New electric vehicles released by Chevy and Nissan

Both Chevy and Nissan came out in 2010 with electric cars (though only Nissan’s Leaf is truly an all-electric car.) Now we just have to figure out how to get people to realize that electric cars are a small sliver of a solution. They’re not even part of a solution if people end up feeling justified in driving more and continuing the auto-dominant lifestyle that presents so many other challenges: exurban sprawl; life-cycle energy; peaking oil (see #7) for plastics, asphalt and lubrication; waste and resource impacts; biodiversity and agricultural land destruction; personal health and community societal damages.

7. Oil prices near $100 a barrel. Again.

Oil prices per barrel reached over $91 late this month. The last time oil was at such a price in 2008, the Great Recession was just beginning to wrap its talons around the globe. Now industry analysts see oil prices moving to $100-120 per barrel in 2011. Others, including the US Department of Defense and a UK energy and aviation industry consortium have forecast that the real oil crunch will come in 2014-2015 as global supplies “peak,” “plateau,” “top off,” or “poop out,” depending on who you are reading or talking to. The International Energy Agency even came out with a report in 2010 stating that global oil supplies peaked in 2006. Expect much higher prices for gasoline and higher prices for food and transportation (especially airline flights).  

8. Post Carbon Reader lays out a plan for what’s next

The Post Carbon Institute tapped 29 of its fellows, including yours truly, to write chapters about the major climate, ecological and economic problems faced by the world in 2010. Chapters covered the inter-related challenges of climate change, resource and water scarcity, dwindling “easy” energy supplies, food security, waste, biodiversity, buildings, “growth” economics, cities and local government, exurban sprawl, human health and psychology, education, societal resilience, population and transportation.

Unlike other books that may be easily filed under “Gloom and Doom,” authors in the Post Carbon Reader including Richard Heinberg, Bill McKibben, Erika Allen, David Orr, Stephanie Mills, Wes Jackson, and Sandra Postel
made sure to explore positive paths laden with solution examples.

As Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute (and founder of the Worldwatch Institute) put it, “The Post Carbon Reader is an invaluable primer, resource and textbook. This is what you need to know, period.”  Since its release eight weeks ago, the book is in its second printing from Watershed Media/ University of California Press.

9. Cancun Accord a small step forward

At the Cancun, Mexico, United Nations conference on climate change, representatives from 192 countries pledged to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to climate change with a $100 billion fund announced for 2020. The United Nations and host country Mexico emerged as successful in bringing together the negotiations. Unlike the Copenhagen gathering, Cancun did not attract heads of state. But maybe that’s precisely why it was considered more successful than Copenhagen’s climate conference.

10. ICLEI announces STAR pilot sustainability program for communities

ICLEI USA, part of an international organization that works with cities and counties on sustainability programs, announced in November a 2012 pilot program called the STAR Community Index. The membership local government advocacy organization, which had promoted its STAR Index since 2007-2008 as coming out in 2010, did release 81 sustainability goals and 10 guiding principles for STAR.

ICLEI has made it clear that STAR is a sustainability rating system for communities, not a ranking system. Its delay for releasing the STAR rating system, which it sees as a US Green Building Council LEED-like rating for communities (USGBC is a partner for STAR, along with the National League of Cities and the Center for American Progress), has been attributed to management volatility as well as the incredibly ambitious scope of STAR.

In addition to ranking green buildings, infrastructure and other environmental, quality of life and energy attributes, ICLEI plans on using STAR to measure and rate city or community “poverty prevention and alleviation,” “social cohesion,” “government transparency,”  “industry sector development and revitalization,” “employment opportunity,” “financial literacy,” “arts and culture” and dozens of other categories.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the
Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of
a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management. 
 

3.

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India cuts gas subsidy in favor of greener investments?

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Dehli Metro, Phase One

Is India trying to turn a corner toward more sustainable economic development with its recent reduction in fossil fuel subsidies?

