It looks like the English Channel is more than just polluted -- in a sense, it's also radioactive.
On Friday, Der Speigel reported that a team of German journalists has discovered barrels of radioactive waste at the bottom of the waterway, just a few miles off the French coast. Apparently, the British and the Belgians threw 28,500 such barrels into the English Channel between 1950 and 1963 -- the year that the British Radioactive Substances Act of 1960 came into effect.
The existence of the barrels isn't a secret, but experts had assumed that the containers rusted open years ago, allowing the nuclear material to dissipate to harmless concentrations. Instead, photos from an unmanned submarine showed that at least some of the tens of thousands of barrels are very much intact -- prompting German environmentalists to call for their removal.
We've come a long way since barrels of radioactive waste could be dumped by the thousands in the English Channel. International law has prevented the disposal of nuclear waste in the ocean since 1993 (before that, from 1946 to 1993, more than 10 countries used ocean dumping to dispose of radioactive waste). And today, there are two commonly accepted methods for disposing of the material. The first is near-surface disposal, where radioactive waste is stored in containers either at ground level or in caverns a few meters below. The second is deep geological disposal -- the preferred method for radioactive isotopes with long half-lives -- where waste containers are placed in mined tunnels as much as 1,000 meters underground and then sealed in with cement and clay.
Does all this mean we've finally found safe solutions? Check back in with us in a few decades.
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
As climate talks continue to grind along in Doha, food security would seem to be a major concern (especially as the U.N. issues warnings about the increasingly desperate food situation in Syria). However, the question of how farmers will feed the world's booming population while adjusting to changing weather patterns appears to have been sidelined even as this year's crippling drought in the U.S. sent grain prices to record highs.
That doesn't mean, however, that the race for food security hasn't already begun. As the authors of the recently released book The Global Farms Race argue, cash-rich but resource-poor governments have been quietly making controversial bids for the arable fields of foreign lands to shore up their own food security. Since the 2008 global food crisis, these "land grabs" -- considered an economic lifeline by supporters and neocolonialism by critics -- have been booming. The editors of the book note a 2011 Oxfam study that claimed nearly 230 million hectares of land have been sold or leased since 2001, mostly after 2008 (that's about the size of Western Europe). In one of the most publicized deals, the South Korean company Daewoo Logistics leased 3.2 million acres in Madagascar in 2008 to grow corn and palm oil so that the company could "ensure our food security." The deal, which was eventually canceled, was so unpopular domestically that it contributed to an uprising that helped to oust Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana.
While that deal fell apart, countless others have gone through, sparking debates over the economic, environmental, and political implications of exporting crops from food-insecure countries. As Michael Kugelman, co-editor of the book with Susan L. Levenstein, said at a book launch event at the Wilson Center on Tuesday, this development marks "a new phase of the global food crisis" -- one that may help countries importing food, but has grave implications for the countries hosting the crops. One of the disaster scenarios of these large-scale investments is that they will recreate scenes straight out of the Irish Potato Famine, during which crops were shipped out of the starving nation to feed wealthy foreigners. But equally urgent are the day-to-day economic, environmental, and political ramifications of the deals, from the effects of clearing forest to make way for new farmland to the implications of replacing food crops with biofuels.
Defenders of this type of direct foreign investment often tout the willingness of investors to share technology -- such as seeds for drought-resistant plants and satellite monitoring for crops -- with the host nation. However, corrupt governments willing to offer deals that don't benefit their own populations compromise these promises of development. (Unlike the land-grabs of yore, host governments solicit many of these deals. According to Kugelman, Pakistan offered a 100,000-strong security detail to protect the property of foreign investors and other countries have offered "fire sales" on land in the form of tax write-offs).
As the book acknowledges, these deals are most likely here to stay, so the focus is on minimizing the potential conflict over the contentious real estate. Many of the policy recommendations provided by the book lean toward community supported agriculture programs: Wealthy nations contracting directly with small-scale farmers to meet food needs while also providing them with the technology and capital to improve their yields. While that's all well and good, the willingness and ability of foreign investors to abide by these recommendations seems doubtful, especially given the difficulty of enforcing even well-established international economic rules.
