Saturday, March 29, 2008

First cities go dark for Earth Hour

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Sydney's iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge went dark Saturday night as the world's first major city turned off its lights for this year's Earth Hour, a global campaign to raise awareness of climate change.

The lights on the arch of Harbour Bridge were turned off at 8 p.m., followed shortly by the shells of the Opera House and other city landmarks. Most businesses and homes were already dark as Sydney residents embraced their second annual Earth Hour with candlelight dinners, beach bonfires and even a green-powered outdoor movie.

The city was noticeably darker, though not completely blacked out. The business district was mostly dark; organizers said 250 of the 350 commercial buildings there had pledged to shut off their lights completely.

The number of participants was not immediately available but organizers were hoping to beat last year's debut, when 2.2 million people and more than 2,000 businesses shut off lights and appliances, resulting in a 10.2 percent reduction in carbon emissions during that hour.

The effect of last year's Earth Hour was infectious. This year, 26 major world cities and more than 300 other cities and towns have signed up for the event.

New Zealand and Fiji kicked off the event this year. In Christchurch, New Zealand, more than 100 businesses and thousands of homes were plunged into darkness, computers and televisions were switched off and dinners delayed for the hour from 8 to 9 p.m. Suva, Fiji, in the same time zone, also turned off its lights.

Auckland's Langham Hotel switched from electric lights to candles as it joined the effort to reduce the use of electricity, which when generated creates greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

After Australia, lights will go out in major Asian cities, including Manila and Bangkok before moving to Europe and North America as the clock ticks on. One of the last major cities to participate will be San Francisco -- home to the soon-to-be dimmed Golden Gate Bridge.

"What's amazing is that it's transcending political boundaries and happening in places like China, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea," said Earth Hour executive director Andy Ridley. "It really seems to have resonated with anybody and everybody."

Organizers see the event as a way to encourage the world to conserve energy. While all lights in participating cities are unlikely to be cut, it is the symbolic darkening of monuments, businesses and individual homes they are most eagerly anticipating.

Even popular search engine Google put its support behind Earth Hour, with a completely black Web page and the words: "We've turned the lights out. Now it's your turn."

"It is a wake-up call," said Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore. "We need to really plan for our future. (Earth Hour) is something we can all do together. Going global is very empowering."

to the source

AP Photo

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Inside the world of war profiteers

From prostitutes to Super bowl tickets, a federal probe reveals how contractors in Iraq cheated the U.S.

ROCK ISLAND, Ill.—Inside the stout federal courthouse of this Mississippi River town, the dirty secrets of Iraq war profiteering keep pouring out.

Hundreds of pages of recently unsealed court records detail how kickbacks shaped the war's largest troop support contract months before the first wave of U.S. soldiers plunged their boots into Iraqi sand.

The graft continued well beyond the 2004 congressional hearings that first called attention to it. And the massive fraud endangered the health of American soldiers even as it lined contractors' pockets, records show.

Federal prosecutors in Rock Island have indicted four former supervisors from KBR, the giant defense firm that holds the contract, along with a decorated Army officer and five executives from KBR subcontractors based in the U.S. or the Middle East. Those defendants, along with two other KBR employees who have pleaded guilty in Virginia, account for a third of the 36 people indicted to date on Iraq war-contract crimes, Justice Department records show.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Rock Island sentenced the Army official, Chief Warrant Officer Peleti "Pete" Peleti Jr., to 28 months in prison for taking bribes. One Middle Eastern subcontractor treated him to a trip to the 2006 Super Bowl, a defense investigator said.

Prosecutors would not confirm or deny ongoing grand jury activity. But court records identify a dozen FBI, IRS and military investigative agents who have been assigned to the case. Interviews as well as testimony at the sentencing for Peleti, who has cooperated with authorities, suggest an active probe.

Rock Island serves as a center for the probe of war profiteering because Army brass at the arsenal here administer KBR's so-called LOGCAP III contract to feed, shelter and support U.S. soldiers, and to help restore Iraq's oil infrastructure.

In one case, a freight-shipping subcontractor confessed to giving $25,000 in illegal gratuities to five unnamed KBR employees "to build relationships to get additional business," according to the man's December 2007 statement to a federal judge in the Rock Island court. Separately, Peleti named five military colleagues who allegedly accepted bribes. Prosecutors also have identified three senior KBR executives who allegedly approved inflated bids. None of those 13 people has been charged.

A common thread runs through these cases and other KBR scandals in Iraq, from allegations the firm failed to protect employees sexually assaulted by co-workers to findings that it charged $45 per can of soda: The Pentagon has outsourced crucial troop support jobs while slashing the number of government contract watchdogs.

