Thursday, December 19, 2013


Story first appeared on

The most dangerous thing about Volkswagen’s XL1 is how it affects people outside the car.

They take cellphone photos and gesture frantically at highway speeds, looking across the steering wheel at a 90-degree angle from the road in front of them. They jump out in traffic directly in front of the vehicle, motioning for you to slow down so they can examine it closely. They yell out of open windows across traffic lights and multi-lane streets, asking how much it costs, how fast it’ll go and where they can buy one.

Thing is, they can’t. It’s not actually legal to drive in the United States.

“It was never designed for the U.S. market,” Mark Gillies, a VW spokesman, told me. “Things like, you have to have rearview mirrors for U.S. regulations.”

So was it technically illegal for me to be driving that thing around midtown last week?

“I suppose in theory, yeah,” he said, with a chuckle. “But you can bring prototypes into the states.”


Not that we were too concerned. The car doesn’t move very quickly (0-60 in more than 12 seconds) or fast (top speed is 99mph). Its rear-situated 47hp two-cylinder turbo-diesel engine and 27hp electric motor gets just 68 horsepower.

But you won’t know that from looking at the top-opening scissor doors, the tightly drawn rear end, or the futuristic disc-shaped rims engineered to create shields that block wind in the wheel wells. The car looks fast.

It won’t break any speed records, but it can go 261 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel. That’s like driving from New York City to Washington, D.C., for less than $5.

The head of VW Group himself, Ferdinand PiĆ«ch, commissioned XL1 with that goal—to get at least 100 miles in a production vehicle on 1 litre of gasoline. His engineering team accomplished it by making XL1 lightweight (1,753 pounds of carbon fiber in the chassis and body panels) and slim (the two seats inside are offset so that the passenger sits slightly behind the driver, which allows the car to be narrower). Inside, for additional weight-shaving, the dashboard is made of wood and the interior sacrifices most creature comforts like power steering and a proper sound system. The rear of the car is narrow through the trunk, and the roofline and clearance sit low to the ground. Its 5-kWh lithium-ion battery and a 2.6-gallon fuel tank sit nestled between the powertrain and passenger side of the car–a position also strategized to conserve space.

Did I mention the XL1 has no rear window or side mirrors? Instead, video cameras feed two small screens in the inner door panels. It’s all extremely compact.

Headroom, though, is adequate, as is leg room. And driving it feels like commanding a small hovercraft. It’s virtually silent except when you accelerate quickly and the diesel engine kicks in with a whirr. The steering is easy, the regenerative brakes adequate but abrupt.

Gillies says “relatively wealthy” Europe-based buyers who “want a really efficient commuter car” will be able to get the XL1 for 111,000 Euros ($145,000 USD) later this year. VW will make 250 of them, all at a factory in Germany.

Unfortunately for us, it’s clear that the cost of altering XL1 to be street-legal here far outweighs the foreseen benefit to bring it over. But it does seem a shame that Volkswagen couldn’t send at least a handful to our shores. Based on the popularity of cars like the Tesla Roadster and Model S alone—and the admittedly anecdotal but enthusiastic reactions from consumers here who loved the car on spec—it seems reasonable to believe VW wouldn’t have any problem selling 500 or 1,000 of them stateside.

Then again, maybe it’s just as well. There are enough cellphone-related fender benders around here anyway.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Story first appeared in USA TODAY.

The government forecast Tuesday that most households will pay more for heat this winter. Heating oil users will catch a slight break, but still pay near-record prices to keep warm.

Prices for natural gas, electricity and propane should be higher, the primary reason that more than 90% of homes will incur higher heating expenses.

Homes using natural gas for heat will pay about $679. That is about 13% higher than a year ago but still 4% below the average for the previous five winters. Homes relying on electricity for heat, about 38% of the U.S., will likely pay about 2% more for heat compared with last year.

For heating oil customers, there is good news and bad news in the Energy Department's annual outlook for heating costs. Their average bill should drop 2%, to $2,046. But that's still the second highest average on record, behind last year's $2,092.

Some analysts are concerned about a spike in heating oil prices. That's because the fuels that refiners make alongside heating oil, including diesel and jet fuel, are in high demand around the world and inventories are low.

"If there's one type of product that could catch fire and go higher, it's heating oil," says Tom Kloza, Chief Oil Analyst at the Oil Price Information Service and

Natural gas should average $11 per thousand cubic feet, the government said. That's the highest price since the fuel averaged nearly $13 per thousand cubic feet in the winter of 2008-2009, but 4% below the five-year average.

Just over half of U.S. households use natural gas for heating. Only 6% use heating oil, but those homes tend to be in New England and New York, where winter heating needs are high. Many of the 38% of U.S. households that use electric heat live in warm regions where heating demand is not high.

Mark Wolfe, Executive Director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, which advocates for heating assistance for low income families, worries that high heating oil prices, colder weather, and cuts in federal heating assistance will leave more families vulnerable.

"Two years ago we could help close to 2 million more families than we can now," Wolfe says.

In 2010, Congress set aside $5.1 billion for heating assistance. This year, Wolfe is expecting $3 billion. "There's no ability to respond to spikes in prices," he says. "If this winter is really cold, it won't be adequate."

The Energy Department expects temperatures in the Northeast to be about 3% colder than a year ago, resulting in a 3% increase in consumption of heating oil. Bills will be lower, however, because the average price for heating oil will drop to $3.68 a gallon from $3.87.

But the government cautions that if temperatures are about 10% below expectations nationally, heating oil costs could rise around 9 percent from a year ago. That would mean an average bill of $2.280, a record.

Monday, October 7, 2013


Story first appeared on ABC News.

 For years, activists have warned that fracking can have disastrous consequences — ruined water and air, sickened people and animals, a ceaseless parade of truck traffic.

Now some critics are doing what was once unthinkable: working with the industry. Some are even signing lucrative gas leases and speaking about the environmental benefits of gas.

In one northeastern Pennsylvania village that became a global flashpoint in the debate over fracking, the switch has raised more than a few eyebrows.

A few weeks ago, Victoria Switzer and other activists from Dimock endorsed a candidate for governor who supports natural gas production from gigantic reserves like the Marcellus Shale, albeit with more regulation and new taxes. Dimock was the centerpiece of "Gasland," a documentary that galvanized opposition to fracking, and Switzer was also featured in this summer's "Gasland Part II," which aired on HBO.

"We had to work with the industry. There is no magic wand to make this go away," said Switzer, who recently formed a group that seeks to work with drillers on improved air quality standards. "Tunnel vision isn't good. Realism is good."

For Switzer, the endorsement was a nod to reality; for some of her onetime allies, a betrayal. Either way, it was a sign that anti-drilling activism is evolving, with some opponents shifting tactics to reflect that shale gas is likely here to stay.

Plenty of anti-drilling activists still want nothing to do with the industry and continue to call for a ban on fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, the technique that drillers use to siphon gas from shale deposits more than a mile underground. In New York state, opponents have so far succeeded in blocking natural-gas development in the Marcellus Shale.

But Pennsylvania residents concerned about drilling no longer have the luxury of simply calling for a ban, Switzer said. Not with the Pennsylvania and West Virginia portions of the Marcellus already yielding more than $10 billion worth of gas annually, making it the nation's most prolific gas field.

"It's in full swing, and it's simplistic to think you could just tell them all to stop," said Rebecca Roter, another Pennsylvania activist.

The enormous volume of gas flowing from the Marcellus and other U.S. shale formations has turned energy markets upside-down and led to wholesale prices that are about one-third of what customers in Europe or Asia pay. That's led to lower costs for consumers and industry.

And that, in turn, got the attention of Vermont's anti-fracking governor.

It was Gov. Peter Shumlin who, in early 2012, signed the nation's first statewide fracking ban. But now he's promoting the economic benefits of natural gas. Last month, Shumlin spoke out in favor of a $90 million expansion of the state's natural gas pipeline system — which will transport fracked gas — saying the project was critical to industry, the environment and people who are struggling to pay energy bills.

Some drilling critics, meanwhile, have become reluctant partners with an industry they dislike.

Robert Donnan had been an outspoken critic of drilling in general and Range Resources, the company that sunk the first Marcellus well in 2004, in particular. In February, he leased his land to Range, according to public documents obtained by The Associated Press.

 Donnan didn't respond to requests for comment, nor did members of the group to which he belongs, Marcellus Protest, whose stated goal is to "stop the destruction of our environment and communities caused by Marcellus drilling."

But one of Donnan's cousins said family members felt they had little real choice, considering their 296-acre property southwest of Pittsburgh is already surrounded by drilling.

"The choice is either sign the lease and have some control, or don't sign and have no control" over what happens in the area, said Geoffrey Smith, adding the family will still keep an eye on everything the drillers do.

"We're watching for any spills, any violation of the lease, for any hanky-panky with the money," said Smith, who praised his cousin for keeping the industry's "feet to the fire" on environmental issues.

Donnan is still speaking out, too. In the spring, he published a letter to the editor saying "gas production is filthy business." He also denounced drilling at a public forum in Pittsburgh — though without telling the audience he had signed a lease.

Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said the company views Donnan's decision to sign a lease after years of criticizing the industry "as an endorsement" of drilling, since he's clearly aware of the risks involved.

Some environmental groups are seeking to partner with the industry in a different way.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, environmentalists recently joined charitable foundations and major oil and gas companies to form the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which aims to protect air and water from pollution in the Appalachian region. And in Illinois, industry and environmental groups worked together to support a bill on fracking that both sides could support.