The inability of the current multilateral climate talks to make meaningful headway on even a single key issue highlights the inherent problem with these arrangements. "You can have all the rules and regulations for land rights," contributor Derek Byerlee, the World Bank's former Rural Strategy advisor, said on Tuesday, "But you have to be able to implement them."
India's dark days continue. When two of the country's five power grids collapsed today, the number of powerless Indians neared 700 million. With stranded trains, unresponsive ATMs, and dark traffic lights abounding, it's been an unprecedented disaster only somewhat mitigated by the fact that the majority of Indians aren't connected to the power grid in the first place.
India's outage is now the largest blackout in history, surpassing yesterday's power outage for the record. But it's not the only time the world has seen millions without power. Here are a few more of the world's recent memorable blackouts:
Number affected: 120 million people in Java and Bali
When three power stations went down, three provinces -- including the capital city, Jakarta -- were plunged into darkness. Fires erupted across the capital when resourceful residents turned to candles to light their homes.
Number affected: 97 million across Brazil and Paraguay
The blackout was caused by lightning hitting an electricity substation, causing the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to grind to a hault. Just two years later, the Brazilian government was forced to ration power to prevent more blackouts during a national drought.
Number affected: 60 million across Brazil and Paraguay
Ten years after Brazil's biggest blackout, the Itaipu dam along the border of Paraguay shut down completely, affecting large parts of both countries. Many at the time thought the blackout (shown above) was the consequence of a cyberattack.
Number affected: 57 million across Italy
The blackout occurred the night of Italy's annual "Nuit Blanche" or "White Night" festival in Rome. It's safe to say festivities ended earlier than expected.
Number affected: 50 million in New York, Michigan, and Ohio, as well as Toronto and Ottawa, Canada
The biggest blackout in U.S. history cost an estimated $6 billion dollars. Remarkably, the massive outage began with a single high-voltage power line in Northern Ohio brushing against overgrown trees.
Number affected: 30 million across parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, and Ontario, Canada
The initial cause of the blackout was the tripping of a transmission line near Ontario, though at time, many linked the outage with supposed UFO sightings.
Number affected: 10 million across Europe
After a routine shut down of a high-voltage transmission line to allow a ship to pass on the Elms river in Germany supposedly caused this blackout. France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, and Spain were also affected.
Number affected: 10 million
Keeping the lights on does, indeed, appear to be an Achilles heel for the fast-growing economy, provoking fears ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
Nearly 24 hours of voting, 425 pages of legislation, over 800 proposed amendments: This is the marathon from which Canadian members of parliament (MPs) emerged on June 15.
The session, characterized by the Globe and Mail as "22-plus hours of consecutive spanking" of the dissenting opposition parties by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative majority government, will allow the government to push through omnibus bill C-38.
Canadians are up in arms about the bill because it includes legislation that will weaken and threaten the legal status of leading environmental groups.
Because Harper is determined to build a new pipeline out of the Alberta tar sands, the center of Canada's oil industry with known reserves that rival Saudi Arabia's. And he is not about to wait for November to get it done.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would have funneled Canadian oil down to refineries on the Gulf Coast, remains in political deadlock after the Obama administration blocked the deal in January.
Incensed by Obama's decision, Harper claimed the pipeline process was being "held hostage" because "certain people in the United States would like to see Canada be one giant national park for the northern half of North America."
In the meantime, Harper's government, as well as impatient oil exporters and Asian markets hungry for Canadian crude, are determined to find new ways out of land-locked Alberta in order to increase oil export volumes.
"Enbridge, a transporter of Canadian oil exports, announced a $3 billion plan called Eastern Access. It is seeking permission to build a new "Northern Gateway Pipelines" network, to bring 525,000 barrels a day to Canada's Pacific Coast. Kinder Morgan, a Texas-based energy company, said it will nearly double the capacity of an existing pipeline network along a different route."
All of these options will have to overcome staunch opposition by indigenous groups and well-entrenched environmental interests on both coasts. Which brings us back to the reasoning behind the Conservative government's push to pass the omnibus bill with the intent of weakening these groups' legal footing.