India’s decision to completely cut gasoline subsidies last month has created national protests, as new unsubsidized gas prices rose to about $4.60 a gallon. The country has also reduced subsidies to natural gas, diesel and kerosene, all to balance a budget and reportedly redistribute money for economic development, including the planning of cities with more sustainable energy and transportation.

Gasoline will no longer be sold below cost by producers and retailers in India, as it had been until the late June announcement was made to end the subsidies, which have been cut $5.2 billion. That leaves the remaining government and state owned fuel companies subsidy spending at about $11.5 billion this fiscal year.

India has embarked on a program to develop new and greener cities, and to redesign existing cities for greater sustainability as its urban population swells in the wake of a national population that is forecast by the United Nations to surpass China’s population by 2030.

The nation is moving from its agrarian roots to a service-based economy that has been boosted by the rise of the companies in information technology, health care and other professional services.

Clean technology areas being investigated for large-scale implementation with urban development include infrastructure investments in PV solar, geothermal energy, and advanced wastewater treatment. A new metro rail system in Delhi that opened a major line earlier this year is now one of the world’s largest.

Indeed, India–like China–may be on a course to reinvent itself for the 21st century.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current,
an internationally active consultancy based in San Anselmo, California. He is a Fellow at the
Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.
   

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Redesigning Civilization after the Stress Tests

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The BP oil gusher should remind us that our civilization relies on unseen, not very well understood forces, especially energy and the environment, for our day-to-day economies.

Our institutions and communities have recently failed stress tests that pushed system designs beyond intended limits: whether it’s toxic exurban real estate assets, climate-altering pollution or deepwater oil drilling.

The Post Carbon Institute just published my report, “The Death of Sprawl: Redesigning Urban Resilience for the Twenty-first Century Resource Crises.” Random exurban sprawl and informed urban systems are the opposite ends of a spectrum. In this continuum, the interplay of economics, energy and natural resources management can be optimized (or wasted or ignored) through planning, design, behaviors and technology to yield astonishingly different outcomes.

The chapter will be in a Fall 2010 book being published by The University of California Press and Watershed Media.

We need to understand what stresses will hit before the levees reach their breaking point. When stresses do hit, we will better know how to respond quickly and systemically. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with the impacts of scores of towns like Victorville, California, which were overbuilt during the height of 1990s and early 2000s speculation. I examine in detail just how Victorville became a poster child for foreclosures and why it is a harbinger for our economy, resources and oil use. Chances are if you are in the West, Sunbelt or Midwest, there’s one of these towns out on the fringes near you.
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Location of hyper-growth US Boomburbs 2000-2009 (click to enlarge)

Quickly developed and poorly planned exurban communities, called “Boomburbs,” require cars for virtually every human activity outside the home, going to school, eating out, shopping, dating, seeing a movie, playing and of course, working. But working actually comprises only about 25 percent of the driving we do as a nation: the national reliance on cars goes far beyond our jobs, and is more based on how our communities and streets are designed.

(If that “Green Home” you see in so many magazines doesn’t analyze how people get to and from that home, then it’s probably far from being sustainable.) 

The foreclosures started in these exurban areas after gas prices started rising in 2006, impacting local communities, lenders and housing or strip mall developers that formed the points of the triangle, or a pyramid, you might say. A bank, rig or smokestack regulator won’t limit the flood of bad paper, crude or carbon emissions if rules can be circumvented in order to make more money. That’s the point when stresses build up, exposing failures that at first seem an outlier, then become more commonplace as the very fabric of the system gives way. 

Historically cheap gas was enabled by the federal government and foreign producers, combined with no-holds barred real estate development encouraged by the feds, states, and local communities, and of course the banking industry. Zero down homes are still being offered by developers and their agents in these sprawled communities. To be fair, many low-income individuals wanted to own or invest in their first home, but greed greased the transactions.