That's similar to what Switzer is trying to accomplish in Dimock, the tiny crossroads where pro- and anti-drilling forces descended after state regulators held a gas driller responsible for contaminating residential water supplies with methane.

More than a year after Switzer and other residents settled their lawsuit against Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., the rancor has mostly subsided. And Switzer settled on a new approach to the industry that she calls her "landlord."

"You have to sit down and not be the enemy," she said.

This year, Switzer and Roter co-founded Breathe Easy Susquehanna County, an organization that seeks to persuade companies to use advanced technologies to limit emissions. The group has won plaudits for its non-confrontational style.

It's a small, quiet effort to set aside philosophical differences over the wisdom of natural gas production and focus on how the negative impacts can be minimized. The group has even attracted pro-drilling residents who had clashed with Switzer and others who spoke out against the industry.

Switzer and Roter said it's time to move past the pro-gas, anti-gas dichotomy. The reality, they point out, is that thousands of wells have already been drilled, new compressor stations are going up and pipelines are being laid.

At Breathe Easy, Roter said, "we decided our first goal was to make concern about air quality mainstream as mainstream as going to church in this rural county."

Monday, September 23, 2013

Power Plants Issued New EPA Regulations on Emissions

Story first appeared in USA TODAY.

Lawsuits are expected to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal Friday to limit emissions from new power plants, and the main reason is cutting-edge, anti-pollution technology.

The EPA announced Friday morning its proposal to cap the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. Coal-fired plants -- unlike most natural gas facilities -- won't meet the standard without costly technology to capture and store carbon emissions.

There's the rub. No commercial, coal-fired plant worldwide has yet to use this technology, but at least two are now under construction — one in Canada's Saskatchewan Province, and the other in Mississippi's Kemper County, which is scheduled to open in May. Three other U.S. coal plants are planned, two in Texas and one in Illinois.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Americans have a "moral obligation to the next generation" to protect the environment, and its proposal, updated from an initial one last year, is a "necessary step to address a public health challenge."

Rather than killing the U.S. coal industry, "it sets out a path forward" for it, McCarthy said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.,, adding the standard relies on "home-grown technologies" and is both achievable and flexible.

Critics, including the coal industry, disagree and say it's not legal to require a technology that's not yet proved itself commercially. Supporters, including environmental groups, say the standard will create demand for the technology and spur industry cleanup.

"There's no demand for the technology now," but an EPA rule will change that, says Dan Weiss of the Center for American Progress, a research group that supports the limits. He says there are enough demonstration projects to prove that the technology, often called CCS (carbon capture and sequestration), works.

Not so, says Jeffrey Holmstead, a partner at the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm who was a senior EPA official under President George W. Bush. "CCS has not been adequately demonstrated," says Holmstead, who represents coal-fired plants. "It's not met the standard EPA has used for the last 40 years" that requires new technology also be cost-effective.

"It's a gray area," says Howard Herzog of MIT's Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies program, begun in 1989. "All the components are commercial. What's not is having a business model where they all work together," he says, citing the lack of a "turn-key" system.

"If you had to do it, you could,' he says, but it would be expensive. He say it's costly, because it's new technology, and there's no federal policy requiring it. He says it's simply cheaper now for power plants to release greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.

Herzog says power plants can capture up to 90% of their carbon emissions with CCS. The process typically has three phases. Carbon is captured and compressed, then transported (usually by pipeline) to a site where it's stored in deep underground rock formations.

In the Kemper County plant, it works a bit differently. After the carbon is captured, it will be sold to companies for enhanced oil recovery, says Amoi Geter, spokeswoman for Gulfport-based Mississippi Power, which is building the plant. Geter says about 65% of carbon emissions will be captured.

Coal-fired power plants are the single-largest source of U.S. electricity, providing 37% of the total last year. They also emit a disproportionately large share of greenhouse gases — far more that natural gas counterparts. While they provided 18% of all energy consumed nationwide in 2012, they accounted for 31% of energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The EPA's proposal, which addresses only new power plants, is a dress rehearsal for a much larger one next year that will limit emissions from existing power plants. President Obama has directed the agency to propose a standard for existing plants by June and finalize it in 2015.

For new coal-fired plants, the EPA proposal caps emissions at 1,100 pounds of carbon-dioxide per megawatt-hour of power produced. A typical new plant, without CCS technology, emits about 1,800 pounds. In the initial 2012 proposal, the agency proposed a limit of 1,000 pounds.

The agency's updated proposal also sets a 1,100-pound standard for small natural gas plants that produce 850 megawatts or less of electricity and a 1,000-pound limit for larger units. Most natural gas plants would meet these caps without CCS technology.

Holmstead says the EPA's carbon rule, which won't be finalized until next year, is "effectively a ban" on new coal-fired power plants. "I'm quite confident there will be a legal challenge," he says. "There's a good chance it will be overturned in court, but that's a few years away."

Weiss agrees lawsuits will "absolutely" ensue, but he says the EPA gives plants time to adjust. The proposal allows plants to average emissions over a seven-year period if they meet a slightly tighter limit of between 1,000 and 1,050 pounds.

The coal industry says the EPA's proposed rule, if enacted, will lead to more coal plant closures and higher electric bills. It "would cause consumers' power bills to skyrocket over time and cause more pain at the plug than Americans have experienced at the pump," St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, the world's largest private-sector coal company, said in a statement.

Geter says Mississippi Power has raised rates 15% this year and plans an additional 3% increase next year to help pay for the new Kemper County plant, whose price tag has risen from an initial $2.4 billion to $3.8 billion, of which at least $270 million is federal funding.

Obama administration officials say greenhouse gas emissions have high hidden costs. They say coal emits not only carbon dioxide, which raises Earth's temperature, but also sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and heavy metals (such as mercury and arsenic) and acid gases (such as hydrogen chloride), which have been linked to acid rain, smog and health issues.

"The industry wants to be able to blame EPA" for its economic troubles, says David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. But he says low prices for natural gas, even wind, are bigger factors in coal's current and future prospects than EPA's proposed rule.

Environmentalists say the rule, though, is a major step toward cleaner air. Julian Boggs of Environment America, an advocacy group, says: "We can kiss goodbye any more dirty power plants."

Monday, September 16, 2013

U.S. energy lifting economy more than expected

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Rising U.S. oil and natural gas production is having a bigger impact on the U.S. economy than estimated a couple years ago, according to a leading economic consulting firm.

Newly found sources of domestic oil and natural gas are having an even bigger impact on the economy than first projected, adding more than $1,200 last year to the discretionary income of the average U.S. family, a new study says.

The explosion in domestic energy production now supports 1.2 million jobs, directly or indirectly, says consulting firm IHS, in a study released Wednesday. That number will grow to 3.3 million by 2020, and new energy's contribution to U.S. families' disposable incomes will hit $2,000 per household per year by 2015, said IHS.

IHS' numbers are larger than findings by other economists, which also point to a major impact from shale oil and gas. The introduction of technologies like hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling, which made it practical to recover previously unused oil reserves, has helped drive a 58% increase in natural gas reserves since 2007, cut the price of natural gas by nearly three-fourths, and sparked more than $120 billion in U.S.-based investment last year, IHS said. Its study was partly financed by a number of energy and manufacturing industry groups.

"Anyone who doubts the reality of this is not paying attention,'' said John Larson, vice president of IHS and co-leader of a team of 13 contributors from the firm's energy, economics and manufacturing-industry consulting groups. "You're seeing the production numbers in both gas and oil to support it.''

The biggest impact on many U.S. households is lower electricity and heating bills, accounting for about 75% of the average household's gains, Larson said. About $800 of that represents lower prices for natural gas-fueled heat and cooking, and $100 to $150 is from electricity rates lower than they otherwise would be, he said.

Government data back up most of this analysis. Residential natural-gas prices, which vary widely by state, have fallen between 12% and 32% since 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Electricity prices, however, have risen slightly on average. IHS' numbers were based on assumptions about what households would have spent if U.S. natural gas prices stayed near 2008 levels, Larson said.

Natural gas prices in much of Europe are three times U.S. levels, and Asian prices are even higher, reflecting the lack of new supplies there, he said.

Cheaper electricity also shows up in the price of other manufactured goods, and some families get a paycheck from producing oil and gas, or working for companies that ship petroleum or make supplies for drilling and pipelines, he said.

Earlier, IHS had only estimated the impact of new gas supplies, without attempting to quantify the effects of new oil supplies pouring out of places such as North Dakota and the Eagle Ford shale in Texas. In December 2011, it had said the shale gas industry was supporting 600,000 jobs by 2010.

Moody's Analytics, another leading economics consulting firm, estimates that 1 million of the 2.7 million jobs gained in the U.S. between 2002 and 2012 were related to shale oil and gas drilling, Moody's economist Chris Lafakis said.

Growth in shale-related employment since 2008 was almost four times as much as Moody's forecast in 2009, and is growing twice as fast as the overall economy despite a hiring lull caused by lower natural gas prices, Lafakis said.

'It's difficult to overstate the shale revolution's profound contributions to the US. economy,'' Lafakis said.

More domestic production is also slashing crude oil imports, which fell 19% in the first half of this year, according to the Census Bureau. That shaved $31.6 billion off the nation's trade deficit.

In 2011, U.S. oil and gas companies added almost 3.8 billion barrels of crude oil and related reserves, an increase of 15%, the biggest jump since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began publishing proved reserves estimates in 1977, the government said last month.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Japanese agency labels radioactive leak 'serious'

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's nuclear regulator on Wednesday upgraded the rating of a leak of radiation-contaminated water from a tank at its tsunami-wrecked nuclear plant to a "serious incident" on an international scale, and it castigated the plant operator for failing to catch the problem earlier.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority's latest criticism of Tokyo Electric Power Co. came a day after the operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant acknowledged that the 300-ton leak probably began nearly a month and a half before it was discovered Aug. 19.