The dollar value of Army contracts quadrupled from $23.3 billion in 1992 to $100.6 billion in 2006, according to a recent report by a Pentagon panel. But the number of Army contract supervisors was cut from 10,000 in 1990 to 5,500 currently.

Last week, the Army pledged to add 1,400 positions to its contracting command. But even those embroiled in the frauds acknowledge the impact of so much war privatization.

"I think we downsized past the point of general competency," said subcontractor Christopher Cahill, who for a decade prepared military supply depots under LOGCAP. Now serving 30 months in federal prison for fraud, Cahill added: "The point of a standing army is to have them equipped."

KBR, a former subsidiary of Halliburton Co., says it has been paid $28 billion under LOGCAP III. The firm says it quickly reports all instances of suspected fraud and has repaid the Defense Department more than $1 million for questionable invoices.

In a statement, KBR said its roughly 20,000 employees and 40,000 subcontractors have performed laudably in a war zone where Army demands shift rapidly and local suppliers don't always maintain ledger books. Spokeswoman Heather Browne wrote: "Ethics and integrity are core values for KBR."

But a wiretapped transcript recently released in Rock Island underscores the brazen nature of the exceptions.

In October 2005, with federal agents tailing them, three war contractors slipped through London's posh Cumberland hotel before meeting in a quiet lounge. For the rest of that afternoon, the men sipped cognac and whiskey and discussed the bribes that had greased contracts to supply U.S. troops in Iraq.

Former KBR procurement manager Stephen Seamans, who was wearing a wire strapped on by a Rock Island agent, wondered aloud whether to return $65,000 in kickbacks he got from his two companions, executives from the Saudi conglomerate Tamimi Global Co.

One of the men, Tamimi operations director Shabbir Khan, urged him to hide the money by concocting phony business records."Just do the paperwork," Khan said.

Party houses, prostitutes

In October 2002, five months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Khan threw a birthday party for Seamans at a Tamimi "party house" near the Kuwait base known as Camp Arifjan. Khan "provided Seamans with a prostitute as a present," Rock Island prosecutors wrote in court papers. Driving Seamans back to his quarters, Khan offered kickbacks that would total $130,000.

Five days later, with Seamans and Khan hammering out the fine print, KBR awarded Tamimi the war's first $14.4 million mess hall subcontract, court records show.

In April 2003, as American troops poured into Iraq, Seamans gave Khan inside information that enabled Tamimi to secure a $2 million KBR subcontract to establish a mess hall at a Baghdad palace. Seamans submitted change orders that inflated that subcontract to $7.4 million.

By June, Seamans and fellow KBR procurement manager Jeff Mazon, a Country Club Hills resident, had executed subcontracts worth $321 million. At least one deal put U.S. soldiers at risk.

The Army LOGCAP contract required KBR to medically screen the thousands of kitchen workers that subcontractors like Tamimi imported from impoverished villages in Nepal, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

But when Pentagon officials asked for medical records in March 2004, Khan presented "bogus" files for 550 Tamimi workers, Assistant U.S. Atty. Jeffrey Lang said in a court hearing last year.

KBR retested those 550 workers at a Kuwait City clinic and found 172 positive for exposure to hepatitis A, Lang told the judge. Khan tried to suppress those findings, warning the clinic director that Tamimi would do no more business with his medical office if he "told KBR about these results," Lang said in court. The infectious virus can cause fatigue and other symptoms that arise weeks after contact.

Retesting of the 172 found that none had contagious hepatitis A, Lang said, and Khan's attorneys said in court that no soldiers caught diseases from the workers or from meals they prepared. It remains unclear if that is because the workers were treated or because they did not remain infectious after the onset of symptoms.

Still, the incident shows how even mundane meal contracts can put troops at risk. Similar disease-testing breaches cropped up at cafeterias outsourced to firms besides Tamimi, former KBR Area Supervisor Rene Robinson said in a Tribune interview.

"That was an ongoing problem," Robinson said. "When the military asked for paperwork, it was spotty." KBR was forced to begin vaccinating the employees at their work sites, he added.

Tamimi and its U.S. lawyers did not respond to requests for comment. The company has said it is cooperating with federal authorities.

By July 2005, Tamimi had secured some 30 KBR troop feeding subcontracts worth $793.5 million, records show. Khan continued to negotiate Iraq war subcontracts for Tamimi until shortly before he was arrested in Rock Island in March 2006.

He is now serving a 51-month prison sentence for lying to federal agents about the kickbacks he wired to Seamans, who pleaded guilty and served a year and a day in prison. Both declined to comment.Seamans, a 46-year-old Air Force veteran, once taught ethics to junior KBR employees. At his December 2006 sentencing hearing, he expressed remorse for taking the kickbacks, telling the judge: "It is not the way that Americans do business."