Sprawl was one of the major factors requiring more driving and more cars, leading to more time spent commuting, poorer health and ever-greater oil consumption. As a nation we needed to Drill, Baby, Drill in ever-more precarious situations, be it Iraq or the deep waters of the Gulf. 

Meanwhile, the ongoing foreclosure crisis in sprawled California, Arizona, Florida and Texas is undermining a national economic recovery, and will eat away at resources for decades to come: energy, water, time, investment, and security.

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Real estate prices in or near transit-served Washington DC (green arrows indicate prices going up) and in car-dependent outlying areas (red arrows mean prices decreasing): Credit: Kaid Benfield, NRDC, 2010

Even before the oil gusher, smart institutional money started to avoid sprawl like the plague for the first time. Now, there is a new wrinkle: will the BP Deepwater Horizon incident change global access to oil and the public’s cognitive understanding of what burning gas and driving really mean?

So far the reaction in this nation has been to talk about developing renewable sources of energy, including wind, solar and nuclear energy. None of those forms of energy have been used to power our cars and trucks on a meaningful scale–though they will in 10-20 years–so such talk is premature.

Other nations, such as China in wind and solar, are leading US development in such technology, so we are falling down in preparing for the distant day when cars will be powered mainly by renewable energy and alternative fuels (Brazil has gained dominance in producing non-food based ethanol).

Euro nations have tempered their oil addiction by taxing gas at a higher rate while also building denser communities requiring much less driving, and allowing many people to walk or cycle to their destinations. Besides being more energy efficient for residents, these cities and suburbs are also more attractive to businesses and tourists, with their density and mixed-uses (cheese and wine markets, parks, schools and office buildings) being a big part of the charm.

China and India are embarking on ambitious programs to build new cities and redesign existing cities, which is a necessity, considering their exploding urban populations. While automotive growth is a given in these nations (China just overtook the US in auto sales last year), both nations are weighing innovative metro-area designs. Tianjin, China has an “eco-city” district (one of 40 in the nation) that is planned to have 90 percent of all trips by public transit, bicycle or walking.

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Denver, meanwhile, passed an innovative update to its zoning codes this week that will make its transit-oriented planning and investments more successful, reducing auto-dependent development and integrating more mixed uses into the city’s neighborhoods.

Not everyone wants to or is able to afford living in a city or dense suburbs served by transit. But as “The Death of Sprawl” illustrates, we need to find a way out of the institutional, economic and environmental hangover from the last days of cheap and easy oil.

We can deny there’s a problem and continue our delusional ways, or we can put the bottle down, sober up and get to work on seeing what the rest of our lives can really be.    

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current,
an internationally active consultancy based in San Anselmo, California. He is a Fellow at the
Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.
  

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Obama’s $20B Oil Fund, Energy Policy and his “Lost” Year

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President Obama’s announcement of a $20 billion escrow fund to help pay for Gulf economic damages from the oil spill likely won’t be enough to cover projected damages to the economy, environment and livelihoods in the region. Early this month, I’ve estimated those costs potentially to be in the $50-80 billion range, not including clean-up costs.

Ultimately, BP might not be able to afford the damages it is responsible for, as its North American unit has assets valued at about $50 billion. The US and Obama should look at other ways of balancing the ledger, by reducing U.S. oil and gas subsidies ($15-35 billion per year) and transferring those funds to Gulf clean-up, environmental and economic restoration while creating a true foundation for clean energy and alternative fuels development.

Obama called during his Tuesday White House address for a new energy economy: “For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil
were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to
end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels…Time and again, the path forward has been blocked–not
only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage
and candor.”

This demand was also made at the beginning of his presidency when he kicked off numerous clean energy and alternative energy funding measures, mainly through ARRA funding to US Department of Energy programs.

In his early Oval Office days, Obama even went after sprawl, the energy inefficient, destructive and now economically bankrupt car-dependent form of development that has also dominated the United States “for decades,” but that rarely is addressed by national policymakers in the executive or legislative branches of government.