In a meeting with agency officials and experts Tuesday night, TEPCO said radioactivity near the leaky tank and exposure levels among patrolling staff started to increase in early July. There is no sign that anyone tried to find the source of that radioactivity before the leak was discovered.

On Wednesday, regulatory officials said TEPCO has repeatedly ignored their instructions to improve their patrolling procedures to reduce the risk of overlooking leakages. They said TEPCO lacked expertise and also underestimated potential impact of the leak because underground water is shallower around the tank than the company initially told regulators.

"Their instructions, written or verbal, have never been observed," Toyoshi Fuketa, a regulatory commissioner, said at the agency's weekly meeting Wednesday.

TEPCO acknowledged recently that only two workers were assigned to check all 1,000 storage tanks at the plant during their twice-daily, two-hour walk without carrying dosimeters, and their inspection results were not adequately recorded. TEPCO said it will increase patrolling staff to 50 from the current eight.

Earlier this week, Japan's industry minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, said the government will take over cleanup efforts and allocate funding for long-term contaminated water management projects.

The nuclear authority originally gave a Level 1 preliminary rating — an "anomaly," to the tank leak. Last week the authority proposed raising that to Level 3 — a "serious incident" — and it made that change after consulting with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The IAEA's ratings are designed to inform the international community, and changing them does not affect efforts to clean up the leak by the government and TEPCO. The 2011 Fukushima disaster itself was rated the maximum of 7 on the scale, the same as the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

"What's important is not the number itself but to give a basic idea about the extent of the problem," authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka said at a news conference after the agency's meeting. "I've seen reports that this is a dire situation but that's not true."

Tanaka said there is a much larger ongoing problem at the plant: massive amounts of contaminated ground water reaching the sea. But that problem cannot even be rated under the IAEA's International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale because it is unknown exactly how much ground water is escaping, how contaminated it is and what effect it is having on the sea and marine products.

Tanaka said TEPCO's handling of the water leaks was slow, illogical and lacked risk management. TEPCO has yet to determine the cause of the latest leak.

"I'm baffled," he said. "It may take time to stabilize the plant but we must put it on a right track."

TEPCO has recovered some of the water that leaked from the tank but says some of it may have reached the sea through a rainwater gutter. It says most of the leakage is believed to have seeped into the soil, triggering fresh concern of further contamination of underground water downstream.

TEPCO has built hundreds of tanks to hold radioactive water, some of which is ground water that made its way to the plant, but hundreds more tons of contaminated water are believed to be entering the sea each day.

The plant suffered triple meltdowns after the massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. TEPCO is putting tons of water into its reactors to cool them and is struggling to contain the resulting waste water.

What is a haboob?

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

A wall of dust hundreds of feet high rolled into the Phoenix area.

A wall of dust, hundreds of feet high, rolled into the Phoenix area with gusts of wind up to 62 mph on Monday evening.

Haboobs, as the dust-walls are known, only happen in Arizona, the Sahara desert and parts of the Middle East because of dry conditions and large amounts of sand, weather officials say.

The storms are known to halt airline flights, knock out power and turn swimming pools into mud pits.

Monday's haboob was part of a massive monsoon storm that downed trees and power lines, flooded roadways and left nearly 14,000 customers without power.

With a little over a month left before the official end of Arizona's monsoon season, storms like Monday's aren't unusual, but this one was much more widespread than others this summer, according to an official with the National Weather Service in Phoenix.

Arizona dust storms were called haboobs as far back as the October 1972 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The article, An American Haboob, written by Sherwood Idso of Tempe, examined a July 16, 1971, Valley dust storm that had the same characteristics as the ones in the Sudan.

The name comes from the Arabic word habb, meaning, "wind." It has many spellings, including: bub, habub, haboub, hubbob, and hubbub.

Huge California wildfire reverberates in 2 states

Story originally appeared on the Detroit News.

Fresno, Calif. — After burning for nearly a week on the edges of California’s Yosemite National Park, a massive wildfire of nearly 200 square miles has now crossed into it, and firefighters have barely begun to contain it.

The Yosemite Valley, the part of the park frequented by tourists and known around the world for such iconic sights as the Half Dome and El Capitan rock formations and Yosemite falls, remained open, clear of smoke and free from other signs of the fire that remained about 20 miles away.

But the blaze was reverberating around the region. It brought a governor’s declaration of emergency late Friday for San Francisco 150 miles away because of the threat the fire posed to utility transmission to the city, and caused smoke warnings and event cancellations in Nevada as smoke blew over the Sierra Nevada and across state lines.

And the fire had established at least a foothold in Yosemite, with at least 17 of its 196 square miles burning inside the park’s broad borders, in a remote area near Lake Eleanor where backpackers seek summer solace.

Park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said that the park had stopped issuing backcountry permits to backpackers and had warned those who already had them to stay out of the area.

She emphasized that the skies over Yosemite Valley were “crystal clear,” however.

“Right now there are no closures, and no visitor services are being affected in the park,” Cobb said. “We just have to take one day at a time.”

The blaze did, however, pose a threat to the lines and stations that pipe power to the city of San Francisco, so Gov. Jerry Brown, who had declared an emergency for the fire area earlier in the week, made the unusual move of doing the same for the city across the state.

San Francisco gets 85 percent of its water from the Yosemite-area Hetch Hetchy reservoir that is about 4 miles from the fire, though that had yet to be affected. But it was forced to shut down two of its three hydroelectric power stations in the area.

The city has so far been able to buy power on the open market and use existing supplies, but further disruptions or damage could have an effect, according to city power officials and the governor’s statement.

The declaration frees funding and resources to help the city and makes it eligible for more federal funds to help with power shortages and outages or water problems.

The 196-square-mile blaze was 5 percent contained and more than 2,000 firefighters were on the lines.

It continued to grow in several directions, although “most of the fire activity is pushing to the east right into Yosemite,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Nevada, the smoke forced officials in several counties to cancel outdoor school activities and issue health advisories, especially for people with respiratory problems.

The fire was threatening about 5,500 residences, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The blaze has destroyed four homes and 12 outbuildings in several different areas.

It closed a 4-mile stretch of State Route 120, one of three entrances into Yosemite on the west side. Two other western routes and an eastern route were open.

Officials issued voluntary evacuation advisories for two new towns — Tuolumne City, population 1,800, and Ponderosa Hills, a community of several hundred — which are about five miles from the fire line, Forest Service spokesman Jerry Snyder said.

A mandatory evacuation order remained in effect for part of Pine Mountain Lake, a summer gated community a few miles from the fire.

“It feels a little bit like a war zone, with helicopters flying overhead, bombers dropping retardant and 10 engine companies stationed on our street,” said Ken Codeglia, a retired Pine Mountain Lake resident who decided to stay to protect his house with his own hoses and fire retardant system. “But if the fire gets very hot and firefighters evacuate, I will run with them.”

Officials previously advised voluntary evacuations of more than a thousand other homes, several organized camps and at least two campgrounds in the area outside the park’s boundary.

More homes, businesses and hotels are threatened in nearby Groveland, a community of 600 about 5 miles from the fire and 25 miles from the entrance of Yosemite.

Usually filled with tourists, the streets are now swarming with firefighters, evacuees and news crews, said Doug Edwards, owner of Hotel Charlotte on Main Street.

“We usually book out six months solid with no vacancies and turn away 30-40 people a night. That’s all changed,” Edwards said. “All we’re getting for the next three weeks is cancellations. It’s a huge impact on the community in terms of revenue dollars.”

The fire is raging in the same region where a 1987 blaze killed a firefighter, burned hundreds of thousands of acres and forced several thousand people out of their homes.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Limit urged for cancer-causing chromium in California drinking water

Story originally appeared on LA Times.

State public health officials Thursday proposed the nation's first drinking-water standard for the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, at a level that elicited sighs of relief from municipal water managers and criticism from environmentalists.

At 10 parts per billion, the standard is 500 times greater than the non-enforceable public health goal set two years ago by the state Environmental Protection Agency.

The Department of Public Health described the proposed limit as a balance of public health, cost and treatment technology, but the agency acknowledged that economics were a key consideration.

Mark Starr, deputy director of the Center for Environmental Health, said the state's aim was to determine the lowest possible limit for the toxic heavy metal "given the technology available and the cost in order to protect public health."

Environmentalists said the 10 parts per billion standard — the equivalent of about 10 drops in an Olympic-sized pool — was far too high. "Five hundred times higher than safe levels is not protective of public health," said Avinash Kar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the state to issue the long-delayed standard.

Los Angeles, Burbank and Glendale already treat San Fernando Valley groundwater supplies contaminated by aerospace manufacturing to reduce hexavalent chromium levels to 5 parts per billion. That means the proposed new standard would not require them to adopt more intensive — and expensive — methods.

"We're happy and pleasantly surprised," said Ramon Abueg, a chief assistant general manager for Glendale Water and Power, which is treating about 15% of its water supply for the pollutant, also known as chromium 6.

"We took the most conservative approach until a standard could be set," he said. But Abueg added that the city, which has a sophisticated treatment system in place, would continue to adhere to its more stringent practice.

Chromium 6 occurs naturally but is also an industrial contaminant that gained a high profile after the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich" related how the desert town of Hinkley's water supply was fouled by mid-century releases from a nearby utility operation.

