domenica 19 maggio 2013

From Canadian Sands Oil, a Black Pile Rises in Detroit. - NYT

Continua la rubrica di politica energetica internazionale.
Oggi propongo un articolo di Ian Austen dal New York Times.
Le importazioni e raffinazioni di prodotti provenienti dalle sabbie bituminose canadesi stanno creando qualche "effetto collaterale" in USA: effetti politici, oltre che ambientali.
La raffinazione genera moltissimo by-product di coke di scarsa qualità di cui non si sa bene cosa fare, o quasi, visto che Cina, India e America Latina lo accettano volentieri come combustibile economico, anche se molto inquinante.
Ma d'altronde sono affari, quindi "One man’s junk is another man’s treasure" come dicono in USA. Amaro ma vero.
Ma non veniteci a dire che negli USA va tutto bene, nessuno si lamenta e siamo noi europei ad essere solo dei bacchettoni.

A Black Mound of Canadian Oil Waste Is Rising Over Detroit

WINDSOR, Ontario — Assumption Park gives residents of this city lovely views of the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit skyline. Lately they’ve been treated to another sight: a three-story pile of petroleum coke covering an entire city block on the other side of the Detroit River.

Detroit’s ever-growing black mountain is the unloved, unwanted and long overlooked byproduct of Canada’s oil sands boom.

And no one knows quite what to do about it, except Koch Carbon, which owns it.

The company is controlled by Charles and David Koch, wealthy industrialists who back a number of conservative and libertarian causes including activist groups that challenge the science behind climate change. The company sells the high-sulfur, high-carbon waste, usually overseas, where it is burned as fuel.

The coke comes from a refinery alongside the river owned by Marathon Petroleum, which has been there since 1930. But it began refining exports from the Canadian oil sands — and producing the waste that is sold to Koch — only in November.

“What is really, really disturbing to me is how some companies treat the city of Detroit as a dumping ground,” said Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan state representative for that part of Detroit. “Nobody knew this was going to happen.” Almost 56 percent of Canada’s oil production is from the petroleum-soaked oil sands of northern Alberta, more than 2,000 miles north.

An initial refining process known as coking, which releases the oil from the tarlike bitumen in the oil sands, also leaves the petroleum coke, of which Canada has 79.8 million tons stockpiled. Some is dumped in open-pit oil sands mines and tailing ponds in Alberta. Much is just piled up there.

Detroit’s pile will not be the only one. Canada’s efforts to sell more products derived from oil sands to the United States, which include transporting it through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, have pulled more coking south to American refineries, creating more waste product here.

Marathon Petroleum’s plant in Detroit processes 28,000 barrels a day of the oil sands bitumen.

Residents on both sides of the Detroit River are concerned that the coke mountain is both an environmental threat and an eyesore.

“Here’s a little bit of Alberta,” said Brian Masse, one of Windsor’s Parliament members. “For those that thought they were immune from the oil sands and the consequences of them, we’re now seeing up front and center that we’re not.”

Mr. Masse wants the International Joint Commission, the bilateral agency that governs the Great Lakes, to investigate the pile. Michigan’s state environmental regulatory agency has submitted a formal request to Detroit Bulk Storage, the company holding the material for Koch Carbon, to change its storage methods. Michigan politicians and environmental groups have also joined cause with Windsor residents. Paul Baltzer, a spokesman for Koch’s parent company, Koch Companies Public Sector, did not respond to questions about its storage or the ultimate destination of the petroleum coke.

Coke, which is mainly carbon, is an essential ingredient in steelmaking as well as producing the electrical anodes used to make aluminum.

While there is high demand from both those industries, the small grains and high sulfur content of this petroleum coke make it largely unusable for those purposes, said Kerry Satterthwaite, a petroleum coke analyst at Roskill Information Services, a commodities analysis company based in London.

“It is worse than a byproduct,” Ms. Satterthwaite said.“It’s a waste byproduct that is costly and inconvenient to store, but effectively costs nothing to produce.”

Murray Gray, the scientific director for the Center for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta, said that about two years ago, Alberta backed away from plans to use the petroleum coke as a fuel source, partly over concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions. Some of it is burned there, however, to power coking plants.

The Keystone XL pipeline will provide Gulf Coast refineries with a steady supply of diluted bitumen from the oil sands. The plants on the coast, like the coking refineries concentrated in California to deal with that state’s heavy crude oil, are positioned to ship the waste to China or Mexico, where it is burned as a fuel. California exports about 128,000 barrels of petroleum coke a day, mainly to China.

