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[1THING] Blog: Archive for November, 2012

[ Oil Train Revival: Booming North Dakota Relies on Rail to Deliver Its ]

In the booming North Dakota’s Bakken Shale region, producers aren’t waiting for pipelines. In a reprise of the industry’s pioneering days, they’re loading oil on railroads.

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[ Green Your Holidays! ]

With the holiday season in full swing, here are some tips to keep you green this holiday season:

  • Invite electronically. Announce your holiday get-together using online services such as Evite.com. Send recycled-content greeting cards to reduce the amount of virgin paper used during the holidays. Remember to recycle any paper cards you receive.
  • Use natural decorations. Have a create-your-own-decorations party! Invite family and friends to create and use holiday decorations such as ornaments made from old greeting cards or cookie dough, garlands made from strung popcorn or cranberries, wreaths made from artificial greens and flowers, and potpourri made from kitchen spices such as cinnamon and cloves. Create festive displays using driftwood, dried grasses, winterberries and other natural items instead.
  • Make your own gift wrap.  Try using old maps, the Sunday comics, a scarf or a reusable cloth bag. Send kids on a treasure hunt to find their special gifts—and skip the wrapping altogether. If gift wrap and ribbons are in good shape, save them to reuse next year.
  • Opt for LEDs. Outdoor LED holiday lights use up to 90 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs and can last 20 to 30 years. Use LED lights indoors as well—on a tree, a mantel, in a menorah and in holiday centerpieces. Save even more energy by using a timer to shut lights off automatically.  Turn off or unplug holiday lights during the day. Doing so will not only save energy, but will also help your lights last longer.
  • Bring your own bags.  Reduce the number of bags thrown out by bringing reusable cloth bags for holiday gift shopping. Tell store clerks you don’t need a bag for small or oversized purchases.
  • Look for the star.  Look for home or office electronic products with the Energy Star label when you shop. Many electronics use energy even when they’re “off” to power continuous features like clock displays or remote controls.
  • Pay attention to packaging. Try to purchase gifts with the least amount of packaging. Offer some gifts unwrapped such as gift cards or tickets to a show or sporting event.  If you’re shipping presents, create your own packing materials using recycled newspaper and shredded paper.  Check product labels to determine an item’s recyclability and whether it is made from recycled materials
  • Buy rechargeable batteries to accompany your electronic gifts, and consider giving a battery charger as well. About 40 percent of all battery sales occur during the holiday season.
  • Eat local. Plan your menu around foods that are grown locally as well as those that are in season.
  • Lose the disposables. Pull out the cloth napkins, china, stemware and cutlery. Not only will this add a touch of class to your party, it will reduce the amount of trash. Consider renting more formal tableware that you might not use very often.
  • Provide recycling bins. Set out clearly labeled recycling bins at parties so guests can recycle bottles, cans and other items rather than tossing them in the wastebasket.
  • Give away leftovers. Send extra food home with guests or donate it to a shelter or food bank. Or freeze leftovers for another day. Where possible, compost leftover food scraps. Wash and reuse empty glass and plastic jars, milk jugs, coffee cans, dairy tubs, and other similar containers that would otherwise get thrown away. These containers can be used to store leftovers as well as buttons, nails, or other loose items.
  • Reduce your water usage.  Preparing for and cleaning up after a holiday meals and parties can use much more water than ordinary, everyday use.  Scrape dirty dishes clean, instead of using water to rinse them before you put them in the dishwasher.  After parties, fill your dishwasher to capacity before running it.  If you don’t use a dishwasher, fill the sink with a few gallons of soapy wash water, clean your dishes, and put them aside. Then rinse them all together afterward.
  • Replant your Christmas tree. Select a small potted tree that you can replant after the holidays. Or, if you get a fresh tree, turn it into compost or send it through a chipper to make mulch. In some areas of the country you can even rent a tree. Check with your community solid waste department and find out if they collect and mulch trees. Tree recycling ideas
  • Use a timer.  If you going away from home for the holidays, to save energy, turn down your thermostat and put lights on timers.
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[ Car Sharing Redefines the Value of a Parking Space ]

For many cities, car sharing has presented a compelling solution to public transit crowding and traffic snarls (see related story: “Car Sharing Widens the Lanes of Access for City Drivers“). Services such as Zipcar and Car2go offer the opportunity to cut the number of cars on city streets, but a price for hosting those services’ fleets is paid in the loss of precious, centrally located parking spots.

