TIME energy

Obama Approves Sonic Cannons to Map Atlantic for Offshore Oil and Gas

Offshore drilling in the Atlantic is up for debate
The Atlantic offshore territory has been off limits to U.S. oil drilling, but that could change Brasil2 via Getty Images

Over environmental objections, the Obama Administration moves forward with exploration that could yield new domestic oil and gas sources

The Obama administration reopened part of the Eastern seaboard Friday to offshore oil and gas exploration, promising to boost job creation in the energy sector while at the same time fueling the fears of environmental groups.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) estimates that 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas lies beneath the coast from Florida to Maine. The recent decision allows exploration from Florida to Delaware and could create thousands of new jobs supporting expanded energy infrastructure along the East Coast.

“Offshore energy exploration and production in the Atlantic could bring new jobs and higher revenues to states and local communities, while adding to our country’s capabilities as an energy superpower,” American Petroleum Institute upstream director Erik Milito said in a statement.

Environmentalists worry about damage to shorelines, and to the tourist industry. They also worry about the safety of ocean wildlife. The exploration will initially be conducted via seismic surveys that use sonic cannons to locate oil and gas deposits beneath the ocean floor. The cannons emit sound waves louder than a jet engine every ten seconds for weeks at a time.

“We’re definitely concerned,” Hamilton Davis, energy and climate change director for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, told TIME. “The exploration activities lead in the direction of actual development of oil and gas, and from our perspective as a coastal organization that worries about our environmental ecological landscape as well as our [tourism] economy, the oil and gas industry certainly doesn’t seem to fit into that equation. Just the impacts from exploration activities on marine wildlife I think would give most people pause… You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of animals that will be negatively impacted as a consequence of these activities.”

BOEM said it approved the seismic surveys with the environment in mind. “After thoroughly reviewing the analysis, coordinating with Federal agencies and considering extensive public input, the bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites,” said Acting BOEM Director Walter D. Cruickshank in a statement.

Sonic cannons are already used in the western Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska, but many constituents and elected officials in the newly opened East Coast territory have expressed their concerns about the testing and eventual drilling. Congressional officials from Florida, including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, signed a letter to President Obama opposing the decision.

“Expanding unnecessary drilling offshore simply puts too much at risk. Florida has more coastline than any other state in the continental United States and its beaches and marine resources support the local economy across the state,” the letter states.

The area to be mapped is in federal waters, not under the jurisdiction of state law. Energy companies will apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits expire.

 

TIME energy

White House Tightens Oil Train Safety Regulations

Oil Trains Accidents
a BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Montana on Nov. 6, 2013. Matthew Brown—AP

After a spate of train derailments, the Obama administration issued new rules on an increasingly popular way to move crude in the U.S.

Updated at 3:53 p.m.

Freight trains that haul an increasingly large amount of oil across the United States will have to improve safety mechanisms under new regulations proposed by the Obama administration Wednesday.

The new rules include lower speed limits, new brake requirements, tougher regulations on the sturdiness of oil tank construction and a plan for phasing out some older oil tank cars.

As a result of the rapid increase in oil production in North America in recent years, a growing volume of crude is being moved from well-head to refinery via freight trains—an increase of 423 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to the Department of Transportation. In tandem with that sharp uptick, there has been a spate of train accidents involving spilled crude oil, up from none in 2010 to five in 2013 and five by February this year, before a train carrying crude derailed in April in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, temporarily setting on fire to a river that passes by the town’s population of 77,000.

The fact that train accidents overall have been in sharp decline in the last decade speaks to the tremendous increase in the amount of crude oil being moved around the country by rail.

Environmentalist groups have been pushing for tighter safety rules on freight trains carrying crude oil, which often pass through or near residential communities. A particularly devastating train accident last year in a town in Quebec left more than 40 dead and dozens of buildings destroyed.

Among the initiatives the DOT proposed Wednesday is a plan to address concerns that crude oil drilled out of the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota, today one of the most productive oil fields in the world, is a particularly dangerous form of crude. “It has become general public knowledge that Bakken crude is proving particularly explosive,” said Anthony Swift, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In its response to the DOT proposal, the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group, rejected the notion that Bakken crude is especially dangerous. “The best science and data do not support recent speculation that crude oil from the Bakken presents greater than normal transportation risks,” said API President Jack Gerard.