In order to further quell dissent, Harper's government has also been going after anti-pipeline charity and advocacy groups. A variety of groups, including Tides Canada and ForestEthics, have been threatened with having their charity status revoked. Canadian regulations have long maintained that charities cannot devote more thant 10 percent of their budgets to advocacy. Additional laws pushed through as part of the C-38 package "will bring more scrutiny to foreign funding for charities and also how they use money for political purposes. Charities will also have to take more responsibility for the political activities of groups to which they give money."
The government has also insinuated that shadowy foreign entities are responsible for funding charities in their efforts to derail Canada's well-oiled ascendance to the status of petrostate. The Conservatives' new efforts to regulate "transparency" in Canadian charities has gone so far as to alarm large foundations with names like Bronfman, Asper and Bombardier on their letterheads.
Turns out even Canada is not immune to the lure of "black gold."
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Two years ago today, British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded, causing the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Though BP reached an "estimated multibillion-dollar settlement" with lawyers representing individual and business plaintiffs in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Gulf Coast is strill struggling to recover from the disaster. Fish are dying, Louisiana's seafood industry is reeling, and Gulf Coast residents and cleanup workers continue to experience health problems tied to the spill.
After taking measures such as sacking then-CEO Tony Hayward, running an aggressive advertising campaign throughout the region, and settling on the multibillion-dollar payout, BP continues to shower the Gulf Coast with goodwill. According to Mike Utsler, president of BP's Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, the company is still spending "millions of dollars" on the cleanup operation, and even offering guided tours of the recovery efforts.
Millions of dollars, of course, is just a drop in the bucket for BP, which Forbes recently called "one of the greatest corporate survival stories in history":
"Since last year BP has risen a remarkable 379 spots to 11th place in The Forbes Global 2000 survey. Key to the climb is a return to profitability in a big way. In 2010 BP took a $41 billion charge against earnings, giving shareholders their financial whipping all at once rather than dribbling it out over years. In 2011 BP reversed the previous year's $3.3 billion net loss, posting $26 billion in income, with promises of a further profit surge in the years ahead, thanks to high gasoline prices and a new slate of projects coming online."
One of the 15 new projects that BP plans to bring online by 2015 is its first post-spill well, Kaskida, located 250 miles southwest of New Orleans. If anything goes wrong, one hopes CEO Bob Dudley won't be as insensitive as his predecessor.
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Although the Arab Spring hasn't won Israel many friends in the Middle East, Haaretz reported yesterday that its navy "recently strengthened its cooperation with the Lebanese Navy in the Mediterranean." The partnership, Israel hopes, will prevent provocations in the form of possible pro-Palestinian flotillas to Gaza on May 15, or Nakba Day, which commemorates "the displacement of Palestinians following the establishment of Israel in 1948, and on Naksa Day, which takes place in June and commemorates the displacement of Palestinians after the 1967 war."
It's no surprise that Israel would turn to regional multilateralism in order to avoid a repeat of the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010. According to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, "pro-Palestinian activists from Sweden [have] announced their intent to organize another Gaza flotilla this year, saying they have already bought the ship."
Whether this friendly strategic cooperation will last, though, is an entirely different question. Israel and Lebanon may soon be engaged in nasty disputes over natural gas fields in the Levant Basin, which as Robin M. Mills reported for FP last year "spans not only Israel's offshore but also that of Lebanon, Cyprus, and Syria." In 2009, U.S. exploration company Noble Energy found Tamar, a deepwater field that holds 8.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas. Noble discovered Leviathan, which has an aerial area of 125 square miles and contains a potential 20 Tcf, in early 2010. As Mills noted, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the entire basin "could contain 120 Tcf of gas, equivalent to almost half of U.S. reserves."
With Tamar set to come online in April 2013, and Leviathan expected to begin production by 2016, what is for now just a dispute over maritime borders could soon turn into a regional conflict over natural gas.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Money for clean energy is creating political messes all over. Of course, there are the Obama administration's ongoing troubles over loans to now-bankrupt solar manufacturer Solyndra. Now comes a report from Reuters saying that green energy loans to bolster China's businesses may be in danger of defaulting, due to falling demand from Europeans, their biggest customers.
From the report:
State banks provide easy loans to the sector amid the Chinese government's push to develop clean energy. Provincial governments that have helped build solar companies are also pressuring banks to continue lending, which may add to the woes of the struggling industry.
The glut of production and swelling inventories of the panels that turn sunlight into electricity have already driven down prices by about 40 percent so far this year. Analysts expect prices to slide by another 10 percent by early next year.