The potential impact of car-sharing fleets on parking availability for car owners was enough to make the community of Manhattan Beach, California, pause this week before approving a deal with the Daimler-owned Car2go. City council members said that a parking study was needed before they could support Car2go’s proposal to bring the service into nine cities in the South Bay area of Los Angeles.

Ironically, taking curbside parking spots out of the general pool and dedicating them to shared vehicles is seen as part of the solution to the parking and congestion problem. It’s an idea that has met some success—as well as some complaints from residents—in Hoboken, New Jersey, one of the most densely populated areas in the United States.

Located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Hoboken has dedicated more than 40 of its 9,000 on-street parking spaces to a car-share program known as Corner Cars. Hertz operates the program and pays the city $100 per spot each month, while charging members $5 to $16 an hour for the cars. Bright green paint marks off pairs of spots reserved for Corner Cars every few blocks.

Two years after the program’s launch, about a quarter of Corner Cars’ 3,000 members have reportedly given up their own cars or put off buying a new one because of access to the shared wheels. (See related story: “To Curb Driving, Cities Cut Down on Car Parking“)

Of course, some residents complain that they would gladly pay $100 to rent a prime parking spot—never mind the city’s argument that one spot can provide convenience to many more residents if it is occupied by a shared vehicle instead of a private car.

Some cities, on the other hand, are capitalizing on the high value of convenient city parking. Washington, D.C. has opted to auction off dozens of spots formerly awarded for free to Zipcar. Last year, the District set a minimum bid price of $3,600 per space, and drew offers from three car sharing companies. Zipcar went from having 86 parking spots to only 12 spots in the slightly smaller pool of 84 spots now dedicated to shared cars.

In San Francisco, meanwhile, securing on-street parking and charging locations remains one of the challenges for BMW DriveNow electric fleet, which launched in the city this past August. For now, says DriveNow CEO Richard Steinberg, the solution is to seek private parking locations.

On the other side of the globe, in a country with one of the highest car ownership rates of all the advanced nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Sydney, Australia, is now home to more than 9,000 car-sharing members. That’s up from 4,000 members two years ago, and by 2016 the city aims to boost car-sharing among its residents to 10 percent of all households for an estimated 15,000 members in all.

Among other forms of support for the shift, the city provides parking at curbside and in city car parks while integrating car sharing into urban renewal areas. Viewing car sharing as a “crucial complement to a sustainable transport system,” the city writes that “The availability of shared cars provides the peace-of-mind and flexibility needed for residents who have chosen to base their travel predominantly on public transport, walking and cycling.”

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[ Ford Fusion Named the Green Car of the Year 2013 ]

With two of its cars among the five finalists, Ford took the Green Car of the Year Award for its 2013 Fusion on Thursday at the LA Auto Show.

The newly redesigned, midsize sedan is offered with three different engines: gas-electric hybrid, plug-in hybrid and gasoline. The base model starts at $21,700, while the gas-electric hybrid, rated at 47 mpg for both city and highway driving by the EPA, starts at $27,200.

The Fusion was recognized for its low petroleum use and low carbon dioxide emissions, as well as for its competitive pricing, reported the LA Times.

The Green Car Journal’s award is decided by a prestigious panel of judges, including environmental leaders such as Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, Global Green USA President Matt Petersen, and Ocean Futures Society president Jean-Michel Cousteau, along with car enthusiast and late night comedian Jay Leno and the journal’s staff.

“We’ve moved our brand from laggard to leader in fuel economy,” said Dave Mondragon, Ford’s general marketing manager as he accepted the award.

“The 2013 Ford Fusion approaches the market with a ‘game-on’ attitude,” said Ron Cogan, publisher of The Green Car Journal.

U.S. automakers were well represented in the group of finalists for the recognition. The Fusion was up against Ford’s own C-Max, the Dodge Dart Aero, the Mazda CX-5 SkyACTIV and the Toyota Prius c.

For its mileage, the Fusion is second only to the Prius c, which gets 53 mpg, according to the Detroit News.