TIME trade

It’s Time for Europe to Get Tough With Russia

European Union Foreign Ministers Meet On Ukraine Crisis
Flags of the European Union seen in front of the headquarters of the European Commission on March 03, 2014 in Brussels, Belgium. Michael Gottschalk—Photothek/Getty Images

Europe has a history of coming together in good times but not in bad. Think about the creation of the Eurozone, and the launch of the single currency, juxtaposed with the piecemeal policy reaction over the last few years to the Eurozone financial crisis. This tendency has been on tragic display recently, with the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines jet that carried numerous European passengers. This event should have strengthened European resolve to put more and tougher sanctions on Russia. Instead, it’s led to half-hearted measures doled out on a country-by-country basis. France is even going ahead with big deal to supply warships to Russia.

The key issue, of course, is that Europe is in very deep with the Russians economically, much deeper than the U.S. Or China, for that matter; The recent Russia-China gas deal was small potatoes compared to the business that the Europeans do. Europeans get about 30 percent of their gas from Russia, and are dependent on other natural resources, like oil and minerals, from Russia too. Indeed, the Netherlands, which lost more people than any European country in the crash, took in the largest share of those exports from Russia last year. They aren’t alone—German banks and multinationals do lots of business with Russia, and countries like the UK are a big destination for oligarchs looking to stash cash outside their home country.

That’s why it’s so crucial that European foreign ministers come together at their meeting over the Ukraine situation and Russian sanctions in Brussels. Until they are on board with more serious sanctions, particularly in the energy sector, it’s unlikely that the current rounds are going to make a serious dent in the Russian economy, which, as a recently Capital Economics report pointed out, still has a strong international investment position.

The bottom line is that Europe needs a much smarter and less Russia-centric energy strategy. As I’ve explained before, that’s a need that’s unlikely to filled by the gas rich US anytime soon. Rather it’s something that will have to be driven internally within Europe. It’s an opportunity not only for Europe to become more secure, but to prove to the rest of the world that it can work together and live up to the promise of the EU itself—in both good times and bad.

TIME energy

New Poll Shows Americans Won’t Give Up Their Cars

Stuck in Traffic
Cars stuck in traffic. Maureen Sullivan—Getty Images

Our car-crazy culture lags behind global competitors in using public transportation

Gas prices are high, roads are clogged and driving alone is worse for the planet. But Americans still prefer to commute in their air-conditioned cocoons.

A new global survey conducted for TIME on attitudes toward energy reveals that Americans are more reluctant than international counterparts to ditch their cars for public transportation.

Only 16% of Americans prefer using public transportation to get to work, compared with 41% of respondents overall in the poll, which compared U.S. attitudes toward energy and conservation with those in Brazil, Germany, India, South Korea and Turkey. Just 8% of U.S. respondents said they always take public transit instead of a personal vehicle, sharply below the overall total of 27%.

Americans’ reluctance to ditch their cars may be a symptom of their overall disinclination to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint. One in three U.S. respondents said they were willing to change their behavior in their name of conservation, 10 percentage points below the overall average and ahead of only South Korea.

Or it may stem from our long-running love affair with the automobile. A full 79% of respondents from the U.S. said they rely on their car for transportation, about double the overall average of 39%. (Germans were the second biggest gearheads, with 47% relying on cars to get around.) Just 9% of Americans said they lean most heavily on trains, metro systems or public buses.

The survey was conducted among 3,505 online respondents equally divided between the U.S., Brazil, Germany, Turkey, India and South Korea. Polling was conducted from May 10 to May 22. The overall margin of error overall in the survey is 1.8%.

TIME energy

Poll: Men and Women Think Differently About Energy

Energy Power Lines
Getty Images

A new global survey for TIME shows how attitudes toward conservation may be guided by gender

More women than men worldwide say energy conservation is a “very important” issue, while men report greater personal concern about global warming, according to the results of a new global energy survey conducted for TIME.

The survey polled online respondents in six countries—the U.S., Germany, India, Turkey, Brazil and South Korea—on their attitudes toward energy. It revealed that conservation habits and perspectives about energy challenges differ along gender lines, and not always in the ways you might expect.

Nearly 70% of women said energy conservation was a vital issue, compared with less than 50% of men. At the same, 65% of males reported that global warming was a very important issue to them, far outpacing the 37% of females who said the same.

The survey suggests that women are more leery of nuclear power (by a 48% to 40% margin), slightly more convinced the earth is warming (60% to 56%) and more likely to report high degrees of concern over rising sea levels, pollution and gas prices. By a couple of percentage points, women also took a more favorable stand on the oil-and-gas industry’s role in the issue.