It was another repentant LOGCAP veteran standing before a Rock Island judge on Wednesday. Peleti, formerly the military's top food service adviser for the Middle East, wept as he admitted taking bribes from Tamimi and three other subcontractors between 2003 and early 2006.

Ribbons and badges glittered across Peleti's pressed green Army shirt. "I stand here before you today to convey my remorse and sincere regret," he said, then broke down.

One subcontractor, Public Warehousing Co., took Peleti and another top Army official to the Super Bowl, a defense investigator said in court Wednesday. The firm has denied wrongdoing. Khan also bribed Peleti to influence LOGCAP contracts with cash. Peleti was arrested in 2006 while re-entering the U.S. at Dover Air Force Base with a duffel bag stuffed with watches and jewelry as well as about $40,000 concealed in his clothing.

While prosecutors documented kickbacks in only the first two of Tamimi's mess hall subcontracts, they contend that the tone was set to corrupt the system."Tamimi and Mr. Khan have their hooks into Mr. Seamans, they have their hooks into KBR," Lang said in court last year. "

It is difficult to assess the kind of damage that did to the integrity of the subcontracting process when the first two subcontracts are corrupted."

Auditors in the basementMilitary auditors say they closely monitor the layers of KBR subcontractors who actually perform most of the LOGCAP work, stationing teams in Iraq. But one Rock Island search warrant said auditors working back in the U.S. could manage only limited reviews of the cascade of deals.

In the basement of one of KBR's Houston office buildings, a 25-member team from the Defense Contract Audit Agency had "no communications" with "personnel on the ground," so they could not confirm whether goods and services actually were delivered, the search warrant application said.

In the absence of oversight, some Middle Eastern businessmen would offer "Rolex watches, leather jackets, prostitutes, and the KBR guys weren't shy about bragging about the fact that they were being treated to all that stuff," said Paul Morrell, whose firm The Event Source ran several mess halls as a KBR subcontractor.

Such questionable relationships continued long after early procurement managers like Seamans had been rooted out. Early subcontractors such as Tamimi became almost indispensable in part by outfitting Army cafeterias with expensive power generators and refrigeration systems, records and interviews show.

"If you ever gave Tamimi a hard time, you'd get a call," former KBR subcontract manager Harry DeWolf told the Tribune.

When subcontracts came up for renegotiation, DeWolf said, companies like Tamimi "would say, 'Fine, we're going to pull out all of our people and equipment.' They really had KBR and the government over the barrel."

Complicating the investigation of war-contract crimes, the government of Kuwait has denied a U.S. request to extradite two Middle Eastern businessmen accused of LOGCAP fraud. The country's ambassador last year sent letters to the Justice Department asking the U.S. to drop its case against one of them, arguing that international agreements forbid U.S. prosecution of Kuwaiti residents for crimes allegedly committed on Kuwaiti soil. Prosecutors disagree, but a judge is considering Kuwait's assertion.

Investigators also have faced challenges in dealing with KBR. The company has withheld some internal company documents relating to Mazon, Seaman's fellow KBR procurement manager, the firm's attorneys wrote in court filings.In response to one subpoena, the firm gave agents about 2,760 of Mazon's computer files but withheld 398others, saying they were covered by attorney-client privilege or other protections.

Federal prosecutors say they have given KBR no special treatment and that the company has legal rights afforded to all firms whose employees have been charged with wrongdoing. "We did withhold some documents as being privileged," a KBR spokeswoman wrote, but added that the company has provided statements and grand jury testimony.

Mazon has pleaded not guilty to charges that he inflated a fuel contract. His attorneys say the fuel subcontract was accidentally inflated when figures were converted from U.S. dollars to Kuwaiti dinars then back again. At least 22 KBR troop support subcontracts were inflated through similar errors, Mazon's attorney J. Scott Arthur wrote in papers filed in Rock Island.

KBR attorneys said the company informed federal officials of three similar "double conversions" on other subcontracts. But KBR said it "has not undertaken an exhaustive search of its millions of pages of procurement documents" to determine whether other such errors exist.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Measuring Asia's Pollution Exports

NASA has quantified the amount of pollution that moves from East Asia to North America.

Atmospheric scientists have long known that air pollution travels vast distances and is a global phenomenon. Now researchers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center have conducted the first-ever satellite-based measurements of pollution aerosols transported from East Asia to North America.