The chemical has been found in 51 of California's 58 counties, including Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino, according to the Department of Public Health. State officials said about 128 water systems would be required to treat their supplies under the new standard, at a total annual cost of $156 million.

Current state and federal standards do not distinguish between hexavalent chromium and trivalent chromium, an essential nutrient found naturally in foods. Instead, they combine the harmful and benign forms into a limit on total chromium, which the state puts at 50 parts per billion and the federal government at 100 parts per billion.

Although Los Angeles has been treating valley groundwater supplies and blending them with imported water to reduce chromium 6 levels to a lower level than the standard would require, Pankaj Parekh of the Department of Water and Power said the new standard was reasonable in light of scientific disagreement over what levels of the contaminant are harmful.

"What they've come out with soon might be a little conservative," he said, adding that the city wants to expand treatment of polluted groundwater to increase local water supplies.

Bill Mace, an assistant general manager at Burbank Water and Power, said his utility probably would consider adopting the less stringent standard proposed Thursday. "If we went to 10 [parts per billion], it would require us to blend less" with expensive treated water, cutting costs, he said.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fire breaks out on evacuated Gulf gas well

Story Originally Appeared in Seattle Pi

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An out-of-control natural gas well off the Louisiana coast caught fire late Tuesday, hours after 44 workers were safely evacuated from the drilling rig following a mid-morning blowout, a federal agency confirmed.

No injuries were reported as a result of the fire, Eileen Angelico, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, told The Associated Press.

She said it wasn't known what caused the gas to ignite. It also wasn't clear early Wednesday how and when crews would attempt to extinguish the blaze. BSEE said earlier Tuesday that a firefighting vessel with water and foam capabilities had been dispatched to the scene.

Wild Well Control Inc. was hired to try to bring the well under control. Angelico said Wild Well personnel approached the well earlier Tuesday night, before the fire, but they determined it was unsafe to get closer when they were about 200 feet away from it.

The gas blowout was reported Tuesday morning.

The Coast Guard kept nautical traffic out of an area within 500 meters of the site throughout the day. The Federal Aviation Administration restricted aircraft up to 2,000 feet above the area.

BSEE said inspectors flying over the site soon after the blowout saw a light sheen covering an area about a half-mile by 50 feet. However, it was dissipating quickly.

Earlier this month, a gas well off the Louisiana coast flowed for several days before being sealed.

Officials stressed that Tuesday's blowout wouldn't be close to as damaging as the BP oil spill of 2010, in which an oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers and eventually spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. It was the worst offshore environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Chris Roberts, a member of the Jefferson Parish Council in south Louisiana, said the travel restrictions might pose an inconvenience for participants in an upcoming deep sea fishing tournament.

"It could change some plans as to where some people plan to fish," he said.

Tuesday's blowout occurred near an unmanned offshore gas platform that was not currently producing natural gas, said Angelico. The workers were aboard a portable drilling rig known as a jackup rig, owned by Hercules Offshore Inc., which was a contractor for exploration and production company Walter Oil & Gas Corp.

Walter Oil & Gas reported to the BSEE that the rig was completing a "sidetrack well" — a means of re-entering the original well bore, Angelico said.

The purpose of the sidetrack well in this instance was not immediately clear. A spokesman for the corporation didn't have the information Tuesday night. Industry websites say sidetrack wells are sometimes drilled to remedy a problem with the existing well bore.

"It's a way to overcome an engineering problem with the original well," Ken Medlock, an energy expert at Rice University's Baker Institute said. "They're not drilled all the time, but it's not new."

Monday, July 22, 2013

Newark Revival Wears Orange Along the Rive

Originally Appeared in the New York Times

NEWARK — Perhaps few places in America represent the urban trauma of the 1960s more than this city. Deindustrialization, corruption, suburban flight and calamitous planning gutted its core, tore up neighborhoods and helped fuel rebellion in the streets. The whole toxic environment was encapsulated in the desecration of the Passaic River, which borders Newark. It became a dumping ground for dioxin from the defunct Diamond Shamrock Chemicals Company, which manufactured Agent Orange.

 But a quiet upheaval is turning that river, polluted as it may be, into a front line of reclamation. It’s a common approach these days, from Seoul to Madrid to San Francisco: upgrading cities by revamping ravaged waterfronts. Urban renewal strategies from decades past, which did so much to destroy places like Newark, are being turned on their heads. The idea here is to make the Passaic a point of pride. You can see the sign of change in a new stretch of fluorescent orange boardwalk along the riverfront, an eye catcher for passengers on trains rumbling over the bridge into Newark Penn Station.

Phase 1 of Riverfront Park, as it is called, was completed last summer: a $15 million complex of playing fields on formerly derelict land, a couple of miles north of a giant sewage treatment plant, in the Ironbound district. This traditionally Portuguese working-class neighborhood avoided urban renewal 50 years ago and has thrived, partly as a consequence.

The Ironbound also sidestepped the redevelopment movement of the 1980s, which produced alien, corporate sites like Battery Park City. Residents and vigorous neighborhood groups like the Ironbound Community Corporation welcomed the new fields, which, since opening, have become a citywide attraction.

Phase 2 is set to open on Aug. 3, just upriver from the fields: the 800-foot-long, $9.3 million orange boardwalk, designed by the veteran landscape architect Lee Weintraub, in collaboration with the city’s planning office.

In this cash-starved city, nearly half the money has come from the state, the rest from federal and county sources, along with private contributions solicited by the mayor, Cory A. Booker, and the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.

The ultimate goal, said Damon Rich, Newark’s planning director, is to create more than three miles of greenway, a riverfront ribbon with bike and walking paths stretching all the way through downtown to residential neighborhoods in the north.

Accomplishing that will require decades of political perseverance. “It doesn’t get more challenging than a waterfront park on a brownfield next to a Superfund site,” as Adrian Benepe, the director of City Park Development at the Trust for Public Land, and a former commissioner for New York City parks, put it. This is an especially tall order in a poor city notorious for unreliable governance. A timely coalition of environmental groups, Essex County leaders and Mr. Booker came together to complete the first phases. The mayor is now running for United States Senate. Whether early successes with the park will propel the project onward, whoever ends up in charge, is an obvious question.

Another is whether big change can happen here without gentrification driving out the very people the plan tries to help. The city administration says it wants to avoid exactly that. Many residents, accustomed to broken promises and fearful of investments that only produce quarantined office parks, are already wary.

“When the city center was destroyed by urban renewal, it became a place to avoid, a place to pass through,” said Mindy Fullilove, a professor at Columbia University and a New Jersey native who writes on urban affairs. “Now the riverfront can become an urban edge shared by everyone — a point from which to build the city back. The problem of urban renewal has been that when we’ve had an idea, it usually isn’t a good one, and when we have a good one, we don’t put money into it. The hope this time is that things will be different.”

These are changing times. Cities, which banked so much on fancy buildings, are increasingly finding new life and a fresh identity in public spaces that connect neighborhoods and communities. Planning gurus for years preached that waterfronts were no more than working ports and dumping grounds for industrial waste and the poor. Canals were paved with concrete and riverbanks lined with highways, factories, housing projects and railroads. According to this gospel, cars and freeways were good for failing cities, and urban density was bad.

The notion that industry might someday dry up, that economic development and public health would depend on clean, leisure-oriented waterfronts seemed almost inconceivable not even half a century ago. But environmental concerns and digital revolutions have reversed thinking. The proof is on the streets. Downtowns are coming back where residents and cities are stressing public transit over cars, density over sprawl, diversity over suburban flight.

In Newark’s case, repairing the damage will not be easy. Mr. Rich, the planning director, led the way on foot the other morning from the train station to the new boardwalk. The trip required crisscrossing streets with meager accommodation for pedestrians, clambering up the exit ramp of an old bridge and hugging the gutter of a four-lane boulevard that lacks traffic lights allowing people to cross into the park. Along the way, he pointed out a riverside brownfield, the former Market Street Gas Works, now a cleanup project for PSE&G, the utility company. Next door, a grim mirrored-glass office building, headquarters for New Jersey Transit and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, squatted atop a multistory garage.

 It’s hard to envision how Riverfront Park will get around those obstacles.

And then there is the river. A state court ruled two years ago that Occidental Chemical Corporation, the successor to Diamond Shamrock, was principally liable for the costs (from $1 billion to $4 billion) of cleaning up the Passaic, but the company has contested the ruling. The next phase of Riverfront Park, to be completed in the spring, envisions the boardwalk stretching toward Penn Station. Restoring parts of the riverfront in the ethnic and racial mix of northern neighborhoods, for equity’s sake, will present a whole fresh set of hurdles.

Still, what has been built so far goes a long way. If a single downtown building like the Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters separates the city from its river, a modest stretch of boardwalk knits them back together. At a ball field across the boulevard from the new park, Marcelino Arce, a youth baseball coach, described how some children in the Ironbound neighborhood had no idea the river was even there. Now, they must dodge traffic on the boulevard; but once across, he told me, it’s “a whole new world.”

That world includes a few zigzagging walking paths, with signs, by MTWTF, a graphic design firm, recounting the history of the river and its industries. There is an osprey rookery built into a copse of trees at an overlook onto the river. The city still needs to install those traffic lights and the park needs more seating.

As for the boardwalk, made of recycled plastic, its bright orange can summon up what Christo and Jeanne-Claude called “saffron” to describe the color of their “Gates” in Central Park. But police cones may leap to mind. Or Agent Orange. For his part, Mr. Weintraub said the orange was picked after eliminating various gang-related colors. Whatever. It is not ideal.