Previous winners of the award include the 2012 Honda Civic GX Natural Gas, 2011 Chevrolet Volt, 2010 Audi A3 TDI, 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid, and the 2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid.

Not everyone is impressed with the accolade, which is in its eighth year.

Michael Vaughn wrote in The Globe and Mail earlier this month that, “the five Green Car finalists … are all yawners. There are glaring omissions from the list and the ones that did make it all feature worthwhile but unexciting technology that we have seen before.”

But Ford’s Mondragon called it “a great testament for Ford,” and the award adds to some of the press attention that the car, which went on sale this fall, has already gotten. By several accounts, the 2013 Fusion is a very important model for the automaker, which is entering the popular (and crowded) midsize sedan market. Ford is betting that the Fusion, which it has billed as “the most fuel-efficient sedan in America,” will help it dominate that market.

(Related Photos: “Eleven Electric Cars Charge Ahead, Amid Obstacles“)

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[ Ukraine Crushed in Fraudulent $1.1Billion Gas Deal ]

What should have been a landmark natural gas deal for Ukraine has devolved into a bizarre and embarrassing debacle, as it became apparent this week that the $1.1 billion agreement the government signed Monday was not legitimate.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and Energy Minister Yurly Boyko presided over a live televised signing ceremony for the supposed deal with Spain’s Gas Natural Fenosa, which would have secured $1.1 billion in investment for the construction of Ukraine’s first liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal on the Black Sea and a pipeline connecting the country’s vast gas network to the terminal.

More to the point, the deal would enable Ukraine to import by tanker up to 10 billion cubic meters of European gas at a price 20 percent lower than that charged by Russia’s Gazprom. That would be a major first step toward reducing Ukraine’s dependence on Russia.

Here’s the rub: Fenosa apparently had no idea it was signing a landmark agreement with Ukraine. The man supposedly signing on behalf of Fenosa, identified as Jordi Sarda Bonvehi, has no affiliation with the company, according to Fenosa. It remains unclear how Ukrainian authorities were led to believe—during multiple rounds of negotiations—that Bonvehi was a Fenosa representative.

Authorities in Kiev said that Bonvehi was under the impression that Fenosa would sign the deal with Ukraine and that he would be given the authority to sign the deal retroactively.

But Fenosa denies it has ever considered such a deal and continues to deny any relationship at all with Bonvehi.

The collapse of the deal leaves Ukraine in the lurch, with much-needed funds for the terminal’s construction potentially up in smoke. Ukraine’s state investment agency reportedly said Thursday that it was in contact with Fenosa “to settle the question of the Spanish company’s participation in the LNG terminal project.”

A version of this post originally appeared at OilPrice.com and has been republished with permission.

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[ Green Cities Lead the Way ]

Green Cities Lead the Way

Some of the best green ideas are coming not from leaders at
the national or international level, but from the people right in our own
communities who know the region best. Working with government, nonprofit and
private sector supporters, people around the country are transforming their
towns for the better. EarthShare’s many national and local members
are involved in a great number of these projects.

We gathered some inspiring stories of work being done at the
local level on building a more sustainable society. What is your community
doing? Let us know in the comments section!

 

Denver, CO


Cosolar

SeaDour / Flickr

 

Denver is the first municipality to be recognized as a Solar
Friendly Community under an innovative new program designed to help bring down
the costs of solar energy.  “Denver
provides a great model on how a large city can make it easy for solar
installers to do business,” said Rebecca Cantwell, senior program director for
Solar Friendly Communities. “The streamlined permitting, inspection and
educational practices translate into lower costs for consumers and a more
welcoming climate for solar energy.” – American
Solar Energy Society

 

Baltimore, MD

Bmoretrees

A.Currell / Flickr

 

In Baltimore, the frequency of crime decreased as the number
of trees increased. Overall, a ten percent increase in tree canopy was
associated with a 12 percent drop in crime… Baltimore officials and the study’s
authors have speculated that the shading effect of a robust tree canopy both
encourages neighbors to spend more time outside and offers the impression of a
community where people take care of their surrounding and each other. – Arbor
Day Foundation

 

Philadelphia, PA

Philly

Philly Painting

 