The researchers looked at four years of satellite data and found the amount of pollution arriving in North America to be equivalent to 15 percent of local emissions of the United States and Canada. It is "a significant number," says Hongbin Yu, an associate research scientist at the University of Maryland, in Baltimore, who is working at NASA Goddard and led the study.

"This means that any reduction in our emissions may be offset by the pollution aerosols coming from East Asia and other regions," says Yu. The new study will be published in April in the American Geophysical Union's Journal of Geophysical Research.

The study was conducted from 2002 to 2005, using measurements from a satellite instrument called the moderate-resolution imaging spectroradiometer (MODIS) onboard NASA's Terra satellite. The instrument measures the reflective solar radiation and emitted thermal radiation from the earth's surface and atmosphere.

The satellite-based instrument can look at 36 different wavelengths of the solar spectrum, and it does so with better spatial resolution than previous satellite instruments, says Lorraine Remer, a physical scientist and a member of the MODIS science team at Goddard.

For the study, the researchers measured the reflected solar radiation at seven different wavelengths. Being able to see different colors of the spectrum allows the researchers to differentiate the types of particles more accurately than the older sensors, says Remer.

"Some particulates are absorbing things like black carbon that come out of diesel exhaust, making it a black color," says Ronald Prinn, a professor of atmospheric sciences and the director of the Center for Global Change Science at MIT. "Particles that are produced from sulfur that comes from the burning of coal are very bright white. You can look at the multiple colors ... and get information about composition and density as well."

The instrument is able to distinguish between man-made pollution and naturally occurring particles based on size. Naturally occurring dust and sea salt are typically larger than aerosol particles emitted from combustion sources, forest fires, automobiles, and industry, says Remer.

The MODIS instrument works by scanning a broad swath of the earth--about 2,300 kilometers--and counting the number of photons it is receiving by turning them into electrical signals. The instrument can measure the entire earth in one day.

MODIS does a better job than aircraft instrumentation does because it can observe the earth all the time, capturing events that only happen occasionally and accumulating them over the whole year, says Richard Honrath, a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Technological University, in Houghton. "We can only do continuous measurements at ground level, but then you only see events that hit the ground," he says.

The instrument also gets "spatial and time detail that one would never get from ground-based measurements, and it captures the entire pollution plumes rather than just having a few observing stations looking up," says Prinn.

NASA researchers drew two virtual lines at 20 degrees north to 60 degrees north, and they measured the optical effect of the particles as they crossed those lines, says Yu. Using software that he made, the researchers culled this data and mapped it to see globally where the pollution is located.

The researchers found that 18 teragrams--almost 40 billion pounds--of pollution is exported from Asia, and that 4.5 teragrams--10 billion pounds, or about 25 percent--reaches North America annually, says Mian Chin, an atmospheric scientist at NASA and a coauthor of the study. But the instrument measures the total atmosphere column and does not have the vertical structure, so it is unknown how many of the pollutants are at surface level, and how many are aloft in the atmosphere, says Chin.

Despite that uncertainty, the scientists say that it is the higher-altitude pollution that is probably most worrisome. "We think the pollution being imported to North America will impact the weather and climate; we don't expect any big impact on the air quality because particles from East Asia are exported at high altitude," says Yu.

"It is very difficult to lower pollution levels of man-made pollutants to extremely low levels because pollutants come in the air from other countries that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, cannot control," says Prinn. Agrees Honrath: "You have to consider the future industrial growth of Asia if you develop long-range plans for meeting air-quality goals in the United States."

source - Technology Review
photo credit - NASA

Monday, March 24, 2008

Money Troubles Stall BioTown USA Project

REYNOLDS, Ind. (AP) — This one-stoplight farming hamlet had big dreams in 2005 when it was christened BioTown USA.

Its goal: to become the first U.S. community to meet all electricity and gas needs through renewable energy by using everything from farm waste to sewage.

Industry and government officials led the early charge. BP installed a gas pump offering an ethanol fuel blend, and South Dakota-based VeraSun Energy Corp. started building an ethanol production plant near town.

Former U.S. agriculture secretary Mike Johanns stopped by in support, as did the band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Visitors also included a group of Chilean corn farmers who were touring the Midwest and interested in learning more about biofuels.

But the visitors are long gone, and many say the excitement is too. Money problems, leadership changes and other obstacles have sparked skepticism that Reynolds will ever succeed at moving the state, much less the nation, toward homegrown energy and away from foreign oil.

"I'm not happy about the whole situation, and a lot of people in town aren't either," said farmer Tonie Snyder. He helped provide thousands of bales of corn stover last fall that were supposed to be burned using technology that now may never be built.

