This week's indicator is 90 by 50, which refers to the Urban Green Council's plan for reducing New York City's emissions 90 percent by 2050. The Council argues that currently practiced techniques—like sealing leaks and triple glazing windows— can enable New York to achieve this goal without the need for technological breakthroughs. This approach of honing in on one sector has implications for cities, as well as companies, in terms of setting sustainability priorities. 

This week's indicator is 2017, which, according to the International Energy Agency, is the year the U.S. will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's leading oil producer. The U.S. is projected to be a net exporter of oil by 2030.

Doomsday for US Wind: Playing Devil’s Advocate

Posted by: Yakov Berenshteyn  /  April 25, 2012 / in Renewable Energy

The federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind power, which makes the renewable source of energy attractive by paying 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of generated power, is set to expire at the end of 2012 and sink the US wind industry along with it.

The projected decline in US wind development has been well covered: The American Wind Energy Association points out that in the year following each previous PTC expiration in 1999, 2001, and 2003, installed wind capacity in the US decreased by 93%, 73%, and 77%, respectively. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) concurs, projecting a decline in turbine installations of as much as 95% in 2013 compared to this year.

While climate legislation is stalled in Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has pushed forward regulations of pollutants besides carbon dioxide that will drive progress toward cleaner power generation fleets and cleaner air.  The major new regulations include Utility MACT (also known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (Mg), the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (SO2/NOx), 316B of the Clean Water Act (H20), and the Coal Combustion Residuals regulation (coal ash). States, utilities, and legislators have shown both support and opposition in the face of these proposed regulations.  Over the last year, there have been many movements to limit the EPA’s power to enforce these standards, most recently 25 states opposing Utility MACT, including the Kansas and Texas lawsuits, Senators Hoeven and Conrad’s legislation, and the FERC Commissioner stating the EPA pace is “too aggressive.”  On the other hand, multiple states  recently filed motions in support of the EPA, making now a good time to examine some key points and evaluate the synergistic effect of all the regulations.

Industry in the Arctic: Transparency and the Unknown

Posted by: Mathew McDermid  /  August 15, 2011 / in Fuels, Oil, Gas

This piece was featured on GreenBiz.

In 2008, the US Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that the Arctic region contains “90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas."1  For relative context, these natural gas estimates are more than six times US domestic reserve estimates.2  Put another way, one third of global undiscovered, potentially recoverable natural gas reserves lie in the Arctic.3

As Arctic ice coverage shrinks, industry is expanding exploration in this region, asserting that extraction and accident response technology is appropriate for this environment. Advances include production rigs that operate on the sea bed and reinforced tankers that break through ice.  As put by Geir Utskot, an Arctic executive for Schlumberger Oilfield Services, "Technology will not hold up Arctic resource development.”4 (See Shell’s video presenting their Arctic preparedness, though note their containment systems are conceptual designs, not existing technology.)5

However, exploring unchartered territory is arguably a situation that warrants caution, not haste, and requires more than technology to get it right.  Recent oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and Yellowstone National Park—supposedly mature operations—illustrate the importance of examining the presumed norms of industry operations, not just technology, in order to avoid undermining culture, reputation, perceived capabilities, and, potentially, license to operate.

It’s hard to go a day without seeing fracking in the news. For a sense of how expansively this issue has captured our collective attention one need look no further than the almost parallel actions last month by the Texas House and the French government, not to mention the activist rappers.
For those who haven’t been following these stories, fracking is a process that injects pressurized fluids into shale formations to crack the rock and forcibly release the previously locked up natural gas.
I must confess that I too have contributed to this reportage. The premise of my piece focused on the need and opportunity for the industry to be proactive and address the concerns associated with fracking – think groundwater contamination from natural gas, potentially harmful components of the pressurized fluids injected, and even more significant GHG emissions -- as a way to demonstrate leadership and to capitalize on this potentially vast, untapped resource.

At last week’s Fortune Brainstorm Green conference, a lot of speakers stood out, but one was head above the rest in terms of eloquence and insight. Van Jones, who had a front row seat in the White House, explained why the Administration lost on cap and trade.  “We focused on the technical details – the head space. We let the heart space open, and the Tea Party swooped in.” They won the argument that government should not regulate carbon emissions.

Obama won the election on hearts, and on “yes we can.” He effectively argued that the government could and would be a partner.

But instead of continuing to dominate the hearts space post-election, the Obama Administration switched to details – including cap and trade – and stuck to the head game, which allowed the Tea Party to win hearts, reframe the debate, and win on an anti-regulation platform in the mid-term elections.

What is behind Jone’s thesis is that political concepts range from the rational, often elitist, to the emotional, often populist. The head game is all rational and the heart game is all emotion. As I have previously outlined on the Economist Ideas Economy blog, and has been well argued by Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick, reason drives decisions, but emotion drives action.

My colleague Truman Semans and I wrote here last week about the power of prizes to inspire the ingenuity needed to solve some of most pressing problems of our time, chief among them the need for environmental innovation.

But despite their cachet and impressive track record, prizes are not a cure-all for our every woe [PDF]. Just as there are important ways that they are underutilized, for instance by the government as a tool to stimulate technology innovation [PDF], prizes are ill-suited for other circumstances.

For example, nearly three years ago Richard Branson announced the Virgin Earth Challenge -- a $25 million prize for the first to develop a commercially viable design for removing at least one billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year for 10 years. But despite 2,500 entries, the prize has gone unawarded and is currently being reevaluated.