Newark deserves an elegant waterfront. That said, the orange boardwalk also acts like a giant highlighter, drawing attention to the park — as the project hopes to draw people from all over the city back to the Passaic, one patch of recuperated riverfront at a time.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Shell Picks New Chief Executive

Story Originally Appeared in The New York Times

LONDON — Royal Dutch Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, surprised markets on Tuesday by naming Ben van Beurden to succeed Peter Voser as chief executive on Jan. 1.

 Mr. van Beurden, a Dutch national who is 55, has headed Shell’s large marketing and refining business since January and has been a key player in its liquefied natural gas business, in which Shell is the world leader among publicly traded oil companies.

He was chosen by Shell’s board over better-known candidates including Andrew Brown, head of exploration and production; Marvin Odum, head of the company’s Americas business; and Simon Henry, the chief financial officer, well-known to investors.

“This will be something of a surprise to analysts who widely expected” Mr. Henry to be chosen, said Peter Hutton, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets in London. “However, it was always clear that Shell would appoint the person it felt had the best combination of skills for the job, not necessarily the best known to the external community.”

Shell shares rose Tuesday in London..

Mr. Voser had said in May that he would step down next year after less than five years in the top job, news that also surprised the markets. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family, which had remained in his native Switzerland while he worked at Shell headquarters in London.

Previously chief financial officer, Mr. Voser had helped stabilize Shell after a scandal over misstating oil and gas reserves. While uncomfortable in the limelight, he is thought to have improved the implementation of big projects like the $20 billion Pearl gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar that have come to distinguish Shell.

The standard spot for chief executives-in-waiting at major oil companies is the exploration and production division, which is usually the big profit earner.

Shell differs from other major oil major companies like BP by stressing big long-term projects that lack the tremendous potential financial rewards of oil exploration but produce steady returns with lower risk.

Liquefied natural gas tends to earn returns in the relatively modest 10 percent to 15 percent range, analysts say, but it produces steady cash flows for decades with little additional capital expenditure.

Shell has invested around $40 billion in the business in recent years. It hopes to cash in on growing use of gas in China and other developing countries.

It is also one of the few companies that is investing large sums in gas-to-liquids plants, the monster installations required to transform natural gas into fuels like diesel. And it is the leader in the still-unproven technology of building gigantic floating vessels to process liquefied natural gas in remote locations.

Mr. van Beurden was involved in the floating vessels at the early stages and is also credited by some with turning around the now-profitable chemicals business when he headed it from 2006 to 2012. He reconfigured Shell’s American chemical plants to use low-priced gas feedstock rather than oil.

In an industry where access to oil and gas is increasingly competitive, Shell hopes a demonstrated ability to design and manage megaprojects will give it a competitive advantage.

Mr. van Beurden’s experience appears tailored to Shell’s strategy. For instance, he has 10 years in Shell’s liquefied natural gas business. That business, along with gas-to-liquids, earned Shell $9.4 billion of its $25.1 billion in profit last year.

“Ben will continue to drive and further develop the strategic agenda that we have set out, to generate competitive returns for our shareholders,” Shell’s chairman, Jorma Ollila, said in a statement Tuesday.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Story Originally Appeared in the Los Angeles Times

President Obama plans to roll out the first U.S. regulations designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants by next June, making that the central element of a sweeping initiative to rein in emissions of gases that drive climate change.

Obama plans to describe his proposals in a speech Tuesday afternoon at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is expected to unveil a strategy that works across the federal government to pare greenhouse gases sharply by the end of the decade, senior White House officials said.

The approach leans heavily on executive-branch actions, an acknowledgment that the current Congress will not take action to address climate change.

“It is a step-by-step approach that creates a bucket of cuts," said Jody Freeman, director of the Environmental Law Program at Harvard Law School who was a White House adviser on climate change in 2009-10. “What’s important to remember is that the president is behind this, and that means the starter’s pistol has gone off.”

The administration’s efforts would include plans to open more federal lands for renewable-energy development, have some public housing units powered by renewable energy, and develop new energy efficiency standards for major appliances, said senior White House officials who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

Opposition to the plan already has begun to coalesce. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) dubbed the climate change effort “a national energy tax” because it might raise the cost of certain goods and some types of energy, particularly electricity generated by burning coal.

Power plants emit about 40% of the country’s greenhouse gases, making them the single biggest source. Curtailing their emissions would build on rules the administration introduced during Obama's first term to address climate change, such as measures to require that new cars and trucks get better mileage.

But regulating existing power plants may prove a bigger, more legally risky effort than other regulations the administration has promulgated, independent analysts said.

More than a year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule that would set carbon dioxide standards for new power plants. That final rule was due out in the spring but was delayed. Now, it appears that the administration has scrapped it and will propose a different standard for new plants in September.

That means the regulation of new power plants will go into effect later than planned. Even with those delays, a revised rule will almost certainly face court challenges by the power industry.

A proposal to regulate existing plants seems likely to generate even more opposition than the rule on new plants.

Obama plans to direct the EPA “to have a proposal out in June a year from now, finalizing one year beyond that, and then working directly with the states,” a White House official said.

“The overarching goal here is to make sure we are doing the work at the front end so that we get these policies as far down the road as possible,"  the White House official said, a tacit acknowledgment that the regulatory process may run longer than Obama's tenure.

It’s unclear how much the various parts of the climate change plan would cost or how much revenue through exports or taxes they would generate. Much depends on the standards agencies set for pollution or energy efficiency or for fast-tracking renewable power.

Senior White House officials said the administration would not ask Congress for additional funding to back the climate effort.

The president’s plan tries to sweeten the pot for fossil-fuel companies that might feel threatened by new emission standards. It makes up to $8 billion available for loan guarantees for "advanced fossil fuel energy," which would include technologies to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired plants.

Obama also wants agencies to plan for the impact of climate change. The plan “will direct federal agencies to make sure that any new road, building or project funded with taxpayer dollars is built to withstand the increased flood risks from extreme weather and sea level rise,” a senior White House official said.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Gov seeks water-tight ballast rules

Story Originally Appeared in The Detroit News

Regional summit to address Great Lakes shipping demands

 Gov. Rick Snyder plans to push this weekend for strengthening ballast water disposal requirements for ocean-going freighters that travel the Great Lakes during a summit of regional leaders on Mackinac Island.

In 2007, Michigan lawmakers created the region's toughest requirements for shipping vessels to unload excess water that can carry invasive species, such as zebra and quagga mussels that often litter Great Lakes beaches.

But surrounding states and Canadian provinces have not followed suit, so Michigan officials hope to kick-start a dialogue about the issue during the Council of Great Lakes Governors summit Snyder is hosting at the Grand Hotel.

"I would like to see at some point that we get a common standard," Snyder said Friday after kicking off the summit.

Ships are circumventing Michigan's law by "moving out of Michigan waters and dumping ballast water," said Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Creating consistent guidelines throughout the region for ocean-going ships and their handling of ballast water needs attention, said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

Joel Brammeier, president of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes, said his group is interested in the region's governments collaborating on an early detection and rapid response for invasive species.

The invasive aquatic species threat is a prime opportunity for teamwork, Brammeier said, since "when a new invader shows up … eventually it's a problem for everybody."

Some Michigan lawmakers want to roll back the ballast water requirements because of opposition from shipping companies.

In addition to water quality, top elected officials from the Great Lakes states and provinces are expected to discuss economic, ecological and transportation issues facing the region during the weekend gathering.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne are scheduled to attend the summit, said Jon Allan, director of the DEQ's Office of the Great Lakes.

Quebec, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Minnesota are sending representatives, he said.

"These things are very good incubators for thinking about what collaboration in the region needs to look like," Allan said.

The governors and their representatives are expected to announce resolutions and agreements on new policy directives for Great Lakes issues on the environment, trade, transportation and water quality and levels.

"I think it's a great opportunity to say the Great Lakes are really important," Snyder said in an interview with The Detroit News. "I don't think we're going to solve all of the issues because there are differences of view between the states."

Snyder said he's pushing the region's governors and Canadian officials to forge stronger economic ties.

"We can do a better job marketing kind of the whole basin in terms of saying we're a big economy," Snyder said. "If you draw that circle (from) Montreal to Chicago, it's a third of the North American economy."

The Great Lakes face myriad threats such as falling lake levels and potential water diversions that could create precedents for future withdrawals.

The Michigan Environmental Council is monitoring the status of a requested water diversion from Lake Michigan by the Wisconsin town of Waukesha. The state of Wisconsin is reviewing the request after Waukesha's aquifer became contaminated with radium, and the way officials handle the application could set a precedent for the region.

Thames River Waste Repels Olympic Rower Amid Tunnel Works

Story Appeared in Bloomberg News

Andy Triggs Hodge, a gold medal-winning rower at the Beijing and London Olympics, stopped training on Britain’s most famous river when it turned out water wasn’t his biggest obstacle: raw sewage on the Thames was.

The capital’s sewer network, built by Victorian engineers after the “Great Stink” of 1858, can’t cope. Too many people, too much waste. Thames Water Utilities Ltd. apologized in January after London properties were damaged by sewage overflow.

Help is on the way. A 4.1 billion-pound ($6.2 billion) “super-sewer” is on the drawing board, the longest and deepest tunnel ever to be built in mainland Britain and set to follow the Thames for 20 miles, passing such landmarks as Buckingham Palace. Kemble Water Holdings Ltd.’s Thames Water unit, with 14 million customers in the London area, hired UBS AG (UBS) to help raise as much as 3.5 billion pounds for the works.