From the outset, the vision for BioTown was ambitious. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and the state Department of Agriculture wanted to create a model for energy self-sufficiency. No other U.S. community produces all its own energy, and a German village that runs on renewable energy took eight years to develop.

But project officials believed they could turn this community of about 550 people, surrounded by silos and stubbly corn fields, into something special.

"We are taking challenges and turning them into opportunities by developing homegrown, local energy production to become independent from foreign sources," Daniels said in announcing the project.

The timetable was aggressive. State officials hoped to break ground in November 2006 on a $10 million facility that would house the core equipment needed to turn manure and other biomass material into energy, and start generating electricity for the town by July 2007.

The groundbreaking happened, and General Motors offered deals on flex fuel vehicles to people living in the Reynolds ZIP code. But there has been little other progress, and now BioTown leaders acknowledge they have adjusted their vision. But they insist the project will happen.

"What we try to remind folks all the time is that this project, there's no manual that you pull out and say, 'How do you do a BioTown?'" Indiana Agriculture Director Andy Miller said. "We're kind of inventing it as we go."

BioTown seemed like a "shot in the arm" to Fred Buschman, a lifelong resident of this community about 80 miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis.

"It was like something you dreamed of but never really believed could happen," the 77-year-old town council member said.

A couple of restaurants, car dealerships and a gas station make up most of Reynolds proper. But steady streams of truck traffic flow through town each day on state route 43 and U.S. 24, and railroads crisscross the community. State leaders said the infrastructure and surrounding farms made Reynolds an ideal location for BioTown.

"They were going to make this a showtown for the whole world to come in and look at, and I thought it was the greatest thing that ever could happen to the town of Reynolds," Snyder said.

State officials said private funding would drive the project. The startup firm Rose Energy Discovery Inc. would install an anaerobic digester, a device that converts manure methane into electricity, and a gassifier would be built to create a gas that can be burned for heat or put in a boiler to make steam.

But Rose Energy dropped out last summer after failing to line up enough private investment. In October, VeraSun suspended construction on its ethanol plant due to a steep drop in ethanol prices, which combined with high corn prices has slowed factory construction around the country.

Work has not begun on the Reynolds digester.

Last fall, Snyder and his fellow farmers readied about 5,000 bales of mostly corn stover that was supposed to feed the gassifier. Months later, thousands of the unused bales collect snow and rain as they sit in a field just outside town.

The farmers finally received full payment for the bales earlier this month, Snyder said.

The new technology developer, Energy Systems Group, hasn't decided whether to install the gassifier, so state officials say the bales will become animal bedding.

BioTown proponents say there's still plenty going on.

Energy Systems Group, a Vectren Corp. subsidiary, will spend about $10 million on the digester and is still lining up financing for it. President Jim Adams said he hopes to start building within the next month or so and wants to produce power by the end of this year.

"The whole process has gone a little slower than we anticipated, securing the fuel and a power purchase agreement for some of the output," he said. "But that's all coming together."

Most of what they produce will likely be sold to a power company. BioTown leaders learned early that it would be nearly impossible to take Reynolds off an established electricity grid so it could supply its own power.

Miller said the cost to build a grid just for Reynolds would be prohibitive, and the community would still need backup help to prevent service interruptions.

BioTown Development Authority President John Heimlich preaches patience as the project sputters on. Last year, he and other BioTown leaders visited the German village of Juehnde, which runs on renewable energy.

"I think what we see now, maybe as our vision, is kind of an evolving project, so maybe there isn't a final look so to speak," he said.

Despite the setbacks, BioTown is attacking global energy problems with local solutions, and that's the best approach, said Brooke Coleman, director of the Boston-based New Fuels Alliance, a renewable energy advocacy group.

He said the project takes on some steep obstacles like removing a community from an established power grid. Renewable energy developers have tried to do this for years and have long met resistance from power companies.

Aside from that, the slumping economy and falling dollar make investors cautious about renewable energy technology.

"This town is tackling some of the most challenging issues facing the move toward energy independence," he said.

Source - The Associated Press
AP Photo/Tom Strickland

White House takes air out of new EPA regulations

THIS MARCH, the Environmental Protection Agency was about to take a major step forward in curbing pollutants that cause smog - until it got word from the White House to make it a baby step instead. The weakened rule will result in several thousand preventable deaths annually. Environmental groups and public health organizations should take the EPA to court for letting last-minute interference by the president and the White House's Office of Management and Budget dictate a less stringent standard.

Thanks to improved pollution controls on cars, power plants, and other industries, Americans breathe much cleaner air than they did a generation ago. But smog is still severe enough in many areas to cause respiratory and heart problems and shorten lives.