Men, on the other hand, were more likely to say that rich nations should take the lead in the fight to reduce emissions (50% to 46%), and more likely to lay blame for the global warming crisis at the feet of the United States (45% to 38%), which has long held the ignominious title of the world’s largest carbon emitter.

The sexes were also split in their assessment of their home country’s role in the climate crisis. Sixty-three percent of women say their nation is part of the problem, compared with 54% of men. Men were more likely to say their country was part of the solution, by a 46% to 37% margin.

The survey was conducted among 3,505 online respondents equally divided between the U.S., Brazil, Germany, Turkey, India and South Korea. Polling was conducted from May 10 to May 22. The overall margin of error overall in the survey is 1.8%.

TIME energy

6 Simple Ways to Save on Your Energy Bill

Reduce your carbon footprint and keep more money in your pocket

+ READ ARTICLE

Unless you’re the Viking God and Marvel Comic character Thor, with the enviable ability to harness electricity—i.e. lightning—using your magic hammer, odds are you have to buy energy from other sources like power plants and gas stations.

Energy is a major expense for American families—about 22% of all energy consumed in the U.S. goes into running our households and all the modern conveniences we’ve come to rely upon, like our air conditioners, heaters, lights and computers.

Fortunately, there are easy ways to cut back on your energy usage, reducing your carbon footprint on the environment and your energy bill along with it. Here are six areas where cutting back on your energy usage is an easy way to put more money in your pocket.

TIME energy

Electric Cars Will Change the Way You Power Your Home

An electric charging cable is seen connected to the updated Nissan Leaf vehicle during a news conference in Japan, Tokyo, on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012.
An electric charging cable is seen connected to the updated Nissan Leaf vehicle during a news conference in Japan, Tokyo, on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012. Kiyoshi Ota—Bloomberg/Getty Images

How the homes of the future will generate and store their own electricity, turning your house into a mini-power plant

Electric vehicles are our fastest-growing alternative to oil-derived gasoline. Solar panels are our fastest-growing alternative to coal-powered electricity. They’re both getting less expensive and more effective, driving our clean-energy revolution. And there’s new evidence that these two great tastes can taste particularly great together, transforming how we consume and produce power in ways that will accelerate that green revolution.

The evidence comes from Opower, a firm that uses software and behavioral science to help utilities promote energy conservation — and has amassed the world’s largest storehouse of household energy data along the way. Opower studied the power-consumption habits of about 2,000 plug-in electric-vehicle owners enrolled in “time-of-use” pricing programs. That means they got discounted electricity rates from midnight to 7 a.m., when demand is typically low, but paid a surcharge during peak daytime hours, when demand tends to spike.

Grid managers have to balance supply and demand every second, so big gaps between peak and off-peak demand can create big inefficiencies by forcing them to turn power plants on and off to adjust supply. In theory, the combination of electric vehicles (which can be charged anytime) and time-of-use pricing (which encourages charging after midnight) could help reduce those gaps. It could also help prevent electric vehicles (which alleviate the problem of carbon emissions) from exacerbating the problem of overloaded daytime grids. And that’s basically what the data showed — with a twist.

Opower found that EV owners did respond to the incentives to charge during off-peak hours, using three times as much power as the typical household between midnight and 7 a.m. It’s notoriously tough to get consumers to adjust their behavior, even when it’s in their financial interest, so that’s good news. At first glance, the data from the rest of the day looks like bad news: from 7 a.m. until midnight, EV owners still used 21% more power than the typical household. But this was mainly because they’re richer than the typical household; their houses were bigger and more likely to have a swimming pool. They clearly did the bulk of their vehicle charging after midnight when power was cheap.

The most striking data was from EV owners who also had solar panels. From 7 a.m. to midnight, they used about one-fourth as much power from the grid as the typical household, because they were getting power from their rooftops and often selling power back to the grid. In other words, they took very little from the grid when demand was high — at times even helping to increase supply — and took much more from the grid when demand was low. They helped smooth out demand.

That’s very good news, not only because smoothing out demand is a kind of holy grail for utilities, but because EV owners were 6.6 times more likely to have solar panels than the typical household. Nancy Pfund, a venture capitalist who invested early in Tesla Motors, the hottest EV firm, and Solar City, the leading solar installer, calls EVs “the gateway drug to solar.” Once you stop using hydrocarbons to fuel your car, she says, you want to stop using hydrocarbons, period. “Together, they can be a huge tool for managing our energy load,” Pfund says. “And they’re both taking off.”