Volunteers with Philly Painting are bringing beauty to
neglected parts of the city with a fresh coat of paint. “I love the spirit of
innovation in Philadelphia right now, from the city’s leadership
in green stormwater infrastructure
to the reclamation
of vacant lots for neighborhood green space
, from the new “front
porch” at the train station
to the city’s overall
sustainability plan
.  Philly Painting can be seen as an extension of
these efforts, and a highly creative one.” – Kaid
Benfield, NRDC 

 

New Orleans, LA

Lafitte

Editor B / Flickr

 

The Lafitte Corridor is a largely
derelict strip of land along the old Norfolk Southern corridor connecting the
French Quarter to the Bayou. Residents in the surrounding neighborhoods have
been working to preserve this open space by creating a multi-use linear
greenway…  Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
and the Friends of the Lafitte Corridor (FOLC) developed a Greenway Ambassadors
program to train local residents on the history and greenway planning process
of the corridor, so that they could share their knowledge with friends, family,
and neighbors at community meetings and events. – Rails-to-Trails
Conservancy

 

Chicago, IL

Solarfarm_feature_0

OnEarth

 

Chicago's sprawling south side, once
thrumming with steel mills and factories, is now covered by large swaths of
weedy land strewn with the rubble of faded industries. But last year, a 40-acre
patch not far from what was once home to the famous Pullman rail car factory
sprouted a crop of 32,000 solar panels. The photovoltaic arrays move
automatically to follow the sun, a glistening aberration in an otherwise drab
and decrepit landscape. – On Earth, NRDC

 

New York, NY

Nysch88

City Farmer

 

Across New York City, gardens and miniature farms — whether
on rooftops or at ground level — are joining smart boards and digital darkrooms
as must-have teaching tools. They are being used in subjects as varied as
science, art, mathematics and social studies. In the past two years, the number
of school-based gardens registered with the city jumped to 232, from 40,
according to GreenThumb, a division of the parks department that provides
schools with technical support.  – City
Farmer News

 

Toledo, OH

ES Rain Garden 2009 001

Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments

 

In Northwest Ohio, American Rivers has been working with the
Toledo government to incorporate low impact development practices like rain
gardens and bioretention into the existing zoning code. They’ve also helped remove
barriers to using permeable pavement in parking lots. – American
Rivers

 

Davis, CA

Bikes

UC Davis

 

The California city, located 11 miles west of Sacramento,
has more bikes than cars, operates two bicycle advisory committees and employs
two full-time bike coordinators, and has bike lanes on 95-percent of its major
streets. It’s innovative approach and long-term commitment to creating and
maintaining bicycle-friendly infrastructure and policy has led many to hail the
city as the number one bike friendly communities in the United States. - Wired

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[ Giving Feels Good! ]

Giftimage2
The holiday season is about sharing and
giving, but it’s so easy to lose the spirit when we get caught up in
to-do lists and shopping crowds and other stressful activities. Want to
know an easy way to give yourself a lift and get back in touch with what
really counts? No matter what ails you – giving back is a proven way to lift your spirits and offer positive physical benefits!


According to the experts, there is an
underlying biology to the effect. While it’s not completely clear how
giving can lead to mental and physical changes in health, studies
suggest that altruism may be an antidote to stress.


If you need a pick-me-up this holiday season, we hope you’ll consider giving through EarthShare.
Just one gift can help all of our member charities accomplish amazing
things, and give you a lot to feel good about. Just click here:

Onetimegivebutton
Here are just a few
examples of the accomplishments our supporters have helped make
possible
:

  • Secured 70,000 square miles of protection for
    Pacific Leatherback turtles
  • Helped raise fuel economy standards to 54.5 mpg
    by 2025
  • Fought for a moratorium on uranium mining in the
    Grand Canyon

 

Want to know more? Here’s a message from an EarthShare donor and board member about why she gives through EarthShare.


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[ Clean Coal Turnabout? ]

A clean-coal lobbying group talks of a “shared … commitment” with the Obama administration on the environment. Hmm.

Okay, it’s past Thanksgiving and the election is long over, but a series of ads I saw on television on election night keep playing in my mind. They were about the virtues of coal. Why would such ads stay with me? Let me explain.