The rule regulates acceptable levels of ozone, the main component of smog. Ozone forms when the sun heats up vehicle exhaust, smokestack pollution, and emissions from gasoline and many other substances.

Even under the old standard, set in 1997, most of Massachusetts, with the exception of Bristol County and Nantucket, was in violation, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The new standard will place the entire state out of compliance. Fixing that will require a continuation of the vehicle-inspection and maintenance programs now under way, in addition to efforts to reduce emissions from solvents and paints. New measures, such as encouraging greater energy efficiency to reduce pollution by power generators, likely will be needed as well, according to DEP.

It's well worth the trouble and expense to gain improvements in respiratory health. Nationally, the EPA estimates that its new rule will prevent 1,300 to 3,500 premature deaths a year. A stricter rule favored by its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee would save as many as 9,200 lives a year.

Under current law, EPA can consider the cost of complying with a clean-air standard in setting a timeline of compliance, but not in deciding how stringent the rule should be. Memos leaked last week indicate that input from the bean counters in the budget office did affect the standard, although EPA administrator Stephen Johnson denies it.

Johnson did call recently for amending the Clean Air Act to allow the agency to weigh compliance costs in setting an antipollution rule. Congress should not give this proposal the time of day, and should instead call Johnson before it to explain just what role the White House played in his decision to allow higher smog levels than his own scientific advisers recommended.

Source -

Friday, March 21, 2008

The 'Peak Oil' Theory: Will Oil Reserves Run Dry?

Oil's recent slide and the slackening demand that an economic slowdown's expected to bring have stimulated hopes that crude could soon safely stabilize below the $100 range.

But beneath seesawing supply and demand lies the deeper question of just how much oil the planet has in the first place — and how much it will have in the future.

The answer to that question supports — or undermines — the theory that we are in the midst of an ever-tightening supply that will lock prices into a permanent, rising arc. That, in nutshell, is what's meant by the term "peak oil".

It’s an issue that matters, especially to major energy players who are in a race to disprove the theory and trying to bring on-stream more oil fields than are currently being depleted.

John Hofmeister, president of Royal Dutch Shell's US operations, shared his thoughts on the supply issue on CNBC’s Squawk Box on Thursday. He took aim at the peak oil theory as popularized by Matthew Simmons, the author of "Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy." (See the Hofmeister interview at left.)

“The peak oil theory has really swamped the world — God bless Matt Simmons,” Hofmeister told CNBC.

Simmons is mistaken, said Hofmeister, because he is overly focused on a single country: Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter and OPEC swing producer.

Although Saudi Arabia is a dominant player, the Shell executive said focusing solely on Saudi Arabia leaves out the all other places around the globe where Big Oil and national oil companies are busy exploring for untapped oil reservoirs.

Those reservoirs could include the vast — but currently restricted — reserves of the US Outer Continental Shelf, which holds an estimated 100 billion barrels of oil and natural gas. Tapping into such a large supply would slash the $500 billion US sends overseas for each year for oil imports.

As things stands, however, only 15 percent of those reserves are currently exploitable, a good part of that off the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.

Simmons is also off the mark, Hofmeister contends, because he excludes unconventional sources of oil such as the oil sands of Canada, where Shell is already active.

The Canadian oil sands — a natural combination of sand, water and oil found largely in Alberta — is believed to contain 1 trillion barrels of oil. Another 1 trillion barrels are also trapped in rocks in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

Given all that, we asked Simmons, who is chairman of Simmons & Co. International, a specialized energy investment-banking firm based in Houston, to respond to Hofmeister's comments and explain how his peak oil scenario can be avoided.

CNBC: What's your response to critics like Hofmeister?

Simmons: There is a kind of schizophrenia within the likes of Shell where the chairman basically says, "We think by 2012 global demand will exceed conventional supply" and yet Hofmeister basically says the idea that we are ever going to have peak oil is ridiculous.

CNBC: But he's suggesting you are leaving out unconventional sources of energy in your calculations.

Simmons: They make the distinction [between conventional and unconventional], but they don’t seem to make the connection about the vast difference of flow. They are so hung up on the total estimated volume. Once they start in a project they say, "Well, the reserves last forever so we can book a million barrels of reserves."The energy that is consumed to get oil out of the oil sands of Canada — in massive amounts of potable water and natural gas — is so vast you are really turning gold into lead. What you get out is a very low quality amount of oil that has to be upgraded and diluted with high quality oil to get synthetic crude. What I can’t figure out is why the executives of these oil companies don’t understand that.

CNBC: And what about the reserves on the Outer Continental Shelf?

Simmons: That’s sort of irrelevant because we have such an unbelievable shortage of deep-water rigs. We are totally out of deep-water drilling rigs. There are about 100 that are struggling to get built. Four will ready by the end of next year.