Before 2009, when President Obama poured $90 billion into clean energy through his stimulus bill, the U.S. had no EV or solar industry to speak of. It now has nearly 250,000 EVs and nearly 500,000 solar rooftops, and both industries are still growing exponentially; Tesla and Solar City, both Elon Musk ventures, have both enjoyed soaring stock prices since going public. EV battery prices are not yet truly competitive with gasoline, although they’ve dropped 50% in five years, but retail solar prices, which have plunged 80%, are now competitive with fossil fuels in half the country. And the more they’re deployed, the cheaper they’ll get.

EVs are still less than 1% of the U.S. auto fleet, and solar still provides less than 1% of U.S. electricity. In terms of reducing emissions, they are still less significant than hybrid vehicles or wind power or energy-efficient appliances. But they are what the Silicon Valley types like to call “disruptive.” When you put a solar panel on your roof, your home becomes a mini-power plant. When you buy an electric vehicle, you suddenly control an automobile-shaped energy-storage device. It won’t be long before homeowners with both can be mini-utilities, buying power from the grid when it’s cheap and selling power to the grid when it’s expensive. Willett Kempton, a University of Delaware professor, has created electric vehicles that communicate and interact with the grid in real time; they earn about $150 per car per month by storing excess power when the grid gets temporarily overloaded.

That would make the economics of EVs more attractive, accelerating the route to mass adoption. “Net metering” will be similarly important for solar, allowing homeowners to sell power to the grid at attractive prices; as the Opower study demonstrated, time-of-use pricing can also help shape electricity demand. All of this will help create a more flexible, less centralized energy system, incorporating more renewable power without sacrificing reliability when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, adapting instantaneously to changes in demand and supply with the help of modern information technology and Opower-style Big Data. Our cars (as well as other smart appliances) will optimize their power needs with our utilities, and we can intervene at any time over our iPhones.

You could imagine a future where solar panels and EVs (perhaps with additional backup storage, like the wall-mounted batteries Solar City and Tesla recently launched) help Americans declare independence from the grid, the way mobile phones have set us free from landlines. More likely, though, the clean-energy revolution will just change our relationship to the grid. Our utilities will be as dependent on us as we are dependent on them. And we’ll have power over our power.

TIME natural disaster

7 Quakes Hit Oklahoma in Less Than a Day

Oil Drilling Earthquakes
Computer screens displaying data of real-time monitoring of seismic activity throughout the state of Oklahoma are pictured at the Oklahoma Geological Survey at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., Thursday, June 26, 2014. Earthquakes that have shaken Oklahoma communities in recent months have damaged homes, alarmed residents and prompted lawmakers and regulators to investigate what's behind the temblors — and what can be done to stop them. Sue Ogrocki—AP

The biggest temblor clocked in at 4.3 on the Richter scale

Oklahoma was rocked by seven small earthquakes in a span of about 14 hours over the weekend, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

Three quakes hit between Saturday evening and Sunday morning, centered in the areas of Guthrie, Jones and Langston, and ranging between 2.6 and 2.9 in magnitude. They followed four larger temblors earlier on Saturday, including one near Langston shortly after noon that clocked in at 4.3 on the Richter scale.

TIME Environment

A Year After a Deadly Disaster, Fears Grow About the Danger of Crude Oil Shipped By Rail

The U.S. is producing more oil than it has in decades—and much of that oil is being transported by railroads that travel through crowded cities

+ READ ARTICLE

When 21-year-old mother Kahdejah Johnson was told two years ago that she’d secured a spot at the Ezra Prentice Homes, a quiet housing project in Albany, she felt confident she’d found a stable home to raise her newborn son. With its manicured lawns and tidy beige row houses, the Ezra Prentice Homes are a far cry from the crumbling housing projects of large cities. “When people come into town they’re like ‘These are your projects? These are condos!’” says Johnson.

But today, Johnson is losing sleep over how close her house is to railroad tracks congested, day and night, with tanker cars carrying crude oil, visible just outside her bedroom window. The fear of an accident is so great that Johnson has taken to evacuating her apartment some nights, to spend the night at her mother’s home, further from the tracks. “Now I’m afraid to be in my own home,” she says. “Do you know how fast we could die here?”