The ad campaign to throw the ‘bums’ out

It all starts with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a trade lobbying group made up of coal-mining companies and utilities with coal-based power, which, according to its website, “supports policies that will ensure affordable, reliable, domestically produced energy, while supporting the development and deployment of advanced technologies to further reduce the environmental footprint of coal-fueled electricity generation.” (Emphasis mine.)

All good stuff in principle. In practice the ACCCE has had a hard time balancing the objective of using coal with the objective of protecting the environment.

That problem was in full display in the runup to the election when the ACCCE launched a blitz of ads telling voters “that now is the time to stand up to the EPA’s anticoal agenda.” While technically nonpartisan, the message was pretty clear — get Obama and those environmental-regulating crazies out of the White House.

Take for example the “Home Field Advantage” ad above (uploaded on October 3, 2012) with the following voiceover:

“Our current leadership in Washington has taken us down a … path paved by heavy-handed EPA regulations, a path relying on fads not fuels, a path leading away from energy independence, a path that fails to recognize the connection between low-cost energy and desirable, high-paying jobs. … It’s time to send leaders to Washington who will build a future on a solid foundation. Your vote is your voice. Now is the time to make it heard.”

Other salient quotes from the ads include:

“The regulations coming down are going to increase the cost of producing electricity which is going to make the power bills go up even more so, and I don’t understand why we’re getting rid of the cheapest form of electricity we’re set up to make and put it out of business.” (“Losing Power”)

“The rules and regulations they’re making at the EPA are affecting real lives,” says J. Howard Spencer, the town manager of Glen Lyn, Virginia. ”It takes the hope away from children. Where can they get a job? (“Losing Power”)

“I think we need an EPA; however, I think that they have far overstepped their reach and we’re feeling it as consumers in every aspect of our lives.” (“Coal = Future”)

But still claiming the green banner

Paradoxically, while bashing the Environmental Protection Agency, the ads also claim coal-industry credit for environmental progress:

“The technology exists for clean coal.” (Watch video.)

“The time is ticking, America. … It’s time we recognize that the nearly $100 billion spent on clean coal technologies have resulted in real environmental progress.” (Watch video.)

And this is where I call foul and ask for help from the fact-checkers. You want to promote coal, that’s your business. You want to promote coal while also claiming to be champions of the environment — not so fast.

  1. While the coal industry takes credit for the sizable reductions in SOx and NOx emissions — about 90 percent per unit of electricity generated since 1970 — these reductions actually came about as a result of regulations promulgated by the EPA via the authority granted it under the Clean Air Act and its amendments. Laws and regulations that the coal industry fought against tooth and nail, and predicted would result in dire consequences (see here and here). Not only did the predicted doom and gloom not occur; the air-quality benefits and savings in health-care costs have been substantial. (See also here.)
  2. EPA is now in the process of developing and promulgating updated regulations for SOx and NOx emissions to take effect with landmark regulations for mercury. In its pre-election rhetoric — those ads we’re talking about — the ACCCE was against those regulations and actively encouraged people to cast their ballot to prevent such measures from going forward.

A kinder, gentler clean coal coalition speaking out now?

But an interesting thing happened on November 6th, at least on CNN where I watched the election returns. While there was still a plethora of clean coal ads — including some from Exxon Mobil, the sponsor of “CNN live election night coverage” — the spots showed a softer side.

Gone was any bashing of the administration or the EPA, and all that remained, in warm, lush tones and pretty pictures of nature in all its glory, were the virtues of coal as a homegrown, plentiful and clean energy source.

Could it be that the coal lobby had gotten the message from the polls and decided that there would not be a change in the White House (their ads notwithstanding) and they’d better clean up their clean-coal image as an Obama administration-basher before the election was called? Maybe so.

More importantly, were those ads a sign that the coal industry was ready for a détente with the Obama team including the folks at EPA? Not likely, but you never know. The ACCCE has not released a press release since late October. And this quote from its Web page on “Clean Coal Technology” suggests that an olive branch to the administration could be in the offing:

“We share the Obama administration’s commitment [to clean coal]. As an industry, we are committed to a clean energy future with coal — and that future involves the use of advanced technologies to further reduce emissions including the capture and safe storage of [carbon dioxide] CO2.”

In trying to read the tea leaves from such a statement, the critical issue ultimately comes to be what is meant by “clean coal.”

What about reducing air pollution?