And none of that deep-water stuff they are talking about has been properly tested to know if it is even commercial. It’s in such remote areas that we just don’t have the tool kit to realistically bring it on stream before maybe ten years from now — maybe 6-7 years from now.

CNBC: What about other major finds such as the major off-shore discovery Brazil has made that is estimated could be the third largest oil field in the world?

Simmons: There have only been five wildcat wells drilled there. That’s like me saying I have drilled a well in Kansas, and another in Colorado and in New Mexico and in the panhandle of Texas and if they are all part of one giant oilfield, it is the biggest oil field ever in the Western Hemisphere. That’s an enormous "if."

You can claim that, but the proof of that would only be after you drill about 100 wells and flow test them all. And what we know is that 99 percent of those types of reservoirs never connect.

CNBC: You still think there are production difficulties in Saudi Arabia, but what do you expect will be the impact on production worldwide?

Simmons: Yes, and it’s why we have such a hard time growing production any more, and unfortunately demand doesn’t understand that. We are basically having to run faster and faster to stay in place as too many areas go into steady and steep decline. You look at the North Sea … the last 7-8 years, Norway and the UK have been declining a rate of about 17-18 percent per year. And once you get a field down to its last 10 percent, then it levels out and goes into a long steady state of gentle decline — that is the state of Prudhoe Bay today.

CNBC: So, what is your prognosis for prices?

Simmons: I think prices have to go way higher. The sooner people get used to the fact that we are still living in a fool’s paradise, the better ... you just can not argue that $100 a barrel is expensive when you realize it is 15 cents a cup — do you know anything other than crude oil that sells for 15 cents a cup? I know wine doesn’t, bottled water doesn’t.
Source - CNBC
Picture - Mike Eliason

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Google Will Finance Enhanced Geothermal

Expect to make investments in the next couple of months in enhanced geothermal energy, says Dan Reicher, the Internet giant's director of climate change and energy initiatives.

Google's philanthropic arm is in talks with universities on funding basic research into tapping into the vast stores of energy underground, Reicher said at a two-day energy summit sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. He said it also expects to finance companies that are working toward advances in this form of renewable energy.

A description of enhanced geothermal, graphics that show how it works, and a map of its potential can be found with this story in U.S. News.
Google announced its "renewable energy cheaper than coal" initiative late last year, but this is the clearest signal yet that the company is poised to add enhanced geothermal to its investment portfolio.

So far, Google's program has made $10 million investments in two companies that seek to produce renewable energy cheaper than coal: eSolar, a concentrating solar thermal power firm, and Makani Power, which seeks to develop ultra-high-altitude wind power. Reicher said tapping into wind power at 3,000 or even 10,000 feet up is "admittedly very high risk" but fits in well with Google's game plan on renewable energy investments.

"We don't have the constraints of venture capital firms, with the usual three-to-six-year exit strategy and need for return," Reicher says. "We're looking for higher-risk, higher-payoff investments." He also said is likely to invest in commercialization of cellulosic ethanol—another example of a promising technology that has a hard time getting out of the so-called Valley of Death, development of risky, first-of-a-kind plants.

Reicher also addressed why Google is engaged in the issue of renewable energy. As a large user of electricity, Google has aimed to purchase green resources and has often found them not available or prohibitively expensive.

"There's a great deal of optimism about renewable energy, great engagement of the public, and interest of the investment community," Reicher says. "There needs to be a fundamental change in the cost structure of renewables if we expect them to compete. And let's talk about the competitive landscape—first and foremost about coal. The aim has to be to make renewable energy competitive with coal and to do it in years, not decades."

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Synthetic Fuel Concept to Steal CO2 From Air

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- Green Freedom™ for carbon-neutral, sulfur-free fuel and chemical production

Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed a low-risk, transformational concept, called Green Freedom™, for large-scale production of carbon-neutral, sulfur-free fuels and organic chemicals from air and water.

Currently, the principal market for the Green Freedom production concept is fuel for vehicles and aircraft.

At the heart of the technology is a new process for extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and making it available for fuel production using a new form of electrochemical separation. By integrating this electrochemical process with existing technology, researchers have developed a new, practical approach to producing fuels and organic chemicals that permits continued use of existing industrial and transportation infrastructure. Fuel production is driven by carbon-neutral power.

"Our concept enhances U.S. energy and material security by reducing dependence on imported oil. Initial system and economic analyses indicate that the prices of Green Freedom commodities would be either comparable to the current market or competitive with those of other carbon-neutral, alternative technologies currently being considered," said F. Jeffrey Martin of the Laboratory's Decisions Applications Division, principal investigator on the project.