Tony McCallum, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, played down the impact of Keystone XL. “Most of the Canadian oil earmarked for the U.S. Gulf Coast is to replace declining heavy oil imports from Mexico and Venezuela that produces the same amount of petcoke, so it doesn’t create a new issue,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Much of the new coking investment has gone into refineries in the Midwest to allow them to take advantage of the oil sands. BP, the British energy company, is building what it describes as the second-largest coke refinery in Whiting, Ind. When completed, the unit will be able to process about 102,000 barrels of bitumen or other heavy oils a day.

And what about the leftover coke? The Environmental Protection Agency will no longer allow any new licenses permitting the burning of petroleum coke in the United States. But D. Mark Routt, a staff energy consultant at KBC Advanced Technologies in Houston, said that overseas companies saw it as a cheap alternative to low-grade coal. In China, it is used to generate electricity, adding to that country’s air-quality problems. There is also strong demand from India and Latin America for American petroleum coke, where it mainly fuels cement-making kilns.

“I’m not making a value statement, but it comes down to emission controls,” Mr. Routt said. “Other people don’t seem to have a problem, which is why it is going to Mexico, which is why it is going to China.”

“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” he said. One of the world’s largest dealers of petroleum coke is the Oxbow Corporation, which sells about 11 million tons of fuel-grade coke a year. It is owned by William I. Koch, a brother of David and Charles.

Lorne Stockman, who recently published a study on petroleum coke for the environmental group Oil Change International, says, “It’s really the dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth,” he said.

Rhonda Anderson, an organizing representative of the Sierra Club in Detroit, said that the mountain’s rise took her group by surprise, but it had one benefit.

“Those piles kind of hit us upside to the head,” she said. “But it also triggered a kind of relationship between Canada and the United States that’s allowed us to work together.”

sabato 18 maggio 2013

Shale gas in USA: non fila tutto liscio come ci racconta qualcuno.

Ciao a tutti, per la serie degli articoli su tematiche energetiche internazionali, oggi presento un interessante articolo apparso qualche giorno fa su "The Guardian" , firmato da Richard Schiffman.
Schiffman ci fa scoprire che anche in USA la situazione shale gas è un pò incerta, nel senso che molti decisori politici non si sono ancora schierati e aspettano notizie e rapporti un po' più definiti sulle conseguenze del fracking.
A differenza di quello che vogliono farci credere, anche lì da loro il NIMBY (forse giustificato?) crea qualche problema, e c'è perfino qualche corte di giustizia che gli ha dato ragione.
Ok, l'Europa è lenta nel decidere, ma non veniteci a dire che solo da noi succedono certe cose, perché non è vero: leggere per credere.

Grassroots campaigns can stop fracking one town at a time

Readers of the New York Daily News were treated to a little unsolicited advice from Ed Rendell recently. The former Pennsylvania governor, a Democrat, who presided over much of the fracking boom in his state from 2003 to 2011, invited his neighboring governor – who's been sitting on the fence over shale gas mining – to join the party.

In Pennsylvania, Rendell effused, "thousands of solid jobs with good salaries were created, communities came back to life and investment in the state soared".

What the Daily News failed to mention is that Rendell has lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency in favor of a driller company, Range Resources, and is currently a paid consultant of Elements Partners, a private equity firm with big stakes in several energy companies that are engaged in fracking. 

And what Rendell failed to mention is that the drilling of over 150,000 wells for natural gas has transformed large swaths of rural Pennsylvania into what basically are industrial zones, bristling with monster trucks, wastewater ponds, and traffic jams. Air pollution is higher in counties with drilling than those without and residents complain about round-the-clock noise. 

Ed Rendell also didn't mention the McIntyre family, who live in Butler County – western Pennsylvania's frack zone – and whose members suffer from projectile vomiting, headaches, breathing problems, mysterious skin rashes … the list goes on. The family dog died suddenly, after lapping up some water the family believes was problematic. The McIntyres no longer drink, brush their teeth, or do their laundry with the water piped into their home.

New Yorkers worried about fracking have been looking at the impact it's had on their neighbors in Pennsylvania. Increasingly, they don't like what they see there. After a fact-finding tour to the town of Troy, in northern Pennsylvania, Terry Gipson, a New York state senator, reported that, despite signs of renewed economic activity in the region, he couldn't help wonder what will happen when the gas boom goes bust, as all booms inevitably do. Gipson asks:

"Envision a time when the trucks are gone, the lease money is spent, the trailers and the diners are empty, and all that is left is unusable farm land with a contaminated water supply. What will these people do then?"

Many New Yorkers have been asking similar questions. Surveys show that support for hydraulic fracturing in the state is at an all-time low. In a poll released by Siena College in April, 45% of voters opposed fracking and 40% supported it (15% said they didn't yet know enough to decide). New Yorkers used to be evenly split on the issue. Interestingly, upstate New York, which tends to be conservative, politically, and which would presumably have the most to gain from allowing gas drilling, reported the highest levels of opposition to fracking: 50% want to see it stay out of the state. 

These sentiments have led to a groundswell of local rebellions against the gas companies. The Albany Times Union reports that there are already 55 separate municipal bans against fracking, and 105 moratoriums in the state. These local bans were challenged in court by the energy companies, who argued that the state alone has the regulatory authority to prohibit drilling. But earlier this month the state supreme court disagreed, ruling that the town of Dryden has the right to prohibit fracking within its borders.

This decision may turn out to be the nail in the coffin for fracking in New York state. If their investment can be rendered worthless by a local town council's vote, gas companies may now be reluctant to spend millions of dollars leasing drill sites.

But anti-fracking activists are not resting on their laurels quite yet, because Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has yet to decide whether to permit gas drilling. Cuomo has promised to announce his decision on a number of deadlines, but they've all come and gone without a definitive word. Touted as a potential presidential contender in 2016, the governor is understandably reluctant to step into this political minefield.  

Earlier reports indicated that the governor make a decision after New York's health commissioner gives his assessment on drilling, which is expected to be released in a matter of weeks. But the latest word from Cuomo's aides is that "there is no timetable for a decision". 

The state put in place a provisional moratorium on drilling in 2008. John Armstrong, of the coalition New Yorkers Against Fracking (NYAF), told me that ever since then, there has been a spontaneous groundswell of "hundreds of kitchen table organizations petitioning and holding public meetings to educate the public on the dangers of fracking".

One such group formed in Vestal, New York, a town just across the state line from Dimock, Pennsylvania, whose flaming taps in the movie Gasland made it a poster child for fracking gone bad. Sue Rapp, the co-founder of Vestal Residents for Safe Energy (VeRSE) has been tramping from door to door with a petition that calls for the town council to ban drilling. She said that many residents need little convincing, since they have seen homes in Pennsylvania with 500-gallon "water buffaloes" – plastic tankards full of drinking water sitting on their front lawns. She says that they've seen how property values plummet, banks revoke mortgages and natural landscapes are altered. Already, endless caravans of trucks barrel through their own town, kicking up dust as they head to Pennsylvania to service the gas industry.

Rapp told me that the recent court ruling has encouraged her, and she says it will free town boards from the fear that the gas companies will sue against any fracking bans. Now that this legal hurdle has been overcome, she expects that a lot more towns will soon vote to keep drillers at bay. Her organization is one of over 200 groups that make up NYAF, an eclectic alliance that includes health professionals, unions, faith institutions, farmers and even breweries.

Rapp is proud, she says, that the movement against drilling in New York grew from the bottom up rather than the top down. Mainline environmental groups were initially ambivalent, believing that natural gas is cleaner than coal, and that its use in America's power plants would lead to significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Those reductions have occurred, but evidence has mounted that mining shale gas carries risks.

But Sue Rapp doesn't see this as an environmental movement so much as an existential quest to preserve a peaceful way of life in the rolling hills of New York's bucolic Southern Tier. Maybe that is why their grassroots campaign appears – for the moment at least – to be succeeding where so many other environmental crusades have failed to ignite the public's imagination.

venerdì 3 maggio 2013

The Dark Side of Energy Independence - B.Alter and E.Fishman

This is article appeared on April 28,2013 on the International Herald Tribune and on The New York Times: it's an interesting analysis about the possible effects of the US energy independence and the related dramatic drop of oil and gas prices in the whole world.
Some months ago I asked Frank Verrastro (US Energy Department) about the same question, and he briefly told me just the same answer.
Geopolitcs, democracy, business, terrorism and safeness. Everything is connected with The Dark Side of Energy Independence.

Enjoy the read!

JUST as the world was writing off America as a declining power, the country now finds itself on the cusp of realizing one of its longstanding goals: energy independence.

A wave of new technologies has made it possible to extract oil and gas from shale rock formations, and the results have been astonishing. By some estimates, the United States is on track to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer as early as 2017, start exporting more oil and gas than it imports by 2025, and achieve full energy self-sufficiency by 2030.

American politicians in both parties have long dreamed of energy independence — not only for its potential economic benefits, but also because it could free the United States from the vicissitudes of the outside world.

Last March, President Obama said that new energy sources and technologies would make America “less dependent on what’s going on in the Middle East.” The Romney campaign, meanwhile, argued that energy independence would mean that “the nation’s security is no longer beholden to unstable but oil-rich regions halfway around the world.”

But that is a fantasy. While the latest energy revolution will be a boon to America’s economy, it will in no way allow the United States to turn its back on the rest of the world.

That’s because America’s oil and gas bonanza will drive down global energy prices, undercutting the foundations of petrostates everywhere. According to Francisco Blanch, the head of commodities research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, oil could fall to just $50 a barrel within the next two years, which could unleash unrest in regions crucial to American interests. Far from releasing the United States from the burden of global leadership, this process would force Washington to assume an even greater international role than it currently plays.

If there’s one part of the world that America would like to be less encumbered by, it’s the volatile and oil-rich Middle East. But energy independence will not spell the end of American engagement in that region. On the contrary, lower energy prices will undermine the stability of the Persian Gulf monarchies, whose hefty oil revenues have allowed them to win their populations’ loyalties through patronage and a lack of taxation. These countries do not always share American values or help advance American interests, but anything that destabilizes them would create problems that Washington could not afford to ignore.

Consider Bahrain, which earns 70 percent of its revenues through petroleum production and refining. The small island monarchy has undergone deeply destabilizing protests since the start of the Arab Spring. A drop in global energy prices would hurt the already weak government, breathing new life into opposition forces. A populist revolution in Bahrain could empower the country’s long-repressed Shiite majority, who already resent Washington’s support for the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family. A new regime in Bahrain might even seek to expel the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, complicating America’s efforts to protect international shipping lanes, fight piracy and check Iran’s regional ambitions.

Even more alarming is the prospect of instability in Saudi Arabia. In 2011, the Saudi royal family was able to head off an Arab Spring-style revolution because of its enormous oil revenues, doling out $130 billion in benefits to pacify the country’s younger and poorer inhabitants. Should lower oil prices make such patronage impossible in the future, the kingdom could face domestic unrest — making the country a far less reliable partner for America in fighting terrorism and countering Iran. Moreover, if Saudi Arabia has less of its own money to spend on regional security, Washington will have to make up for the shortfall.

Outside the Middle East, declining global energy prices could have equally destabilizing effects. Russia rode its way out of the post-Soviet doldrums on a wave of rising revenues from oil and natural gas sales. Today, roughly half the country’s 83 regions could not stay afloat without federal aid, which President Vladimir V. Putin has been able to supply generously thanks to huge oil profits.

As in the gulf monarchies, such transfers have allowed the government to neutralize political opposition. But discontent is still on the rise, as evidenced by the occasional protests that have shaken Moscow since 2011. Even a temporary drop in oil prices would constrain Mr. Putin’s ability to pay off his enemies: experts at the Russian School of Economics predict that the country’s oil wealth fund, a stash of petrodollars reserved for times of need, would be depleted if prices fell to $60 a barrel for just one year.

If he’s unable to buy loyalty through patronage, Mr. Putin could turn to more pernicious methods like bullying neighbors and fanning the flames of nationalism. With outstanding border disputes and age-old rivals circling Russian territory, another conflict along the lines of the 2008 war against Georgia is not out of the question.

In the long run, of course, America would welcome a Russia that is more beholden to its people’s wishes than to fluctuations in energy markets. Washington should be under no illusions, however, that the transition to that point will be either smooth or linear, and it should prepare for turbulence along the way.

Many will argue that an energy-independent America could simply retreat into isolationism during such a period of turbulence. But American engagement abroad has never been purely about securing access to energy. The United States has benefited as much as any other country from the free exchange of goods, the safety of global sea lanes, the spread of democracy and the great-power stability that have characterized the entire post-World War II era. None of this could exist without the steadying hand of American power. Washington must make abundantly clear that it will continue to uphold this world order — irrespective of its own energy fortunes.

Americans should cheer the energy revolution. It will do wonders for the American economy, and the democratic politics it could encourage in the Middle East and Russia may ultimately serve American interests. But in the meantime, Washington should expect a world far less stable than the one it is used to — and, in turn, prepare to adopt an even more outward-looking foreign policy.