Clean coal is often thought of as technology (like carbon capture and storage) that removes the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from the effluent that is produced when coal is burned. (And, by the way, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office report, the technology for carbon capture and storage may “exist,” but it is a long way from becoming commercially viable.)

But in fact clean coal, in the ACCCE’s own parlance, means a whole lot more than that — clean coal technology is actually a range of different technologies that, among other things, remove, in the ACCCE’s words, “traditional pollutant emissions like sulfur dioxide (SO2); nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are a precursor to smog; and particulate matter.” (Now if we’re really talking clean, we’d need to also consider issues related to mountaintop mining and disposal of coal ash, but let’s not for now).

The ACCCE claims to on board with all this:

“We’re committed to ensuring that America’s energy future is a clean one. Of course, commitment is more than a word — it requires action. We have a long history of deploying clean coal technologies to reduce air emissions.”

Of course, claiming a commitment that goes beyond words is just that — words. How could they really demonstrate that commitment?

Here’s an idea: remove opposition to the new EPA regulations that promise cleaner air using existing technologies. And while you’re at it, try being a constructive partner with EPA as it develops a sound policy for dealing with the roughly 130 million short tons of toxic coal ash we generate each year. Deal?

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[ BP Excluded From Sale of New U.S. Leases for Gulf Oil and Gas ]

Just hours before bidding opened on leases for new oil and gas development on 20 million acres of the western Gulf of Mexico this morning, U.S. environmental officials announced that BP would be temporarily suspended from contracts with the government, effectively barring BP from being awarded any leases in the sale.

But by the time the gavel came down on what turned out to be an auction that garnered relatively modest interest, it was clear the suspension would have little practical immediate impact on BP’s ambitions in the Gulf of Mexico. While the company has agreed to pay the highest criminal penalty in U.S. history, $4 billion, to settle charges related to the disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, BP plans to invest 10 times that sum over the next decade in drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP was not among the 13 companies that bid on leases in today’s sale, which brought in just $133.8 million in high bids. In contrast, the U.S. government drew $1.7 billion in winning bids in a lease sale in June in the central Gulf of Mexico, the region where BP drilled its ill-fated Macondo well. Industry trade press said the western Gulf was considered a less prospective area. BP earlier this fall made clear its intention to focus its Gulf of Mexico business on a fewer number of large high-performing assets. BP, in fact, sold off $5.5 billion in what it termed “non-strategic” assets in September to Plains Exploration and Production Company of Houston. Plains was one of the bidders in today’s lease sale.

The decision to suspend BP marks a reversal for the Obama administration, which allowed BP to bid on new leases in the two previous sales held for Gulf of Mexico acreage since the company’s disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BP, in fact, acquired 43 new deepwater leases in the June 2012 lease sale, and the company remains the largest holder of acreage in the Gulf.

But suspension from future government contracts is a standard practice “when a responsibility question is raised in a criminal action,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in announcing the decision. The suspension process, in effect, was triggered earlier this month when BP agreed to settlement of the criminal charges surrounding the April 2010 well blowout and explosion that killed 11 workers and set off the largest oil spill in U.S. history. (See related photos: “Ten New Studies Show Gulf Oil Spill Impact“)

The suspension action, however, does not affect BP’s existing contracts with the government–noted by both the EPA and BP in prepared statements. BP has a large store of existing leases in the Gulf—700 in all. It was not immediately clear if BP planned to participate in this morning’s auction. The company plans to invest $4 billion annually in the Gulf of Mexico over the next decade.

BP said in a prepared statement that an agreement between the oil company and the EPA was in the works that would “effectively resolve and lift this temporary suspension.”

“As BP’s submissions to the EPA have made clear, the company has made significant enhancements since the accident,” including leadership changes, reorganization of its upstream business, and creation of a centralized safety and risk department, the company said. BP said it had adopted voluntary deepwater drilling standards that exceed current regulatory requirements.

This morning’s auction, conducted at the Superdome in New Orleans, marks the sale of all remaining available acreage for oil and natural gas exploration in the U.S. western Gulf of Mexico, and is the first sale under the Obama administration’s new five-year offshore drilling plan.

