[1THING] Blog

[ Wilderness Week success: House passes Nevada lands bill ]

This is encouraging news, especially given that the bill, the Northern Nevada Land Conservation and Economic Development Act (H.R. 5205), advanced in the midst of Wilderness Week, a national event sponsored by The Wilderness Society and partner groups to bring Americans to D.C.

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[ New Standard Aims to Certify “Responsible” Oil Sites ]

In the Orinoquia region of Colombia, two oil fields run by Toronto-based Pacific Rubiales Energy last week became the first to be certified as “socially and environmentally responsible,” according to a new standard. The two sites produce approximately 250,000 barrels per day, or 25 percent of Colombia’s total output.

That oil is being produced amid a complex web of natural resources, ecosystems, and indigenous communities in this region of the Amazon. That’s why the company Equitable Origin set out to create a standard that would define and reward best practices in oil and gas production, much in the way that the LEED standard has pushed efficiency and conservation measures in public buildings.

According to the “EO100 Standard” certification system, an oil company must meet criteria in  six areas including “Corporate Governance, Accountability, & Ethics” and “Climate Change, Biodiversity & Environment.” Equitable Origin certifies oil production sites that adhere to or exceed standards in each category. Every three years, third-party auditors set annual goals for site improvement.

But given its impact on both local environments and on the global effort to address climate change, can oil production ever really be “responsible”? National Geographic spoke with David Poritz, co-founder of Equitable Origin.

How did Equitable Origin come about?

From 2009 to 2012, we developed the EO100 Standard by bringing together oil and gas operators, academics, NGOs, and indigenous communities to develop a set of standards for best practice in oil production for the first time. This resulted in a comprehensive standard that embodied the views and needs of local communities as well as industry, which is important because the goal is to push environmental and social practices where stakeholders want them to go, but it also has to be economically viable.

How did you get Pacific Rubiales to agree to certification?

In 2012, after we finished developing the EO100 standard, we sought companies to implement it in the Andes-Amazon region because there’s an overlap in this area between indigenous people, sensitive ecosystems, and significant underlying natural resources. One of the groups was Pacific Rubiales Energy, who in the context of Colombia is a very large producer that was seeking to innovate and improve their environmental and social practices. The EO100 Standard creates a benchmark to measure progress on a site-by-site basis, so Pacific Rubiales started with their two biggest oil fields, and our vision is that they will take the changes made and scale it up their operation to other sites.

David Poritz, founder of Equitable Origin, says he sees his approach to oil as part of a transition to renewable energy. (Photograph courtesy David Poritz)

David Poritz, co-founder of Equitable Origin, says he sees his approach to oil as part of a transition to renewable energy. (Photograph courtesy David Poritz)

Pacific Rubiales received EO’s Bronze Leadership certification. What does this mean?

Like a LEED certification for buildings, there are different “levels” companies can achieve based on their performance. In order to communicate a company’s score to the larger public, we developed three performance targets. Pacific Rubiales met 100 percent of the Performance Target 1′s, and in certain areas they exceeded to Performance Target 2. Our system is designed to create a continuum of improvement with every audit, so companies are committing to not only meet certification but to continually improve their practice throughout the life cycle of their projects.

What kinds of things does a company have to do to get certified?

There are six key areas of focus in the EO100 standard. It’s approximately 50 percent environmental and 50 percent social issues, ranging from transparency and ethics to working conditions and local community-level social impacts of the project. For example, ‘Did workers understand the risks of their job?’ Or, ‘Did indigenous communities have the right to say ‘no’?’ We also have a principle on Project Lifecycle Management, where we look at the way all of these components are integrated, because we really want to emphasize indigenous rights. We believe that when an oil project ends, the community should be somehow better off than it was before.

As part of the system, you are also issuing tradeable certificates. Why is this important?

We want to support companies that are doing the right thing by connecting them to end users of oil and gas products. In order to facilitate that exchange, we created a certificate system: Every time a barrel of oil is produced at a location that meets the EO100 Standard, that producer is given a certificate. A consumer or a company can then buy these certificates, and the money goes back to the certified producer to be reinvested in local communities and innovation. As companies are increasingly concerned about the impact of their supply chains, this is an opportunity for big consumers of oil, like manufacturers, to directly engage in the improvement of the conditions under which the fuel they use is produced.

An aerial view of the Quifa-Rubiales site in Colombia (Photograph courtesy David Poritz)

An aerial view of the Quifa-Rubiales site in Colombia (Photograph courtesy David Poritz)

How often do you check in on each project?

The certification cycle is every three years. However, an auditor comes every year because there are certain areas where improvement always has to take place. Auditors review policies, speak with contract workers, and also spend significant time in the field interviewing representatives from the surrounding community, so they aren’t  just going out there and taking a water sample for the lab.

What happens if a certified company fails to meet the standards?

When an auditor finds a point of noncompliance, the company has a short period of time to fill that gap or show how they are taking steps to get up to standard. If they fail, their certification can be taken away, and that’s something we disclose publicly because it’s important to the credibility of our system. Reputation-wise, that’s a problem for a company that’s invested multiple years and a significant amount of resources towards obtaining certification.

Do you think that certification sends the wrong signal by suggesting to the public that oil production can be “green”?

Climate change has to be dealt with immediately, which means taking a nuanced, pragmatic approach to fixing the process of our transition to renewable fuel sources. Our main energy source is still primarily hydrocarbons. No one in our company will argue that oil is a sustainable product– but we can make oil more sustainable than it currently is. This issue is not going away; oil is all around us. It’s in the fuel we use to get to work; its in the fuel we use to go on vacation; its in the pharmaceuticals we use to save lives. Site management is also a universal issue: what we see in Ecuador and Colombia we also see in Mexico, North Dakota, Nigeria, and Colorado. There are challenges in oil production that need to be addressed, and this is just one tool.  I hope that the EO Standard can be a piece of the larger solution in the fight to mitigate climate change.

A copy of Equitable Origin’s certified site profile for Pacific Rubiales Energy is available for viewing here.

[ Wilderness Week brings opportunity to salute 50th, lobby Congress to uphold conservation legacy ]

Wilderness Week serves as an opportunity to salute the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in the most appropriate way: by asking Congress to w

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[ Outdoors Alliance for Kids to Congress: help get kids outdoors! ]

While spending time outdoors is important to the health of both adults and children, technology is leading us to spend more time indoors.

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[ Photos: happy 50th to gorgeous Canyonlands National Park ]

President Lyndon B.

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[ New Fridge Standards Take Effect Monday: How Refrigerators Have Kept Cool Over 40 Years of Improvements ]

One of the great inventions of our time – the modern refrigerator – will get an efficiency makeover when new national efficiency standards go into effect on September 15, reducing energy use of most refrigerators and freezers by about 20 to 25 percent.

The new standards take effect 100 years after the first modern refrigerators were mass-produced for general use. Before that time, consumers used iceboxes (literally boxes with ice) to keep their food cold, but food safety was an issue. When the ‘electric refrigerator’ was finally introduced it was more than just a convenience, it was an invention that saved people’s lives. (See this 1926 advertisement from the Electric League of Pittsburgh).

Refrigerators have evolved considerably since the 1900s both in appearance and function. The early units placed the cooling device on top of a small boxy unit, while today’s sleeker multi-door units place the cooling units unseen on the bottom.

The new efficiency measures are the latest in a series of standards over 40 years that have helped to significantly bring down the cost of running a typical refrigerator. A fridge that just meets the new standards will use $215 to $270 less per year in electricity than a comparable unit that met the first state standards set in 1978.

The refrigerator story is filled with intriguing plot lines – from the initial energy crisis in the ‘70s, to negotiations between disparate groups of stakeholders, to national legislation signed by President Reagan in 1987. It’s a good story packed with positive outcomes. The graph below gives a birds-eye view of some of the changes over the last 40 years. While energy use decreased more than three-fourths, refrigerator volume increased, and price (in $2010) decreased by two-thirds.

Graph courtesy ASAP/NRDC

Energy crisis sparked change: The energy crisis in the 1970s marked the beginning of the end for energy-wasting refrigerators. Between 1947 and 1974, average energy use of refrigerators had shot up from less than 400 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year to more than 1800 kWh per year, earning it the title of the “most energy-thirsty appliance in the family home.” When the energy crisis struck, California responded by passing forward-looking legislation. In 1978, the newly formed California Energy Commission (CEC) set the first-ever efficiency standards for refrigerators, requiring all units sold in the state to meet minimum efficiency levels. The CEC updated the refrigerator standards two times in the ‘80s. These standards, along with technological advances (blown-in foam insulation for one), reduced refrigerator energy use from its 1970s peak.

Early standards led to collaboration among stakeholders: Eyeing California’s success, other states, including Massachusetts and New York, adopted state standards. Manufacturers, wary of a patchwork of state standards, worked with efficiency advocates and consumer groups to come up with consensus standards that were eventually included in national legislation, adopted by Congress, and signed by President Reagan in 1987. Since that time, DOE has updated the national refrigerator standards three times. The collaboration between stakeholders continues—the standards taking effect this month are based on a joint recommendation that manufacturers and efficiency advocates submitted to DOE in 2010.

Standards spurred innovation: As several rounds of state standards and three rounds of national standards were adopted over the 40-year period, manufacturers met the efficiency levels with innovations and technological advances. To meet the newest efficiency levels, manufacturers will likely use additional insulation improvements, higher efficiency compressors, improved heat exchange in the evaporator and condenser, and more efficient fan motors.

As quality, efficiency, and number of features went up, the price went down: Along with the efficiency upgrades, manufacturers have maintained or improved performance and added many new features. An April 2014 Consumer Reports article called “ The Refrigerator Features You Can’t Live Without ” says, “We’re seeing more refrigerators that are excellent at maintaining consistent temperatures and saving energy.” The article also notes that the “future is in features” with such items as door-in-door compartments, pull-out drawers for deli meats and cheese, high-capacity ice makers, and even sparkling water dispensers. A 2012 ACEEE/ASAP report, Better Appliances: An Analysis of Performance, Features, and Price as Efficiency Has Improved, found that as standards were implemented, temperature performance improved, new features were added, annual energy use declined by 50%, and refrigerator price decreased by 35% between 1987 and 2010.

Consumers wanting to save even more than what is achieved by the new standards can select refrigerators bearing the ENERGY STAR® label to save another 10% or more. Buyers can consult the yellow Energy Guide labels affixed to products for an estimate of average product energy use.

The efficiency story does not end here. Energy savings from more efficient refrigerators will continue to grow as consumers replace their old inefficient products. DOE estimates that the new efficiency standards will save nearly 5 quads of energy over 30 years, or enough to meet the total energy needs of one-fourth of all the homes in the United States for a year. DOE also estimates CO2 emissions will be cut by 344 million metric tons over 30 years, an amount equal to the annual emissions of about 70 million cars. Over the same 30-year period, and taking into account up-front costs, consumers will save up to $36 billion.

The electric refrigerator has come a long way from its high-priced, energy wasting ancestors, thanks to cooperation between manufacturers, advocates, and government. Now that’s a story worth telling!

–Marianne DiMascio

This post originally appeared on the ACEEE website and was republished with permission.

[ Energy Implications of Autonomous Vehicles: Imagining the Possibilities ]

Autonomous vehicles have captured people’s imaginations for decades. At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, GM’spivotal Futurama exhibit presented its vision for 1960s autonomous highway infrastructure to 30,000 visitors a day. Two decades later, during the construction of the interstate highway system (largely based on Futurama, sans vehicle autonomy), the Central Power and Light Company, an electric utility, employed the autonomous highway dream in a newspaper advertisement to demonstrate the vital role power companies could play in our driving future.

Now autonomous vehicles are no longer a utopian dream, capturing the attention of many, including some of my colleagues at RMI. Google recently made headlines by announcing it has started to manufacture its own autonomous car prototypes that lack steering wheels. Almost every major automaker is investing significant R&D capital in vehicle autonomy, including Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo. It’d be a shorter list to note which companies aren’t working on autonomous vehicle technology.

Although fully autonomous cars aren’t yet commercially available, vehicles with autonomous features are already on the market. Self-parking features have been available since 2007. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class can drive itself on the highway—as long as the driver’s hands remain on the steering wheel, the car maintains its lane and accelerates and decelerates according to speed limits and the locations of surrounding vehicles. A San Francisco start-up, Cruise, manufactures a kit that allows Audi A4 and S4 owners to drive autonomously on the highway. These semi-autonomous cars will likely be the first stepping stones to fully automated driving. Nissan and Google both expect to market fully autonomous cars early next decade, and they’re not alone.

Experts vary widely in their predictions of when fully autonomous vehicles will become ubiquitous—some say all cars on public roads will be autonomous by 2030, while others say the transition will take more than thirty years. We at RMI believe that widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles is inevitable within the 21st century—and will likely occur sooner than many anticipate. But will autonomous vehicles help or hinder our transition to a less carbon-intensive economy? Some fear that autonomous cars will bring about a more carbon-intensive world due to people (or, more accurately, their cars) driving more and using less public transportation.

ADDITIONAL DRIVING

Autonomous vehicles could encourage additional driving, leading to more energy use and more emissions. If you’re able to work, nap, or read the newspaper on your daily commute, why bother choosing to live near the workplace? Autonomous cars could give rise to an “exurbia,” a new development layer farther from urban centers that could undo years of progress on smart, sustainable urban growth and transit-oriented development. Further, many people today make transportation decisions by optimizing based on both time and money. Autonomous vehicles could eliminate the need to optimize based on time, leading to more weekly supermarket trips, for example.

LESS USE OF PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

Public transit commutes today have the advantage of being passive, not active, letting travelers work, read, and sleep. But if your car can drive you, public transit’s productivity edge over car commuting is removed. And autonomous cars could alleviate traffic congestion, too, removing another benefit of public transit. Today human error causes over 90% of accidents. When human error is removed from the equation, the number of accidents is likely to decrease significantly, eliminating a major source of congestion. Additionally, autonomous vehicles can cope with much smaller following distances, permitting traffic flow where gridlock exists today. Connecting the dots, it’s not too difficult to imagine how autonomous vehicles could lead to the decline of urban public transit.

An autonomous car future could be pretty bleak. Fortunately, I believe our future is much brighter. Regardless of how they’re deployed, autonomous vehicles could permit emissions reductions by enabling more-efficient driving patterns, reducing drag, and actually increasing the use of public transit by solving the first/last mile problem. In autonomous fleet systems—for personal or commercial transit needs—the efficiency benefits are compounded through reduced operating costs, quicker payback periods, and increased asset utilization.

VEHICLE AUTOMATION BENEFITS

Constant accelerating and braking greatly lowers fuel efficiency. Even the most efficient drivers are simply not as good as a computer at hypermiling. Autonomous cars can consistently drive far more efficiently than people can, even if you switch your Nissan LEAF or Honda Civic into “eco” mode.

These benefits are compounded if vehicles are able to communicate with each other (V2V) and surrounding infrastructure (V2I). While cruising towards an intersection, your car could intelligently coordinate with other vehicles and infrastructure to time its passage perfectly, avoiding significant waste in energy and time.

On the highway, around twenty percent of a vehicle’s gasoline is burned just to combat aerodynamic drag. Today, safety concerns limit following distances, requiring each car to make its own aerodynamic “puncture” through space. Autonomous vehicle communication permits closer following distances, allowing multiple vehicles to take advantage of the same “puncture.” So-called “platooning” is similar in aerodynamic principles to an archer’s arrow.

Trucks traveling through the Australian outback already realize many of the benefits of platooning—one cab can transport four tractor trailer-sized storage compartments in what’s dubbed an Australian Road Train. Tests conducted by SARTRE in Germany have successfully platooned several communicating Volvos with four meters of separation, and further testing could permit cars to get even closer.

Remember my earlier concern about autonomous cars potentially wiping out public transit? Well, the opposite could happen, too. If implemented correctly, autonomous vehicles could lead to increased use of public transit by solving the first/last mile problem. If you can coordinate your arrival at a subway station with train schedules and public transit is cheaper than driving, you may choose to commute via train. Public transit could carry additional benefits for longer-distance trips—faster speeds permitted by high-speed rail, no wasted time for bathroom stops, access to compartments with ready-made food and drink, and more.

FLEET BENEFITS

At least in urban areas, autonomous vehicles would likely arise in a fleet system, similar to how Zipcar, Car2Go, and other car sharing services work today. Autonomous cars will have lower operating costs per mile, achieving better fuel economy, reduced wear and tear on brake pads and the engine, and sophisticated matching of available taxis to consumer demand.

Inherent economic differences of fleet vehicles compared with individually owned vehicles unlock additional efficiency improvements. For personal and commercial fleets, upfront capital costs are a small portion of lifetime ownership costs. In particular, upfront costs are less than ten percent of lifetime costs for commercial fleets similar to those owned by Comcast, FedEx, and the U.S. Postal Service, which still operates a vehicle fleet from 1987. Such companies have a vested interest in prioritizing operating costs over upfront capital costs.

This means that fleet-based autonomous electric cars have several advantages over fleet cars that are only autonomous, only electric, or neither. Expensive battery packs hinder widespread electric vehicle adoption today, and Google’s autonomous cars rely on $80,000 spinning laser LIDAR systems. But dramatic decreases in operating costs could make the increased upfront investment worthwhile, significantly shortening payback periods. This concept is already employed when individuals consider purchasing a hybrid—if a hybrid hypothetically costs $5,000 extra, but saves $1,000 a year, that’s a simple payback of just five years.

Further, shared fleet vehicles are likely to travel farther each year, since today’s vehicles sit unoccupied over 90% of the time. Increased vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) per year further shortens payback periods, important when considering the time value of money. This is why 80 percent of new New York City cabs are hybrids.

Because operating costs become so much more important, previously uneconomic efficiency improvements could be realized. Expensive carbon fiber, championed by engineers due to its strength despite its low density but hindered by high costs, could finally comprise the core of new cars due to the dramatic efficiency improvements that result from lightweighting. Today, few manufacturers employ carbon fiber for weight reductions simply because it is too expensive and results in long payback periods. But increasing VMTs per year, compounded by the increased emphasis on operating costs, could change that.

Increased VMTs per year that arise in a shared fleet model carry another benefit: technological turnover. As fleet car components would wear out more quickly than their individually owned counterparts, fleet cars could more quickly take advantage of technological advances. Instead of being replaced every ten years, batteries might be replaced every two, enabling fleet owners to quickly reap the benefits of new battery chemistries, advances in energy density, increased range, and higher cycle tolerance.

Car sharing, too, is simplified in a fleet ownership model. Because individuals would rely on software to hail an autonomous vehicle, it’d be relatively easy to agree to share a ride with a stranger in exchange for lower fees. Uber, exclusively summoned via smartphone, is already piloting a similar project dubbed “Uberpool,” so it’s not difficult to imagine a similar scenario with autonomous cars. (Indeed, last year Uber received a $258 million investment from Google. Coincidence? You decide.)

Fleet vehicles also enable users to match vehicle and purpose, reducing waste. Are you headed to the grocery store? Order a car with enough trunk space to fit your haul. Headed home from Ikea? Order a larger car to fit the futon you just bought. Shared vehicle fleets already enable this, with companies like Zipcar including SUVs and pickup trucks in their offerings.

THE BOTTOM LINE

With autonomous vehicles, it’s not a question of whether, but when—and their impact on our energy use could either be incredibly good or incredibly bad, or somewhere in between. The way we get around could be significantly different in the next 50, 20, or even 10 years, and the environmental impacts of this new transportation economy will ultimately depend on several different factors. But I believe the autonomous driving future looks bright … and green.

This post originally appeared at RMI Outlet and has been republished with permission.

[ Dinosaur National Monument vandalized as public lands still at risk ]

A National Park Service ranger recently reported that a chunk had been taken out of a bone belonging to a sauropod–the iconic suborder of long-necked dinosaurs–on the well-trafficked Fossil Discovery Trail, pr

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[ “Fantasy” of Fuel From Corn Waste Gets Big U.S. Test ]

The opening of a new cellulosic ethanol plant in Iowa last week marked a potential turning point in the industry’s fight for viability.

[ Poll of western states shows strong support for reinvesting wind and solar revenue toward conservation ]

The poll, conducted in 11 western states, showed that voters support legislation that would help fund conservation projects by reinvesting a portion of rents and royalties from renewable development on public lands.

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