"Over the next six months, there won't be profits to be made," said CLSA's solar analyst Charles Yonts. He expects some companies to start defaulting on loans and put themselves up for sale.
"Balance sheets across the solar sector are already stretched to breaking."
This comes on top of other setbacks for China's green energy aspirations this year. In September, the Chinese had to shut down a solar panel plant following protests against the its pollution. Other economic concerns including the rising number of "ghost cities" amidst the Chinese property bubble, are rattling the markets and prospects for growth.
The Guardian reported in September that in 2010, the China Development Bank gave out nearly $30 billion in loans to the top 5 manufacturers of solar panels. Several weeks ago, industry groups representing the U.S solar industry raised concerns to the U.S Commerce Department about possible dumping by Chinese manufacturers.
Despite the concerns, Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Qishan announced a $1.7 trillion "strategic investment" today, which included money to be directed towards the alternative energy fields. Questions on how the banks will manage more green energy loans on their balance sheets still remain unanswered.
After all, as the in the U.S. case, a certain number of failures are inevitable in an alternative energy investment this big. And it's not as if Wang has to go in front of Congress to explain himself every time one of these deals doesn't work out.
Feng Li/Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il traveled to Russia this week, his first visit to his country's former Cold War ally in nine years. Kim rode an armored train to eastern Siberia to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, crossing the Russian border on Sunday, Aug. 21, touring the Bureyskaya hydroelectric power station, and meeting with Medvedev on Wednesday. Medvedev flew 3,500 miles across Russia to a Siberian military base for the meeting.
Kim promised Medvedev a moratorium on the production and testing of nuclear weapons, a move that could help restart nuclear disarmament talks, stalled in 2009. North Korea has been isolated both economically and diplomatically since March 2009, when it conducted a second nuclear weapons test. Both the United States and South Korea demand concrete action from North Korea before they return to the six-party talks.
Kim's weeklong trip to Russia is also expected to focus on trade talks and gaining economic and political support from Russia. North Korea is facing chronic food shortages and factory closures thanks to punishing international sanctions. Russia pledged 50,000 tons of wheat to North Korea and also discussed energy and infrastructure projects, including a pipeline carrying Russian gas to South Korea through the North.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, Kim is also concerned about the downfall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and Middle East unrest in general. While North Korean media has not been reporting on the Arab Spring, news of the uprisings has been spread through radios and word of mouth from people who have illegally crossed into China and back. "That dynamic is probably much more alarming to Kim Jong Il than anything else," Lee Jong-min, dean of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, told the Monitor. "He's prompted by the need to bolster his power."
Kim has visited China five times since 2002, the year of his last trip to Russia, when he met with then-President Vladimir Putin.
More photos below the jump:
North Korea won't tell its citizens this, but the Hermit Kingdom is broke. Luckily, ever-ingenuous Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il and his government have a new plan -- sell carbon offsets for cold hard cash. The isolated Stalinist enclave has a series of hydropower projects that it hopes to leverage with the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) scheme, which allows developing countries to partner with typically richer countries looking to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. The industrialized countries (or companies from such countries) earn carbon credits, while the host country gets cash from the sale of these credits.
Since 2006, over 2,000 projects have been approved -- according to the New York Times, 40 percent of the projects are located in China and most involve hydropower. In 2008, carbon credit transactions totaled close to $7 billion.
According to Reuters, North Korea is looking to get approval for three hydro power plants of 7-8 megawatts in the northeast part of the country.
North Korea -- currently facing sanctions over its nuclear weapons program -- faces serious challenges in selling carbon offsets. Aside from serious economic mismanagement, Reuters lists a whole host of reasons why these projects might not make it past the brainstorming stage:
"Even if they open up, who in the world wants to pay for North Korea that is blamed for its nuclear weapons programme?" said Choi Soo-young, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Cho said the UN needed to prevent outside cash going into its nuclear development activities, while Luckock, of global law firm Norton Rose, said: "Their limited access to hard currency has to be a concern for buyers - the damages clauses will carry limited weight without some security there."
Another challenge is that North Korea would have to make public its energy consumption and generation data and disclose information on the amount of energy linked to the hydro project.