“Once you explain to people that the river banks their children are playing in are not actually mud at all, they support the project,” Michael Gerrard, managing director of the Thames Tideway Tunnel project, said in an interview.

The existing sewer network’s tunnels and arched caverns were constructed to serve half the current population. This means at least 30 million tons of excrement and waste spill into the river every year, sometimes remaining in the water as long as three months before washing out to sea.

No wonder the English rower Triggs Hodge, 34, took his training to Reading. Powering oars through toilet paper, effluent and other unmentionables while practicing on the Thames took a toll on the double World Champion.

“In the summer when things warmed up, the sewage and debris that collected on the riverbanks got pretty smelly,” he said. “The effects on our health became a major concern.”

Laws Breached

That’s exposed the U.K. to potential fines for breaching European law on treatment of wastewater. Penalties could amount to 620,000 pounds each day Britain is deemed in breach, or as much as 226 million pounds a year, according to Thames Tideway.

The European Court of Justice in October ruled the U.K. failed to meet its obligations. The commission said it’s too early to speculate how much any fine may be.

The complexities of building a 7.2 meter-wide (24 feet) concrete tunnel extending west to east along the course of the river will require a new type of funding solution, according to the project’s financial adviser KPMG LLP.

Tight government pockets, and the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 privatization of the industry, point to a privately financed plan. The problem is finding investors for such project risks, said Richard Threlfall, head of the firm’s U.K. infrastructure, building and construction unit.

‘Sheer Amount’

“It’s about the sheer amount of finance required and the risk of tunneling 100 meters underneath the Thames,” he said. “When you get to that scale, it’s impossible for even the biggest international contractors to take the risk on balance sheets.”

To lure investors, Thames Tideway proposes to separate out the tunnel as a single asset, concentrating risk in one vehicle. That company will raise debt and equity in the markets and from sovereign wealth and pension funds, according to Threlfall.

Plans for the tunnel that would intercept overflow points along the river and shunt excess sewage to treatment plants are being finalized, with construction to begin as early as 2016 amid a wider government effort to secure investment in its aging infrastructure.

Investor Returns

The government agreed to give contingent financial support to cover “exceptional risks” in its 2011 National Infrastructure Plan. The model will receive special treatment by Britain’s water regulator, giving investors certainty of no changes during their investment period.

The plan is unprecedented, ripe for replication elsewhere for similarly scaled or high-risk projects, Threlfall said.

The financing model will help drive returns to investors in line with the water industry, or about 10 percent, according to Thames Tideway’s Gerrard.

Infrastructure and pension funds, current investors in U.K. water, are likely to avoid those construction risks, said Christopher Gasson, publisher of Global Water Intelligence in Oxford, England.

The project will need a “reasonably sizable” government guarantee, he said. “If you are a sewer rat, you will probably have to make do with your current accommodation.”

Improvements couldn’t come soon enough for Triggs Hodge.

Changing weather patterns mean short, sharp downpours are more frequent and overflows are increasing, according to Triggs Hodge and the Friends of the Earth group.

Sewage Spills

As little as 2 millimeters (0.08-inch) of rain can cause some London sewer tunnels to reach capacity and spill untreated waste into the Thames from 57 overflow points.

Raw industrial, animal and human sewage in the river that fermented in a warmer-than-usual summer spurred creation of the current sewer system after Parliament drapes were doused in a mix of chloride and lime in 1858 to negate the stench and lawmakers debated relocating upsteam to cleaner air.

As it is, about once a week untreated sewage overflows into the river. “People have no idea how bad the situation is,” Thames Tideway’s Gerrard said.

The lack of a system large enough to cope with London’s rising population is hampering growth as the city seeks to add new homes and businesses to revive Britain’s economy, according to Thames Water, the U.K.’s largest water supplier that’s proposing the “super sewer” to expand capacity.

Singapore Example

Tunnel program manager CH2M Hill Inc. is working on similar projects in Doha, Abu Dhabi and Singapore, which is investing more than $2.4 billion digging tunnels to collect and treat its waste. Cities including Helsinki and Washington have similar projects, and Paris has a 3.4 billion-pound program to invest in upgrading its network.

“The European water utility industry is facing significant challenges in these uncertain times,” said Jonathan Refoy, a spokesman from CH2M. “Many of these change drivers -- workforce shortages, customer demands, financial constraints, aging infrastructure, security and emergency response, population growth, climate change, regulatory compliance -- have been around for some time but many are new or emerging.”

It’s time for change, said Jenny Bates of Friends of the Earth. “Having raw sewage entering the Thames untreated is unacceptable in the 21st century.”

Fish Deaths

As many as 125 species of fish have been documented in the Thames, including salmon, sea trout and eel, and there have been several “really bad” incidents when large numbers died due to sewage overflows, Bates said. In June 2011, overflow into the river after heavy rains caused the loss of as many as 26,000 fish, according to Thames Water.

The Tideway tunnel is designed to help. It’s the largest of three projects being developed by Thames Water to boost network capacity. The utility is investing 675 million pounds to upgrade five of the city’s main sewage treatment plants by 2014 and is also building the Lee Tunnel to deal with spills into the Lee River, a Thames tributary.

The cost won’t be insignificant. London residents can expect to see annual wastewater bills, which at about 123 pounds are the lowest in the country, rise about 70 pounds to 80 pounds, or 57 percent. This would bring them in line with the national average, according to Thames Water.

The project’s latest plan involves 24 construction sites across London. With work expected to start within three years, the tunnel should be operating by 2023.

A planning application for the project that will capture untreated waste from 34 of the river’s most polluting overflow points was submitted in March.

Meanwhile, Triggs Hodge rarely rows on the Thames except for one or two race events.

“Literally what you flush out of your toilet will appear in the river and just because the pipes aren’t big enough and there isn’t the capacity,” he said. “The bottom line is the river is an excellent venue for rowers. Its potential is huge and it’s such a shame.”

Better batteries could revolutionize solar, wind power

Story Appeared in USA TODAY

In February, California, which mandates that 33% of its electricity come from renewable sources by 2020, required a Los Angeles-area utility to ensure some capacity comes from energy storage. On May 1, Germany, which is shuttering its nuclear power plants as it boosts renewables, began subsidizing homeowners' purchases of batteries to store power from solar panels. China's five-year plan calls for 5% of all electricity to be stored by 2020. In the United States, about 2% of electric capacity is pumped hydro storage, the most common form of energy storage.

The global market for storing power from solar panels is forecast to explode, from less than $200 million in 2012 to $19 billion by 2017, according to a report this month by IMS Research.
One factor driving this growth is the plummeting price of renewables, especially solar panels that have fallen at least 60% since the beginning of 2011. As a result, industry groups report historic growth as U.S. electric capacity from solar panels jumped 76% and from wind turbines, 28%, last year alone.

Still, batteries face obstacles, including cost and safety. Lithium-ion batteries aboard two Boeing 787s jets failed in January, causing a fire on one and smoke on the other. In March, batteries from the same manufacturer caused problems in two Mitsubishi vehicles: a hybrid Outlander car overheated and an all-electric i-MiEV caught fire during testing at an assembly plant.

While the EV industry says these incidents are the exception rather than the rule, money has also been a problem. In October, Massachusetts-based A123 ,a lithium-ion battery manufacturer that spent $132 million in federal stimulus funds, filed for bankruptcy. In December, Wanxiang American, the U.S. arm of a Chinese automotive parts giant, bought A123's technology.

Toyota's Jaycie Chitwood said lithium-ion batteries are just too expensive to make electric cars cost competitive without subsidies. Speaking at the Advanced Energy 2013 conference last month in New York City, she said Toyota is expanding its line of electric vehicles to meet the U.S. government's fuel-efficiency targets — not because they're profitable. She said it gives a $14,000 discount for each new electric RAV4.
Chitwood said a major battery advance is needed. Toyota is working on several alternatives, including cheaper, longer-range batteries that use magnesium instead of lithium. Commercialization, though, is years away.

"Batteries continue to be a challenge," especially those for electric vehicles, Esther Takeuchi,chemistry professor at SUNY Stony Brook, said at the same conference. "Things aren't where we'd want them to be, but they're getting closer."

Her university and others, some with federal funding, are looking not only at new chemical mixes but also at nano-sizing the chemical elements — or making them microscopically small — to make them more efficient. Takeuchi said successful batteries often have specific applications, such as lead-acid ones for auto ignition or lithium-iodine for pacemakers. She said lithium-ion has worked well in cellphones and laptops, their initial use.

Batteries will improve "but not at the pace that we've seen in recent years," writes Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, in his 2012 book, Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines. He says the growing demand for portable electronics sped the development of already-known battery technologies. He says it will take awhile to commercialize new ones such as lithium-air.

Batteries are just one of many ways to store grid-scale energy. The most common is pumped hydroelectric, in which water is sent to a reservoir and released later to run generators.

"Storage is the glue that can hold the grid together," said Matthew Maroon of GE Energy. GE, which opened a $100 million factory in Schenectady, N.Y., to build a sodium nickel chloride battery, announced earlier this month that Invenergy will install its Brilliant wind turbine with Durathon batteries at a Texas wind farm later this year.

The U.S. government is promoting energy storage. In November, the Department of Energy announced grants for 23 R&D projects and picked Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., as the first national "innovation hub" for batteries and energy storage. Argonne will receive $120 million over five years for this work.