Martin will be presenting a talk on the subject at the Alternative Energy NOW conference in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, February 20, 2008.

In addition to the new electrochemical separation process, the Green Freedom system can use existing cooling towers, such as those of nuclear power plants, with carbon-capture equipment that eliminates the need for additional structures to process large volumes of air. The primary environmental impact of the production facility is limited to the footprint of the plant. It uses non-hazardous materials for its feed and operation and has a small waste stream volume. In addition, unlike large-scale biofuel concepts, the Green Freedom system does not add pressure to agricultural capacity or use large tracts of land or farming resources for production.

The concept's viability has been reviewed and verified by both industrial and semi-independent Los Alamos National Laboratory technical reviews. The next phase will demonstrate the new electrochemical process to prove the ability of the system to both capture carbon dioxide and pull it back out of solution. An industrial partnership consortium will be formed to commercialize the Green Freedom concept.

by Nancy Ambrosiano,

Photo credit - Desktop Engineering

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Speechless Conversations

A new device translates your thoughts into speech so that you can have a cell-phone conversation without uttering a word.

Ambient Corporation, a company based in Champaign, IL, that develops communications technologies for people with speaking disabilities, is calling its latest system "voiceless communication" with good reason. The company has engineered a neckband that translates a wearer's thoughts into speech so that, without saying a word, he or she can have a cell-phone conversation or query search engines in public.

Don't fret: the device, called Audeo, can't read minds, so it won't capture your secret thoughts. It picks up the neurological signals from the brain that are being sent to the vocal cords--a person must specifically think about voicing words--and then wirelessly transmits them to a computer, which translates them into synthesized speech. At the moment, the device has a limited vocabulary: 150 words and phrases.

The video below shows Michael Callahan, a cofounder of Ambient and a developer of the device, demonstrating the technology at the Texas Instruments Developers Conference, which was held in Dallas from March 3 through 5. In his speech, he says that by the end of the year, the device will be ready for use by people with Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that can cause sufferers to become completely paralyzed. He also says that in the future, if a person is walking down the street thinking about where a bus station is located, the device will automatically wirelessly query a search engine to find one.

Credit: Texas Instruments

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Clean Diesel Possible With New Diesel Particulate Filter Technology

ScienceDaily (Mar. 14, 2008) — Most diggers and construction machines discharge unfiltered exhaust fumes into the air. This is because special vehicles are made in small batches, and each requires a different filter geometry. Diesel soot filters of varying shapes can now be produced at competitive prices.

Modern diesel cars are not only quieter than their predecessors but also release considerably fewer exhaust fumes into the atmosphere. The filters for heavy-duty, construction and off-road vehicles are not yet state-of-the-art. A new diesel particulate filter technology will soon teach even these vehicles to give up smoking.

Conventional diesel soot filters usually consist of cylindrical ceramic blocks crisscrossed by numerous channels. A block of this kind cannot be made in one piece. Instead, individual quadratic honeycomb segments are bonded together to form a large block. The bonds act as expansion joints that offset the temperature stresses during operation. This is vital, for a solid ceramic block would break apart. The drawback of these square honeycombs is that the angular bonded block has to be ground into a cylindrical shape at the end of production, thus wasting valuable material. What is more, this smooth finishing takes time and requires expensive machinery.

Together with filter manufacturer CleanDieselCeramics CDC and sponsored by Saxony’s economics ministry, developers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems IKTS in Dresden have developed a honeycomb structure with a different geometry. Rather than being rectangular, it takes an irregular four-cornered shape. This allows a wide variety of filter geometries to be created – even close-to-cylindrical ones. Grinding is no longer necessary.

An added advantage of this development is the altered geometry of the channels. Usually, the gas flows into the filter through four-sided channels. The Dresden researchers have opted for a smaller, triangular cross-section. This enlarges the filter surface in the tiny channels. The triangular shape is also more stable, and the filter is less sensitive to lateral pressure.

The partners in this venture have tested and optimized the production method on a pilot production line at the IKTS – and also tested the third innovation, a silicon carbide ceramic developed at the IKTS. The advantage of this latter innovation is that the researchers can easily and precisely adjust the size of the pores for optimum filtration of the soot particles. “As far as the performance and quality of our new development is concerned, we can hold our own against anything on the market,” says IKTS project manager Jörg Adler. The up-and-coming firm CDC is currently building its first plant near Dresden. From spring of this year, about 40,000 filters will be produced there annually and installed in construction machinery as an upgrade kit.

Adapted from materials provided by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.
(Credit: Image courtesy of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft)