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Richard Martin

A View from Richard Martin

Recommended Reads on the Energy Beat This Week

A roundup of the best stories on energy from other sites, collected by Richard Martin, MIT Technology Review’s senior editor for energy.

  • January 15, 2016

Modeling Analysis of EPA’s Clean Power Plan
In his final State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to “change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.” One of his signal accomplishments in that arena is the Clean Power Plan, which will regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. Opponents of the plan have charged that it’s unconstitutional, it will harm U.S. competitiveness, and that it’s unworkable. But mainly they’ve charged that it will cause energy prices to soar: “Energy prices are guaranteed to increase under the CPP,” wrote Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, in a November op-ed, “and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the initiative will cost American taxpayers $51 billion.” That’s not so, according to this report from the energy consultancy M.J. Bradley. Based on an evaluation of 16 scenarios, the data-heavy report concludes that, under the plan, “U.S. households would save between 5% and 20% on their monthly electricity bills in 2030.” That sounds like a pretty good deal for cleaner energy.

Fiscal Break-Even Oil Prices: Uses, Abuses, and Opportunities for Improvement
One of the many unforeseen consequences of oil prices’ continuing tumble is to make a lot of energy forecasters—who never dreamed that oil would break through the $50 floor, much less $30, which now looks likely—look foolish. Lots of those forecasters have for years used “fiscal break-even prices”—the minimum price per barrel that an oil-exporting country needs in order to balance its budget while meeting its foreign and domestic spending commitments—as a reliable indicator of political stability and unrest, social progress, and other geopolitical markers. Suffice it to say that with oil at $31 a barrel, Saudia Arabia, Venezuela, and other oil exporters long ago lost sight of their fiscal break-even price. This wonky but fascinating report from the Council on Foreign Relations examines the usefulness of fiscal break-even prices and, not surprisingly in light of recent events, finds them an unreliable tool.

Did Obama “Green Light” a Trillion-Dollar Industry in Puget Sound?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could launch a rocket, alight on an asteroid, and mine it for minerals that are rare and precious on Earth? That’s the idea behind Planetary Resources and its business model: mining near-Earth space rocks for platinum, iridium, and other “unobtanium” minerals that are scarce, and very expensive, on the home planet. “The company estimates one asteroid in particular is worth more than the entire GDP of the U.S. and European Union combined,” reports this Crosscut story, which notes that the the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, quietly signed into law late last year, could spark a precious-minerals rush in space. “This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history,” declared Planetary Resources’ cofounder Eric Anderson. Or it might just be another harebrained scheme to spend billions in investors’ money.

The Great Republican Land Heist
Meanwhile, in land-grab news back on Earth, the ongoing comic opera of the “Y’all Qaeda” occupation of federal buildings in Oregon has highlighted, once again, the questionable policies of the Bureau of Land Management, one of the more questionable federal agencies ever to enable the exploitation of our natural heritage for the benefit of the few. The paradox of the ranchers’ revolt is that the BLM, which manages more public land than any other federal agency, has for decades mostly functioned as a clearinghouse for doling out grazing and mineral rights on public land to private interests. The scandalous coal mining lease program, for example, has inspired a bookshelf worth of analyses and exposés. Writing in Harper’s, the historian Bernard DeVoto called the livestock industry’s takeover of public grazing lands “one of the biggest land grabs in American history.” This more recent feature in the same magazine explores the BLM’s history and its tangled relationship with the ranchers and miners of the West, who have benefited from the Bureau’s land mismanagement while raging against its authority.

How Melting Ice Changes One Country’s Way of Life
Among the nominees for the 2016 “Ellies”—formerly the National Magazine Awards—is the National Geographic’s climate issue, which appeared in November of last year. And in that issue is this beautifully reported, elegiac account of the Inuit hunters of Greenland, who set out in small boats in Uummannaq Fjord in search of narwhals, the mythic sea mammals with spiral tusks. It goes without saying that things are not going well for the Inuit as the Greenland ice sheet melts and the seas warm and the Arctic sea ice shrinks. “And now a culture that has evolved here over many centuries, adapting to the seasonal advance and retreat of sea ice, is facing the prospect that the ice will retreat for good,” writes Tim Folger. “Can such a culture survive? What will be lost if it can’t?” The answers are unlikely to be encouraging.

U.S.-Grown Hemp Could Soon Find Its Way into Your Food, Clothes, and Cars
When I traveled through Appalachia in 2014 to report on the dying coal communities of Kentucky and West Virginia for my book Coal Wars, I was intrigued to discover that one scheme for economic redevelopment in the region involves growing hemp. Potential uses of the hardy plant, which can thrive on the region’s steep hillsides, include food, fabrics, fuel, carpet, and even auto parts, reports Chase Purdy on Quartz. The National Hemp Association this week said it has hired a D.C. lobbying firm to help push through Congress legislation that would legalize the production of hemp (which unlike its cousin, cannabis, has no psychoactive properties) for commercial purposes in the U.S. Domestic hemp could replace the thriving import market, which is led by the largest supplier of hemp to the United States: you guessed it, China.

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