Batteries are getting particular attention, because they're versatile. While pumped hydro facilities require lots of land and water and are meant for utility-scale projects, batteries can be used anywhere and are easily scalable so they can help power not only a car but a factory.

"Everyone's finally realizing, 'Hey, this works.'... It's the key to the future," says Brad Roberts of the Electricity Storage Association, an industry group. He says the industry's hiccups are part of its growth and adds: "I don't see any hesitation on the part of venture capitalists."

IBM's Allan Schurr is bullish on his company's new lithium-air battery, which takes in oxygen from the air to form a chemical reaction that generates an electric charge. It's lighter and denser than the lithium-ion ones in most of today's electric vehicles, which use heavy metal oxides to drive the chemical reactions that produce power.

"The performance we've seen in tests so far is at or above our expectations," he says. With 500 miles on a single charge, he says, "You'd take the 'range anxiety' out of the equation." The current Nissan Leaf gets up to 75 miles on a single charge, and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, 62 miles. Schurr expects a prototype to be developed next year, but its commercial availability will take at least five years.

Toshiba has developed a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, the SCiB, that has a new oxide-based material, lithium titanate, that allows quicker charging times. It's used in the Honda Fit's EV and Mitsubishi's i-MiEV.
Huge lithium-ion batteries, filling 53-foot shipping containers, are being used for grid-scale projects. Since September 2011 on a ridge of Laurel Mountain in West Virginia, AES Storage has used them to store 64 megawatts of energy generated by windmills. That capacity, if it ran continuously, would be enough to power nearly 50,000 U.S. households for a year.

Batteries are also taking homes off the grid or providing back-up energy. SolarCity, a California-based solar installer, is piloting a back-up battery for some of its solar projects in California and may extend that option to other states this year. Minnesota-based Juhl Energy's SolarBank system pairs solar panels with batteries. Detroit-based Nextek Power Systems offers a portable off-grid option that combines a solar panel with a battery.

Ontario-based Electrovaya plans to bring to the U.S. market this year a residential system, now being tested in Canada, that would install solar panels and a big-enough lithium-ion battery that homes could go completely off grid. Sankar Das Gupta, the company's CEO, says it would cost less than $10,000 for an average-size home to add such a battery to a solar array.

"There's no one battery technology that is one-size-fits-all," says GE's Maroon. He says each has its own advantages and disadvantages, adding: "The market is big enough for each technology to survive."
American Vanadium says flow batteries that use vanadium last longer and are more powerful than lithium-ion ones, because they absorb and release huge amounts of energy quickly and can do so thousands of times. They can be used for grid-scale projects, and smaller lithium-vanadium batteries can power vehicles.

Radvak says if his project is approved, it could provide 5% of the world's vanadium supply and help reduce battery costs. The Bureau of Land Management, which is examining the project and will hold a public meeting Tuesday in Eureka, says the mine could cause a loss of habitat for greater sage grouse and of acreage for livestock grazing.

"There is no mining operation that doesn't have a consequence," Radvak says. But he says the Eureka mine won't involve moving lots of earth, because the vanadium is in surface deposits and can be simply leached with a sulfuric acid. "It's a very low-risk project," he says.

Radvak says while the U.S. has lagged behind other countries, notably Germany, on energy storage, he expects that in the long run, it will become the world's leader.

Batteries often work the same basic way even if they use different metals. They're mini power plants that produce electricity by creating chemical reactions. As atoms move between two plates of different metals, via a chemical solution called an electrolyte, they produce voltage that is discharged through a metal wire on the other side.
• Lead-acid: (auto ignition). They have atoms pass from a plate of metallic lead through sulfuric acid to a plate of solid lead oxide.
• Lithium-ion (personal electronics, electric vehicles). They have carbon on one end and a metal oxide on the other, using lithium salt in an organic compound as the electrolyte in the middle.
• Lithium-air (still in development; possible uses include electric vehicles). They use lithium metal and oxygen as inputs at the two ends.
• Nickel-cadmium (portable electronics, electric vehicles). Their metal plates are nickel oxide hydroxide and cadmium.
• Sodium-sulfur (electric vehicles, grid-scale storage). A type of molten-salt battery, it's made from liquid sodium and sulfur.
• Vanadium redox flow (grid-scale storage). They use vanadium, a metal named for Vanadis — the Scandinavian goddess of beauty and youth — in different oxidation states to store chemical energy for repeated use.

Fracking critics protest Michigan's oil, gas exploration lease auction

Story Appeared on The Detroit News

Lansing — The state Department of Natural Resources leased $1.4 million for oil and natural gas exploration on 36,970 acres of public land Thursday while hydraulic fracturing opponents protested.
Although exploration firms bought five-year leases on more than 98 percent of the land available at auction, 11 acres south of Rochester in Oakland County didn't attract any bids. Lease rates averaged $36.66 per acre, DNR spokesman Ed Golder said.

Opponents of hydraulic fracturing gathered outside a meeting room where the auction was held in the Lansing Center.

"We believe hydraulic fracturing should be banned and stopped in Michigan," said Charlevoix resident Ellis Boal, an attorney involved in a petition-circulation drive that aims to bring the oil and gas extraction method, also known as "fracking," to a state-wide vote in 2014.

Security was heavy. DNR and Lansing Police officers were almost as numerous as the 40 or so protesters who came from around the state.

Officers were checking bags and brief cases carried by those showing up to bid on parcels mostly concentrated in northern Lower Peninsula counties.

Golder said there were seven arrests when the DNR held its last oil and gas lease auction in October — after demonstrators became disruptive and entered the bidding room. There were no arrests Thursday.
The 37,652 acres up for bid Thursday was down from the average of about 100,000 acres. Revenue from the leases is earmarked for public land purchases and recreational area improvements.

Such auctions have been held since 1929 and hydraulic fracturing has been used for 50 years in Michigan with few problems. But concern has heightened because of controversies in other states about techniques such as horizontal drilling.

The fracking technique uses a water/chemical mixture pumped under high pressure to fracture shale rock formations and unleash oil or natural gas that can be pumped back to the surface.

Gov. Rick Snyder wants more exploration of Michigan's natural gas deposits to decrease dependence on coal from other states for energy generation.

But demonstrator Kurt Gleichman of Saline argued the state is selling the five-year leases at bargain prices and creating more reliance on fossil fuels that exacerbate climate change.

Exploration firms nominate the parcels, which then must be cleared by the DNR and Department of Environmental Quality.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Agroterrorism - The New Threat To Food Security

Story originally appeared on Lloyd's.

Food security is increasingly becoming an oxymoron in many parts of the world. From last year’s droughts which decimated US crops to the recent European horsemeat scandal, the ability to produce enough food for the world is once again under the spotlight.

While climate change, commodity speculation and the rise in meat and dairy consumption regularly grab the headlines, our new report highlights agroterrorism as a rising threat to food security – in addition to these better-known risks.

‘Feast or Famine: business and insurance implications of food safety and security’ looks at issues as diverse as globalisation, water security and land availability, and suggests the food sector is increasingly vulnerable to attack.

There is already a well-documented history of such attacks. In 1952, Kenya’s Mau Mau used the African milk bush to poison cattle. In 1978, the Arab Revolutionary Council poisoned Israeli orange crops with mercury, leading to a decline in orange exports. In 1997, Israeli settlers used pesticides to destroy 17,000 metric tonnes of Palestinian grapevines. Even more recently, US security officials have warned that al Qaeda have undertaken research into poisoning public buffet bars with lethal toxins such as ricin and cyanide.

Because food chains have so many points of vulnerability, potential threats to them can include anything from the sabotage of open field crops and water pipes to deliberate contamination or destruction of food reserves.

Given that the geo-political and ideological issues which generate these threats are usually beyond the immediate control of the food sector, managing the risk requires a thorough analysis of each part of the food supply chain. It’s here that the expertise of specialist risk managers and anti-terrorism experts, such as those who advise hotel chains in areas of high political risk, can pay dividends.

Depending on the degree of risk and the relative impact an attack would have, food business can take a number of steps. They may decide to replace ‘just in time’ stock levels with more substantial ‘just in case’ models, retrofit their warehousing and factories for added security, increase food safety  testing or front load the value of their business interruption cover.

The longer a supply chain becomes, the more vulnerable it will be to damage to its weakest link. By pinning down these points of vulnerability, and taking expert steps to strengthen them, commercial food producers can do much to protect both their businesses and their consumers from the agroterrorist threat.

“Food security is a huge issue for businesses, governments and society. As populations grow and climate change and competition for land use are taken into consideration, the problem of securing future food supplies is only going to get worse” says Neil Smith, Lloyd’s Emerging Risks & Research Manager.

He continues, “Insurance is likely to play a key role in mitigating some of the risks relating to food security, including agroterrorism.”

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Detroit's response to refinery explosion questioned

Story originally appeared on Freep.

The Marathon Petroleum refinery explosion rocked Jacqueline Wright's Detroit home Saturday, less than a mile away. Black smoke was pouring from the tank next to Fort Street. She and her friends wondered what to do.

On the Melvindale side of I-75, the city gave word to evacuate. On the Detroit side, nothing.

"We all were nervous because we didn't know what was going on," said Wright, 46, who has lived on Patricia with her mother, father, sister and, now, her 3-year-old son, her whole life.

"We were trying to watch the news to see what they said. But nobody came around and said to evacuate. I heard in Melvindale some of them evacuated. But that was it. They didn't tell us to evacuate."

On the Melvindale side, Keisa Carter, 35, who's lived on Fairlane for 3 1/2 years, left with her 9- and 10-year-old daughters after getting the order to evacuate.

"Probably like an hour later, police came up and down the street with masks on, knocking on doors, telling them we had to evacuate and go to the ice arena," she said. "Did we evacuate in time, though? You don't know. Spooky."

Emergency officials say air quality testing showed local residents were safe from breathing toxic fumes from Saturday's explosion and fire. But the incident led the refinery's Detroit neighbors and some local officials questioning the differing response by the two cities.

Officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Air Quality Division in the Detroit office; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Grosse Ile office, which responded to the scene; a Marathon spokesman and local hazmat officials say air quality monitors did not show dangerous levels of pollution from the refinery.

"Right near the tank there were some low-level air monitoring readings for contamination, as you would expect," Jeff Kimble, the EPA's on-scene coordinator said today, adding that the Downriver Emergency Response Team also took readings north and south of the explosion site. "There were no levels ... that were causing concerns."

Marathon spokesman Shane Pochard said that company employees, after the explosion, watched permanent air quality monitors and also went out into the neighborhoods surrounding the refinery with portable air monitors, testing for dangerous emissions.

"We've been doing both of those since the incident on a consistent basis," Pochard said. "We got no readings or detections anywhere."

Detroit Fire Commissioner Donald Austin, after being questioned today by Detroit City Council public health and safety commission members about the city's response, said that Melvindale "pulled the trigger too soon" on calling for an evacuation.

"As we got more into the incident and we started understanding exactly what the product was that was burning, we realized we didn't have a need for an evacuation," Austin said after the meeting. Had the Marathon explosion required an evacuation of Detroit residents, Austin said, public safety officials would've reacted quickly.

Pamela Shivers of Detroit's Homeland Security & Emergency Management office said today that wind direction Saturday played a part in where evacuations took place. She said residents should register with and monitor local news media for information on incidents like the refinery explosion.

"Detroit residents were not notified because there was never a decision to evacuate," she added in an e-mail response to inquiries.

The city of Detroit on Tuesday -- after inquires by local media -- put a document titled "City of Detroit Evacuation Plan" on the city's website. According to the plan, members of the Detroit Fire Department are one of the critical groups -- along with an incident public information officer -- responsible for notifying residents of an evacuation order.

Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib said residents in her 6th District were calling her for help Saturday, leading her to question city officials about the response.

"I sent all of them an e-mail expressing great concern that residents were so afraid and it was just chaos, people calling me, asking if they're supposed to evacuate, asking what to do," said Tlaib. . "There seems to be a lack of communication with residents."

Detroit City Councilwoman Brenda Jones, who sits on the public health and safety committee, said the Marathon explosion showed the city needs to do a better job of informing residents in an emergency.

"When you have a situation that occurs such as what occurred on Saturday, the residents should be communicated to even if they don't need to evacuate," Jones said. "They need to know what's going on. They need to know there is no need for them to evacuate as opposed to silence."

That would be a welcome change for Wright and her family, she said.

"I hope that this stuff stops happening because it is kind of scary," Wright said. "And if it does, at least come let us know, let people know what's going on. Send somebody out or get it on the news, so everybody will know what's going on so we won't be scared or whatever."

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tracking bird flu: US wildlife workers on the front line against deadly strains

Story originally appeared on NBC News.

They were once featured on the show “Dirty Jobs” but the wildlife experts who spend weeks each year wrestling wild birds to swab their behinds for avian flu don’t mind. They’re happy to be on the front line, keeping an eye out for infected birds that might bring new and deadly strains of influenza to the United States.

The program’s been dialed back a bit since it started in 2005, but the U.S. Geological Survey and Fish and Wildlife Service experts are paying close attention to reports of a new and deadly strain of bird flu – the H7N9 virus. It’s infected 102 people in China at last count, and killed 20 of them.

No one is sure where, exactly, it’s coming from. Domestic chickens don’t seem to be a source, nor do pigs, and the virus has been traced to pigeons and finches. It doesn’t seem to be spreading from person to person easily.
“Right now the situation in China seems to be more of a public health situation than a wildlife situation,” says Hon Ip, who has been working on the avian surveillance program since it started up in 2005.

“We are going to see whether it really is going to be extensively in wildlife before we ramp up our surveillance in this country.”

The bird surveillance program started as concern grew over H5N1 – the other bird flu virus – which has spread to 15 countries since 2003, infecting more than 600 people and killing about 60 percent of them.

Ip and his colleagues showed the H5N1 virus was definitely spread by migrating birds, but they’ve also shown, so far, that the highly pathogenic type has not yet come to the U.S.

Just about every other type of bird flu has, however. Birds can carry dozens of different varieties of influenza, and some make them sick, while others don’t. There’s highly pathogenic influenza – high-path for short – that can sweep through a flock of chickens in days. Other types don’t seem to cause so much as a sniffle in birds.

And different species are infected differently. Dometic ducks don’t seem to be bothered by H5N1, but they can give it to chickens which, in turn, can sometimes infect people.

The best way to check is to test the birds. This is where “Dirty Jobs” comes in. People are tested for flu with a nasal swab. You can test birds this way, too, but they also spread flu in their feces. So they need a swab of the cloaca – the all-purpose opening that birds have on the back end.

“Yes, it’s a dirty job,” Ip says, laughing. The Discovery Channel show featured the USGS and Fish and Wildlife Service project during season 3 in 2007.

The team has tested more than 450,000 migratory birds from 284 different species in all 50 states. Now they focus on Alaska, Maine and Iceland. The USGS National Wildlife Health Center also tests sick and dead migratory birds, especially ducks, geese and swans.

“We are working a lot smarter. We kind of know which locations are better,” Ip says. Waterfowl were especially likely to carry H5N1. But H7N9 looks different.

Genetic tests suggested one ancestral carrier was a finch, and other tests suggested pigeons might carry it. “Should it ever be in wild birds, there is a possibility it may be in species other than waterfowl.  We need to know that,” Ip says.

The finch species is found across the northern hemisphere, in Asia, Europe and North American. “It is called a brambling,” Ip says. “There are some bramblings that come straight into Alaska and into the lower 48. These little birds are just amazing. They are so small and yet able to migrate these incredible distances.”

The little orange and gray birds have not been shown yet to carry H7N9. Instead, genetic tests showed they may have carried some of the genes that mixed with genes from other bird flu viruses to create H7N9. Flu viruses do this kind of thing all the time – an animal can be infected with more than one type of flu strain at once, and the viruses meet up and swap genetic material.

That is what happened with the 2009 pandemic of H1N1 swine flu. The new virus was an indirect descendant of the 1918 “Spanish Flu” that killed upwards of 50 million people. Over the decades, it picked up genes from various types of bird and pig influenzas.

“It was a virus that ultimately came from birds but it evolved in swine before it became a human pandemic virus,” Ip says. “Maybe new mammalian viruses can arise when mammals are directly infected by birds.”

So far, neither H5N1 nor H7N9 seems to have developed the ability to pass easily from one person to another.  If one or the other does, however, experts worry. “Whenever a new type of influenza virus infects humans it is a cause for concern,” says Jim Pipas, a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh. “First, because H7N9 is so different from influenza viruses currently circulating in the human population, humans are likely to lack an effective immune response to the virus. … This is why it is so important to maintain surveillance and to be ready to produce a vaccine if necessary.”

Lufkin Vaults Simmons Into Top 10 Advising on Energy M&A

Story originally appeared on Bloomberg.

Simmons & Co., the Houston advisory boutique founded in 1974, has slipped into the spotlight with roles on two of the biggest oil and industrial deals this year.

The firm advised Texas oil pump maker Lufkin Industries Inc. (LUFK) on its $3.3 billion sale to General Electric Co., announced yesterday. Simmons, alongside UBS AG, advised private-equity firm KKR & Co. on its $3.7 billion offer last month for industrial-equipment maker Gardner Denver Inc. (GDI)

The Lufkin deal helped Simmons crack the top 10 in advising on energy mergers & acquisitions this year, compared with 30th in 2012, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That and the Gardner Denver transaction are Simmons’s largest since 2007, when the firm won a role on Transocean Ltd.’s $17 billion purchase of GlobalSantaFe Corp., data show.

Simmons, run by Chief Executive Officer Mike Frazier, has now worked on more than $7 billion in deals this year, eclipsing 2012’s more than $5 billion. The firm, which specializes in oil and gas services transactions, was founded almost 40 years ago by Matthew Simmons, a well-known advocate of the “peak oil” theory that posits the earth is running out of the fuel. He died at 67 in an accidental drowning in 2010.

CEO Frazier declined to comment on this article through Libby Covington, a spokeswoman for Simmons.

Evercore Partners Inc., another boutique advisory firm, currently holds the top spot in advising on energy M&A this year with $11.8 billion in transactions, bolstered by the $2.4 billion takeover of Berry Petroleum Co. by Linn Energy LLC, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The biggest deal so far this year in the energy sector is Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s agreement in February to buy liquefied natural gas assets from Repsol SA for $4.4 billion.

Historical M&A

The strongest year for energy M&A was 2011, led by Kinder Morgan Inc.’s October agreement to buy El Paso Corp. for $21.1 billion. There have been more than $60 billion in global energy deals so far this year, a more than 20 percent decline from the same period a year earlier, data compiled by Bloomberg show. In the industrial sector, there have been more than $90 billion in transactions in 2013.

Global M&A stumbled last quarter as transactions slowed in March, data compiled by Bloomberg showed. Deals shrank to $485.5 billion, a 32 percent decline from the year-earlier period, as the proposed takeovers of icons such as Dell Inc. and H.J. Heinz Co. failed to spark a rally.