The Daily Bulletin - January 8, 2015

The Daily Bulletin - January 8, 2015


A new era of atomic energy may have begun yesterday as the DOE announced it will collaborate with Terrestrial Energy, a company named after a 2008 book, on building a molten salt reactor.  The technology has been under consideration since the 1970s, when it was abandoned after environmentalist protest.  Molten salt reactors are now being experimented with in Russia, China and other parts of the world.  As James Conca reports in Forbes:  “Today, the United States Department of Energy announced that its Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee is partnering with Canadian nuclear company Terrestrial Energy Inc. (TEI) to assist with TEI’s new Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR). The engineering blueprint stage for this GenIV reactor should be reached in two years. The reactor should come online in less than ten. Think of it: a nuclear reactor that - is cheaper than coal- creates much less waste and few long-lived radioactive elements- uses almost all of the fuel which lasts 7 years between replacement, and can be recycled easily- is modular, from 80 MWt to 600 MWt, able to be combined and adapted to individual needs for both on and off-grid heat and power- is small enough to allow fast and easy construction, and trucking to the site- operates at normal pressures, removing those safety issues, and at higher temperatures making it more energetically efficient- has the type of passive safety systems that make it walk-away safe- does not need external water for cooling- can load-follow rapidly to buffer the intermittency of renewables- cannot be repurposed for military use and has strong proliferation resistance- can last for many decades- uses a liquid fuel  Now that is different!” DOE says it will be about ten years before the reactor is ready for commercial operation.  By that time we may be ready for it!


The upsurge in gas and oil production and falling prices has not only helped consumers.  It is also doing wonders for the U.S. trade gap, which has long lingered around the $300 billion mark.  Jeffrey Bartash reports in MarketWatch: “Falling oil imports are also keeping the U.S. trade gap under wraps and contributing to stronger gross domestic product. The deficit shrank 7.7% in November to $39 billion, the lowest level in 11 months. Read: Slumping demand for import oil slashes trade gap. A smaller trade deficit adds to GDP, while a larger one subtracts from the nation’s official estimate of economic growth. The surprisingly large drop in the November deficit pushed a handful of Wall Street firms to boost U.S. growth estimates for the fourth quarter to above 3% from the consensus MarketWatch forecast of 2.8%. The U.S. grew 5% in the third quarter, the biggest spurt since 2003.What remains to be seen is whether the free fall in oil prices prompts frackers to cut back on U.S. production. Such a move that could leader to higher crude imports in the future if prices remain low.”  The U.S. with a positive trade gap?  We haven’t seen that since the 1950s.  


On the other hand, a study reported in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America has found evidence that fracking is associated with minor earthquakes, some of which can be felt, near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.  John Light reports in Grist:  "Yet another study has found a link between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes. This one examined 77 minor quakes near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports: The sequence of seismic events, including a rare “felt” quake of a magnitude 3.0 on the Richter scale, was caused by active 'fracking' on two nearby Hilcorp Energy Co. well pads, according to the research published online [Tuesday] in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. The study found that although it is rare for fracking associated with shale gas extraction to cause earthquakes large enough to be felt on the surface by humans, seismic monitoring advances have found the number of “felt and unfelt” earthquakes associated with fracking have increased over the past 10 years. Studies have found that it’s not just the actual drilling and extraction that causes the earthquakes; more often, the routine practice of injecting fracking wastewater into deep disposal wells is to blame. Once the toxic mix of water, sand, and chemicals is underground, it can travel for miles, changing the pressure on fault lines and sometimes triggering earthquakes.”   


Governor Andrew Cuomo has banned fracking in New York on the basis of several scientific studies that have linked the technology with birth defects and other problems.  Yet Isaac Orr of the Heartland Institute says these studies have been discredited:  “What do Bigfoot and New York’s ban on fracking ban have in common?” he writes in Somewhat Reasonable.  “The evidence supporting the existence of both is equally (un)credible. Gov. Cuomo last month made history by making New York the first state in the nation with significant natural-gas deposits to ban hydraulic fracturing, a k a fracking. It’s a process that uses a mixture consisting of 90 percent water, 9.5 percent sand, and 0.5 percent chemical additives to create tiny cracks in shale rock, releasing the oil and natural gas trapped within. In announcing the ban, Cuomo pointed to a new report from the state Department of Health that claims there’s not enough evidence to prove that fracking is safe.  Yet many of the studies that the report points to raising safety doubts have been thoroughly discredited.”  So Upstate New York misses out on the fracking boom.   


Bill McKibben is ecstatic these days over the idea that public opposition has defeated the Keystone Pipeline.  He anticipates that President Obama will veto the Pipeline purely on the grounds that the era of fossil fuels is behind us.  “When the news arrived from the White House on Tuesday that Barack Obama would veto the GOP’s Keystone pipeline bill – or at least ‘that the president would not sign this bill’ as is – I thought back to a poll that the National Journal conducted of its ‘energy insiders’ in the fall of 2011, just when then issue was heating up. Nearly 92% of them thought Obama’s administration would approve the pipeline, and almost 71% said it would happen by the end of that year.  Keystone’s not dead yet – feckless Democrats in the Congress could make some kind of deal later this month or later this year, and the president could still yield down the road to the endlessly corrupt State Department bureaucracy that continues to push the pipeline – but it’s pretty amazing to see what happens when people organize.  The fight against the XL pipeline began with indigenous people in Canada, and spread to ranchers along the pipeline route in places like Nebraska. And then, in the spring of 2011, when the climate scientist Jim Hansen pointed out the huge pool of carbon in the Canadian tar sands, the fight spread to those of us in the nascent climate movement. We had no real hope of stopping Keystone – as the National Journal poll indicated, this seemed the most done of deals – but we also had no real choice but to try.”  But the oil industry is full of surprises – and McKibben may be about to encounter one. 


California is once again trying to get out in front of everybody by taking up the Japanese challenge that hydrogen is the fuel of the future and by adopting electric cars (which Europeans prefer).  There are other contenders –compressed natural gas, ethanol and even methanol, which the EPA hasn’t approved yet.  But Todd Woody in Quartz thinks Governor Jerry Brown has the edge:  “If California Gov. Jerry Brown has his way, the Golden State is about to go green in a big way. As is often the case, as California goes, so goes the nation. So get ready for more electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in garages powered by solar and wind energy. Inaugurated for his fourth term on Monday, Brownlaid out an ambitious agenda to ramp up California’s fight against climate change by obtaining 50 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and slashing in half the amount of petroleum used in cars and trucks. ‘California has the most far-reaching environmental laws of any state and the most integrated policy to deal with climate change of any political jurisdiction in the western hemisphere,’ he said. ‘These efforts, impressive though they are, are not enough.”  California may each Ecotopia yet. 


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