Then came Spring 2009 to Spring 2010, a lost year for energy and sustainability policy, when all minds and actions at the White House were about health care reform. President Obama rarely mentioned cleantech or sustainability policy. His staff were up to their eyeballs in health care discussions, with one day a month dedicated to a staff meeting on “the environment” (with no regular meeting devoted to clean energy jobs or sustainable economic development).

Was it any wonder that comprehensive climate change and energy legislation have since floundered in the Senate? There has been little attempt to project statistically or show how more sustainable technologies–wind, solar, alternative fuels, green building and infrastructure, water conservation technologies–are fast becoming become one of the more dominant economic sectors globally.

Meanwhile, sprawl and its economic (foreclosure meltdown); health (obesity); environmental and energy consequences (import more oil or drill ever deeper domestically) are running rampant, with little “political courage and candor” in admitting that all the latest technologies will do little do overcome these deep-rooted structural and economic phenomena.

There are untold billions of dollars we will collectively save if the Obama Administration, Congress and our communities are willing to examine and reform the root causes of the BP disaster.

Damage from spewing Gulf oil is occurring to millions or billions of life forms in nature, from plankton, to plants, to fish and aquatic species, to mammals and humans.

Planetary climate change from burning oil, gasoline and other fossil fuels is accelerating, and some developing nations suffering the worst early effects are human equivalents to the innocent pelicans and sea turtles gasping at this very moment for their last breaths.

Who is setting up the escrow fund to repair global destruction from climate change? Costs have been estimated at $80 to $500 billion annually and these will be steadily rising as drought, desertification, heat waves and catastrophic flooding impacts become more severe.

This is a tough question for any entity or nation to answer. The longer we wait in the United States to even pose the question of climate change reparations, however, the more the oil wells, pipelines, tailpipes and smokestacks will be uncontrollably spewing with the meter running, reducing our options in times of future crisis.

We need to get creative now, and go beyond creating mere taxes, penalties and escrow funds, and restructure our assumptions about the role of government, business and economic development.

Globally down to the level of our communities and neighborhoods, we need to awaken to the realization that the time of crisis is now upon us. We must respond in a scale that is appropriate to ensuring that quality of life is an issue not just for elite nations or people, but also for the “small people,” whether in the United States or in developing nations, as well as for the biological tapestry that sustains us and the global economy.   

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally
active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of
How Green is Your City? The
SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

 

 

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Portland, OR and GE sign Green City Agreement

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Portland, Oregon and General Electric announced this afternoon they were signing a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to consider co-developing green technologies, businesses and eco-districts, particularly around energy efficiency, power generation and job creation.

Portland Mayor San Adams said in a Portland City Hall ceremony, “The signing of today’s MoU is a milestone in our efforts to move forward aggressively on our city’s economic development strategy and our climate action plan. I’m proud to bring Portland and GE together to benefit local entrepreneurs and innovators.”

According to the MoU and an associated press release, GE will partner with Portland to:


Engage with local companies to help them develop and expand into new markets
via global product licensing;


Implement residential and commercial energy efficiency retrofits,
and develop neighborhood “Ecodistricts” throughout the city;


Explore city finance needs via municipal, state and GE resources.

The Pacific Northwestern city has been a US sustainability leader in everything from regional green building and light rail development, to renewable energy implementation and farmers markets. Mayor Sam Adams announced the agreement today in a city hall ceremony: “It is an opportunity to take Portland products and services and sell them all over the country and around the world.”

The agreement states that both Portland and GE will inform one another of new products, services, technological developments and business opportunities related to sustainability.

Sustainable urban planning leader Portland State University might also benefit from attention surrounding the agreement with its planned Oregon Sustainability Center research and development supporting related practices, policy and education.

Other US cities attempting to develop sustainability “eco-districts” include San Francisco, which announced a Civic Center district sharing renewable energy generation and project development, and Seattle.

Vancouver, British Columbia, is also investigating new green economic development initiatives. (Portland Mayor Sam Adams visited Vancouver last fall for series of appearances and meetings when Vancouver announced it had aims of becoming the “greenest city in the world.”)

Meanwhile, General Electric, which has long-running marketing program called “Eco-Imagination,” has invested $50 million in a new sustainability R&D center called Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, with the GE focus of the planned 50,000 population center concentrated in smart grid appliance development.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally
active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of
How Green is Your City? The
SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute

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Gulf Oil Crisis, Porn and the Burning Cuyahoga


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Black tarballs and goopy oil are washing up on the summery
white sands of Florida’s beaches. The Gulf oil gusher has reached a pivotal moment, not unlike Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire during the summer of
1969.

The burning Cuyahoga River became a symbol for a national ecological
and industrial system so out of kilter anyone living at the time could see things were really
screwed up. News reports and even
songs, including Randy Newman’s “Burn On,” about the flaming chemical-contaminated water blazed into the public consciousness–I remember as a six year old in Chicago hearing talk about the
burning river over in Cleveland.  

Partially because of the talismanic Cuyahoga, the United
States was forced to enact clean water and clean air legislation that helped reform poor corporate and government management practices. Earth Day was also launched within a year
and a potent social moment was hatched. The
Nixon Administration supported the passage of new clean water and clean air legislation
in Congress, and President Nixon even proposed in late 1969 a new oversight
agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, for independent
industry oversight, with stiff penalties for those that violated
regulations. One of the first cities the
agency “went after”
when formed in 1970 was Cleveland, precisely because of its
burning river.

We are facing the nation’s worst
environmental disaster, and it is becoming
visceral.  Models from the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict that oil from the Gulf spill
will travel from off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida’s panhandle, toward
South Florida, the Florida Keys and the Atlantic Seaboard by summer (NOAA model image below). So don’t be surprised
to see more shots of tarballs, oily birds, turtles and greasy human feet. If you
live in the Southeast or vacation there, expect to smell, see and feel them in
real life.

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“The smell is the worst thing,” said NBC correspondent Anne
Thompson Friday. 
“Until you smell it, you haven’t
experienced it. It is so vile and it gets in your nose and your throat and your
lungs and just stays there. The consistency is like a combination of molasses
and chocolate syrup and it just stinks.”

As Pensacola’s famed white beaches are besieged by toxic
fumes, tar balls and oil blobs, the first real audience reviews from average
Americans are coming in, and they’re not pretty. 

In the world’s consciousness, it’s one thing to have oil
wash up on a coastal Louisiana “swamp”–though scientists and the fishing
industry know that marine life, along with many bird species, depend on estuary
wetlands for their existence.  It’s quite
another thing to prohibit Americans from enjoying their summer vacation at the
beach, which endangers the Southeast’s tourism and fishing industries, along
with the service industries that rely on summer visitors for all or much of their
livelihood.

What will happen next?  I wrote on early April
29

that the BP oil crisis could become larger in magnitude than the Exxon Valdez
spill in Alaska. How much worse can this get? No one knows, but eventually government policy,
consumer habits, technology adoption, media, and even real estate markets will be
changed as a result of the BP oil gusher.

Stopping the oil from spouting into the ocean is of course
priority number one.  Sunday some 10,000
barrels of oil a day
were being captured by BP, with cameras showing more oil
still spewing. 

Here are urgent needs that should be prioritized:

  1. The Obama Administration must conduct a detailed risk assessment of the regional tourism industry,
    the fishing industry and regional services (haircuts, restaurants,
    plumbers, etc.)  that could be
    impacted by this tragedy. The geographic focus should include the Gulf
    Coast states, south Florida, Atlantic Coast (north Florida, Georgia, South
    Carolina, North Carolina) and the open Atlantic. By my rough
    estimate below,  there could be an
    economic impact to the Southeast US economy of more than $52-78 billion, based on the following:

·        
Gulf Coast commercial fish products $6.5 billion
Total–$2-3 billion impact?

·        
Gulf Coast and Southeast Coast share of $42
billion Total
US recreational fishing equipment expenditures: $2 billion impact?

·        
Gulf Coast $100 billion tourism industry Total –$30-50
billion impact?

·        
Florida beach-related tourism $42 billion Total–$10
billion impact? 

·        
Florida recreational fishing $5.4 billion
Total
–$1-2 billion impact? 

·        
Florida commercial fishing: $5.5 billion
Total–$1-2 billion impact?

·        
Florida boating industry $18 billion Total:–$3-4 billion impact?

·        
Georgia coastal tourism $2 billion Total–$.5
billion impact?

·        
South Carolina coastal tourism Total $6.5
billion
–$1-2 billion impact?

·        
North Carolina coastal tourism Total $4 billion
(estimate)–$1 billion impact?

·        
Regional services associated with tourism?

·        
Impact on Ecosystem services (wetlands that
clean water, vegetation including mangroves that provide flood and hurricane
buffer zones)–incalculable?

·        
Heath Care costs for workers, and residents impact
by air and water quality?

Such “full cost” accounting is now
more than ever necessary to examine complete economic, climate, environmental
and societal impacts.   

  1. US subsidies to oil
    companies–some $15 to $35 billion a year–need to be curtailed, and
    transferred to Gulf oil clean-up funds and Gulf economic restoration, and
    also redirected to fund alternative transportation fuel and technology research and deployment.  
  2. The Mineral Management Service agency needs to go. MMS’s
    relationship to the oil industry is so incestuous it will be impossible to
    reform.  “Obviously, we’re all part
    of the oil industry,” one MMS official said to investigators
    who were looking into reports of graft, porn and drugs shared by MMS staff
    and oil officials
    . The feds need to create a completely independent
    oil and gas regulatory agency, similar to the EPA, but with greater power
    as energy is essential to the daily functioning of the overall economy.
    The EPA has already said that it might have a hard time penalizing BP
    because it is such as large supplier of fuel to the US military, including
    being the top supplier of military jet fuel.
  3. Higher-vehicle mileage and
    alternative technologies need to gain much faster traction. We need more
    miles per gallon (beyond current goals) for conventional engines, more plug-in hybrids, and the
    development of more biofuel-burning engines that don’t use food as a fuel source.
  4. Can this finally be the time in our history when “recreational”
    cars and other joy-ride vrrooom vrrooms–at least oil and gas burning
    machines–stop being cool? That goes for jet skiis and race cars. After all, besides demanding all that gasoline, oil and oil-derived
    products (tires, hoses, asphalt roads), these machines are
    causing global climate change, not to mention regional and global air
    pollution, and water pollution from runoff.  Measures should be instituted
    so individuals using these machines purely for pleasure make the connection between their hobbies and the perilous quest for harder-to-justify oil.
  5. The United States needs to consider less-polluting
    domestically produced transitional fossil fuels for transportation, including compressed
    natural gas.
    Recent discoveries have shown a large supply of domestic natural gas can–if
    used for transportation–can offset some of the need for risky deepwater
    drilling (though natural gas drilling has been shown to pollute some local
    water supplies
    , and such activities need to be monitored closely).
  6. Here’s the most obvious
    yet least discussed solution in public or the media. 
    Urban and community planning needs to be instituted that will
    reduce automobile dependence.  Cars use close to half of the oil used in the United States,
    with much of that use resulting from our national migration to poorly planned communities,
    which has been condoned and abetted by national, state and local policy. Yes,
    plug-in hybrids and electric cars will one day replace many of the
    gas-burning cars on the road today, but until then (15-20 years?)  transportation including cars and trucks will account for about 70% of oil used in the country, primarily in suburban/ exurban communities that lack public
    non-automotive choices for commuting to jobs, schools or for shopping,
    entertainment and errands.