Albany is one of a growing number of cities where residents like Johnson fear the devastating consequences of accidents involving railcars filled with crude oil. They have reason to fear—on July 6, 2013, a train carrying oil derailed in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, causing an explosion that destroyed more than 30 buildings and killed more than 40 people. This past Sunday, Johnson and other Albany residents held a vigil to commemorate the Lac-Megantic derailment—and draw attention to the growing opposition to transporting crude oil by rail

“Jo-Annie Lapointe, Melissa Roy, Maxime Dubois, Joanie Turmel,” participants in the vigil intoned into a microphone, naming Lac-Megantic residents killed in the explosions. In a line, they held portraits of each of the deceased and read their names, pinning the pictures to a black metal fence. “You may not say that they lived right next door to you, but they were your neighbors,” said Pastor McKinley Johnson, who officiated part of the ceremony. “You may not say that you understand all the language, but they’re your sister and your brother.”

As in Lac-Megantic, oil tankers containing highly flammable crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana roll right through their residential areas. Rows of train-cars filled with crude oil often stand idle for hours on the tracks that hug the curves of the housing project, so tightly only 15 feet at most separate the two in some areas. “Once I found out that these are the same tanks that were in Canada, I was like ‘Oh my God, someone pray for us, We’re in danger’,” Johnson said.

This fear is a consequence of the unconventional oil boom in states like North Dakota, where for the last several years producers have been using hydrofracking techniques to pump oil previously locked in underground shale rock. The new oil fields have helped America’s oil production rise to a 28-year high. But that crude oil has to get to refineries, most of which are located in coastal cities—and much of that oil is moving by rail. Nationally, transport of crude oil by train has jumped 45-fold between 2008 and 2013, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

While the U.S. has yet to experience a rail catastrophe on the scale of Lac-Megantic, the country has had its share of close calls. The National Transportation Safety Board counts five “significant accidents” of trains containing crude oil in the United States in the past year alone. The latest, in Lynchburg, Virginia, saw a train carrying crude Bakken oil derail and burst into flames in the town’s center this April, producing black plumes of smoke and billows of flames taller than buildings nearby. The crude oil also spilled into the James River, though one was injured.

The worrying trend has opened a new front to the national environmental debate. Some 40 cities and towns across the country scheduled similar events to mark Lac-Megantic’s one-year anniversary. Many of the rallies will take place in the usual hotbeds of environmental activism —in places like Seattle and Portland—but also in blue-collar tows like Philadelphia and Detroit, where activists will voice demands ranging from a moratorium on oil-trains traffic to increased safety controls.

But the problem has also presented environmentalists with a conundrum. One of the factors behind the rapid rise of railroad shipment of crude oil has been the shortage of oil pipelines, which could move greater quantities of oil from landlocked states to coastal refineries. Front and center to this debate is the multi-billion dollar Keystone XL pipeline project, which would connect the oil sands of western Canada to the Gulf Coast, but which President Obama has yet to approve—in part because of objections raised by environmentalists, who fear the potential for a spill.

Fewer pipelines has meant more oil moved via rail. “If Keystone had been built we wouldn’t be moving nearly the volume of oil that we’re moving by rail,” said Charles Ebinger, the director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

That has exposed the Keystone’s opponents to criticism that by standing in the way of pipeline projects, they are raising the risk of rail accidents. Though hazardous material like crude oil makes its way safely via rail 99.998 percent of the time, according to the Association of American Railroads, a plethora of research suggests that pipelines result in fewer spillage incidents, personal injuries and fatalities than rail. That includes an authoritative environmental review the State Department released last January, which concluded that “there is… a greater potential for injuries and fatalities associated with rail transport relative to pipelines.”

Still, environmentalists like Ethan Buckner of ForestEthics, the group coordinating the string of events to commemorate the Lac-Megantic tragedy, reject that dichotomy. “The industry is trying to present Americans with a false choice between pipelines and rails,” he says. “We want to choose clean energy.”

Back in Albany, the vigil was deemed a success, drawing a crowd of about a hundred. But Kahdejah Johnson wasn’t among them. Why not? Her fear, she said, got the best of her. “Honestly, I don’t really hang by my house,” she said. “I don’t like to be in that area if I don’t have to be there.” She is now on a waiting list to be transferred to another development—something she’s told could take up to four years. In the meantime, the trains will keep rolling.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser