Opinions à la Carte

Have you ever experienced a restaurant menu overflowing with so many tasty entrées that making your selection seemed an impossible decision? Your deliberation probably ended when the waiter began tapping a pen on his order pad and your dinner-mates gave you the evil eye. Picking a commentary topic each month is much like scanning the dinner menu. There are usually many topics that deserve a good slice and dice, but it’s the deadline that forces a decision.

I decided to try something different this month. Instead serving up a one-course meal, we’re having smorgasbord. There are enough opinions here to either satiate your appetite or give you heartburn. I trust you’ll find the servings to your liking. Bon appétit!

Unexpected Candor. In a mid-April report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that tighter leakage control on natural gas wells resulted in an average annual decrease of 41.6 million metric tons of methane emissions from 1990 through 2010, or 850 million metric tons overall. That is a reduction of 20% from the agency’s earlier estimates. These reductions occurred while natural gas production grew by 40% since 1990. This isn’t surprising, because well producers are aware that losing product to the atmosphere isn’t good business. The new EPA data is “kind of an earthquake” in the debate over drilling, said Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental advocacy group. Expect the leakage rates to continue to drop in the future, frustrating fracking foes.

Shale Gas Reserves Estimates Increased, Again. The April 9 biennial assessment report from the Potential Gas Committee on future U.S. natural gas resources shows that the gas boom should continue for quite some time. The committee’s future gas supply estimate rose 22.1% over its 2010 estimate to 2,688 trillion cubic feet. To put that number into perspective, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects natural gas usage for 2013 and 2014 to average 70.2 Bcf/d for all uses. That translates into about 100 years of supply at today’s usage rate. Expect reserve estimates to continue to rise faster than usage growth. The “bridge fuel” is now the fuel express lane.

Solar Boom Then Bust. MidAmerican Solar and SunPower began construction, in late April, of their 579-MW Antelope Valley Solar photovoltaic project, located in Kern and Los Angeles counties. The project, when completed at the end of 2015, will sell power to Southern California Edison under long-term purchase contracts. At a March Solar Summit hosted by Burns & McDonnell, representatives of the three major California utilities agreed that the number of these large projects is limited because the number of future sites this large are limited, current contracts have lower purchase prices, one-time federal government loan guarantees have expired, the solar investment tax credit ends in 2016, and California utility solar project contract goals are oversubscribed. Once the few large projects in California’s queue are digested, expect to see the market focus on smaller projects (<50 MW).

Pass the Nuclear Buck. Congress has been unable to unscramble the failed Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) and its 1987 Amendments in which Yucca Mountain was specified as the nation’s single repository for spent nuclear fuel. Nuclear plant owners have since put about $35 billion into a fund created to pay for the Department of Energy’s (DOE) development of a storage site ($12 billion was spent on Yucca Mountain). The legal deadline for completing Yucca Mountain was 1998. Failing to meet that deadline, the DOE has since doled out about $1.2 billion in damages to utilities, with dozens of lawsuits and claims pending. Utilities, justifiably, want their money back. The congressional response: Legislation to form a new Nuclear Waste Administration, located outside the DOE, was introduced in the Senate in late April. Don’t add another bureaucracy; fix the NWPA and its amendments that caused the problems in the first place.

Carbon Appealed, Again. Southeastern Legal Foundation on April 19 filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court “challenging the Obama Administration’s EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.” The petition names its sponsors as 12 members of Congress and 15 companies and associations. The writ of certiorari is a legal request for the Supreme Court to review a lower court’s ruling, specifically, the June 2012 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that upheld the EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act. The stage is now set for the long-expected showdown about regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The Supremes botched the 2007 Massachusetts vs. EPA decision that has since morphed into a crazy quilt of absurd regulations and “tailoring” rules. I still believe the court wants to fix the problem it caused.

Breaking Ranks. The Economist has written often about its view of a looming climate catastrophe and has supported radical reductions in the consumption of fossil fuels for many years. In its March 30 issue, the magazine reviewed the latest climate change scientific findings, particularly with respect to the 16+ year global temperature standstill that has occurred while atmospheric CO2 emissions have increased 50% since 1990. The magazine didn’t completely reverse course in its long-held views, but it did present a very even-handed assessment of how “unsettled” the science remains. The Economist even took a shot at the alarmists: “If climate scientists were credit-rating agencies, climate sensitivity [the relation between atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and warming] would be on negative watch.” I hope other media sources follow its lead.

Let me know your thoughts about my à la carte servings of opinion. Send your orders to robertp@powermag.com, and don’t forget the tip.

Dr. Robert Peltier, PE is POWER’s editor-in-chief.