It is time to face the sobering truth.

We, or at least all of us that drive or use goods delivered by or that contain oil, are the root of the BP Gulf oil crisis. Until,
we change the way our communities are planned, operated and valued, we will
unfortunately encounter with numbing frequency disasters related to oil that may be even more horrific
than BP’s gusher.

Denial and guilt, combined
with entrenched financial interests (Big Oil and the Auto industry), have been powerful
forces chilling media discussion about the need for less-oil dependent
community planning–walkable neighborhoods with mixed uses and good public
transit.

It’s time to step up the post-oil conversation while
implementing full-cost risk and reparation analyses. The Obama Administration and
our nation have their work cut out for them:  there is a need to clean up not just beaches,
Gulf communities and wetlands, but also the dank bureaucratic swamps of institutional corruption.

The burning Cuyahoga River demonstrated that a crisis truly can present numerous opportunities. Let’s
link cause and effect to powerful solutions by taking bold national and local actions
that will have lasting impact, long beyond the narrowly framed BP Gulf oil disaster
news-of-the-day.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally
active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of
How Green is Your City? The
SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

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“Fire Ice” Impact on Oil Spill, Containment and Energy Future

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Stranger than fiction: methane hydrate, a potential source of energy that may dwarf the supply of earth’s existing fossil fuels likely caused the April 20 Deepwater Horizon-BP explosion and then prevented the containment of the resulting spill this weekend.

Reports that methane hydrate gases shot up the well before the Deepwater Horizon explosion appeared on Friday, while the attempt Saturday by BP to put a containment dome over the leaking oil well was foiled by “slushy methane hydrates” that built up in the structure.

Unknown risks associated with our society’s fossil fuel reliance are suddenly coming into sharper focus, and it’s beginning to look like a well-conceived science fiction movie. Only this is real, it’s happening now, and a happy ending appears out of the question.

We can’t turn it off.  

An out-of-control oil spill is coming directly out of the earth, with seemingly unlimited quantities of crude fouling the nation’s most productive fishery, where 80% of the country’s domestically produced wild seafood supply is harvested. The oil spill is accompanied by one of the most potent known greenhouse gases, which stymies rescue efforts with acute volatility, threatening far more global climate damage than existing fossil fuels.    

Also known as “ice energy,” methane hydrate is layered below the global ocean floors around the world in a frozen, yet highly flammable state. Occurring in permafrost as well, this enigmatic substance has more than three times the carbon than natural gas, coal and oil combined, so it presents incalcuable risks to the global climate if it is released into
the atmosphere without sequestration.

What makes methane hydrate and recent Gulf events so remarkable is that this substance, formed by high pressure and cold temperatures and discovered only in the 1960s, has more potential energy than all the world’s coal, natural gas and oil combined.
energyfromice.jpg

The US Department of Energy (DOE), China and India have all been pursuing methane hydrate deposits and research because of its potential as the ultra high-powered energy source. Russia (in conjunction with Japan) has been the first country to successfully harvest this game-changing energy source.

Oil companies and drilling operations, however, had been wary of its dangers before the Deepwater Horizon event, according to the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory: “(The oil and gas) Industry has concerns about drilling through
hydrate zones, which can destabilize supporting foundations for
platforms and production wells. The disruption to the ocean floor also
could result in surface slumping or faulting, which could endanger work
crews and the environment
.”

The happy ending of our Sci-fi flick: The Gulf oil spill is stopped by drilling a relief well; the millions of gallons that did “spill” are not as damaging as thought; and methane hydrate is safely harnessed and sequestered of carbon worldwide, which phases out oil and natural gas as energy sources. Oil wars largely cease as a result, as methane hydrates are bountiful enough for most coastal nations to secure their own 100+ year energy supply.

Let’s see what the focus groups think.

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is
author
of
How Green
is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post
Carbon
Institute
.

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