U.S. officials characterized the sale as exemplifying the administration’s policy to expand energy development safely. The administration is “committed to promoting the safe development of the Nation’s critical offshore oil and gas resources while taking steps to safeguard the marine and coastal communities,”  said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Offshore Energy Management, in a statement announcing the lease sale. “This sale represents a key component of the President’s comprehensive, all-of-the-above energy strategy and the regionally tailored and responsible approach.”

Said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, “Developing public energy resources in the Gulf of Mexico continues to generate much needed revenue for local communities while helping to power our nation and fuel our economy.”

The EPA’s brief announcement said that BP would be suspended from new government contracts or other transactions “until the company can provide sufficient evidence to EPA demonstrating that it meets Federal business standards.” The EPA said suspension actions are designed “to ensure the integrity of Federal programs by conducting business only with responsible individuals or companies.”

In a news conference this morning, Beaudreau said that he believed that BP had been genuine and sincere in its efforts at reform. But he said the suspension process required that the company address EPA’s concerns before the bar on new government contracts would be lifted.

Only 116 of the 3,878 tracts offered in today’s lease sale received bids, covering an area of 652,500 acres. The highest bid for a single tract was $17.2 million by Chevron, which also  submitted the highest total amount in bonus bids, $56 million on 28 tracts.

The government’s estimate was that the acreage covered by the entire lease sale could result in the production of 116 to 200 million barrels of oil and 538 to 938 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

National Ocean Industries Association President Randall Luthi said in a statement that the level of activity in today’s lease sale would be a good indicator of the industry’s confidence both in the remaining resources in the western Gulf of Mexico, and in the administration’s new offshore drilling policy. “This will be an interesting sale to watch,” he said.

 Updated at 12:47 p.m. EST with BP comments, further comments from Beaudreau.

Updated at 2:00 p.m. EST with lease sale results.

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[ A silver lining in a nightmare cloud ]

When Superstorm Sandy plowed through the Northeast in October leaving behind a battered electrical grid that left millions without light or heat for weeks, there were no thoughts of silver linings.

But as in most nightmares, Sandy also offered up a potentially positive lesson, this one about the resilience of clean energy. Turns out wind farms from Cuba to New Jersey survived more or less intact, and were up and running shortly after the storm.

It’s hard to deny the obvious potential of renewable energy to avert mass blackouts in the future.

Our current electricity grid relies on large power plants delivering power to a large geographical area. Fuel deliveries to large plants get interrupted and floods and storms can take these power plants down for days at a time. And in widespread disasters like Sandy, there simply isn’t enough backup power to pick up the slack. Not so wind turbines, which are constructed to withstand hurricane-force winds (120-135 mph and sometimes higher). Most shut down automatically when gales reach certain speeds, and the blades are tilted (feathered) so wind can pass through instead of engaging them. In other words, the very systems designed to harness wind are also built to withstand it.

And so in the uneasy pre-Sandy hours, wind farm operators up and down the East Coast switched their turbines into “hurricane mode” and hoped for the best. It worked. If more electricity had come from wind power in Sandy-ravaged states (currently at only 3,700 megawatts), chances are far fewer communities would have gone dark, or been back in business sooner.

There’s another thing to consider. Most climate scientists agree that the increasingly destructive force of storms like Sandy is linked to climate change, which is largely driven by rising heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels. Our warming world means rising sea levels and more coastal flooding. It also means more water vapor in the atmosphere, higher precipitation, and probably greater storm intensity. In other words, Sandy is likely a harbinger of more extreme weather to come — if we don’t take steps to stop it.

Ironically, the biggest stationary source of heat-trapping gases is coal-fired power plants, which account for an astonishing 40 percent of total U.S. global warming pollution. But wind energy has no such problem — the source of power is unlimited and pollution-free. More wind power means less warming, not to mention more great jobs and less dependence on foreign energy.

The good news is wind power is growing in the U.S. It now totals 51,630 megawatts (enough to power 13 million homes and businesses) and accounts for more than 35 percent of all new generating capacity since 2007.

But there are challenges. If Congress doesn’t renew the wind Production Tax Credit that is due to expire this year, all that growth in wind power will come to a screeching halt.

Sandy was a blunt-force wakeup call. A choice. We can continue as we’ve done for more than a century, or embrace a clean and secure energy future with wind power.

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