"Annual inspection, constant measurement and energy flow posting on the [UNFCC] website - all these things are new for North Korea," [Bernhard] Seliger [of the Hanns Seidel Foundation of Germany] said.
North Korea has a history of serious flooding disasters, although these might be better solved through fixing the country's drainage systems and reversing the effects of enormous deforestation.
Of course, enabling North Korea's nuclear program might be good for the environment in other ways: NASA recently used computer simulations to prove that a "limited" nuclear war might temporarily halt global climate change.
The Iranian energy sector may currently be the target of aggressive and renewed U.S. sanctions, but that's not stopping it from offering assistance to the energy sectors and consumption needs for other countries -- especially those in the Arab world.
Iran is now looking to expand energy ties with Lebanon, in addition to longer standing negotiations it has been conducting with the Persian Gulf countries of Bahrain and Oman. This time of year, it seems, the talk is all about cash, pipelines, and energy.
When it comes to Lebanon, the country "continues to suffer from power shortages that can reach 15 hours a day," reports Bloomberg news. That's a problem Iran wants to have a role in solving. "Iranian officials said they were looking into helping with the rehabilitation of Lebanon's two refineries, which currently are only used for storage."
An Iran-Lebanon pipeline could potentially be in the works, theoretically passing through Iraq, Syria, and possibly even Turkey, according to the same report. Iran has even offered the Lebanese government (note: not Hezbollah, but the whole government) "unlimited" economic and military support, following the United States' suspension of $100 million of military aid to the country a few months prior.
In no small part due to sanctions that specifically target its gasoline refining capacities, Iran has enacted rationing within its own borders and invested heavily in updating its refining capabilities -- reportedly not only attaining self sufficiency, but also exporting gasoline for the first time last month.
This, among other achievements, has prompted Juan Cole to ceremoniously label Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "Mahmoud the Great." Though, admittedly, there is a lot to debate on that subject.
These talks also come on the brink of a historic visit to Lebanon by Ahmadinejad -- his first as president, and a visit that the Israelis have been frantically trying to prevent (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not appear to be too pleased, either). Ahmadinejad is planning on visiting southern Lebanon, the stronghold of Hezbollah, including villages hit particularly hard during the 2006 Israeli invasion. To further get into the spirit, Ahmadinejad may actually be throwing a rock at Israel while at the border.
This might be the closest direct contact that Iran and
Israel, I mean
the Zionist Regime, may approach in a long time. Talk about one-sided
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
We all know that China's energy needs are expanding rapidly, as the country builds the equivalent of two Chicagos from scratch every year and many utilities companies are seeing their business expand 30 percent or more annuallly.
But it's not only China that's going to be building a lot more new power plants. Speaking Wednesday at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, one of America's largest power companies, made this prediction: Through a combination of (expected) tightening in carbon controls and normal wear-and-tear, he expects that 100 percent of the power plants operating in the U.S. today will be shut down by 2050.
In other words, America, too, will be building a whole new power infrastructure over the next 40 years.
That's surprising enough, but Rogers went on to make the case for the U.S. and China cooperating -- or at least, the private sectors in both countries cooperating -- in power sector solutions. Consider: Both countries are reliant today on coal (the U.S. derives 50 percent of its energy from coal, whereas China derives 80 percent). Together the U.S and China consume 42 percent of total energy consumed in the world, and are responsible for about 40 percent of global carbon emissions. China is building new power infrastructure, and America will have to replace or retrofit the majority of its existing power infrastructure. Since we share some similar challenges, and operate at similar scales, couldn't we learn something from each other in the process?
For instance, ENN, a large Chinese power company, is piloting a smart (eco) city in Langfang, 30 miles south of Beijing. The project will be built over the next year, and Rogers is watching closely to see what lessons his company might learn from the experiment. In other ways, Duke Energy and ENN are already collaborating directly, especially in research. While it's true that intellectual property concerns will scare off many other potential collaborations, it's also worth pointing out one thing American companies can gain from partnering with Chinese companies: know-how about scaling-up and bringing down costs for deploying new technology. Such lessons, born of trial and error overseas, may be worth bringing home to Wichita.
Another thing that unites the U.S. and China: No one knows what's next.
This moment is "one of the most uncertain times in the history of our industry, and I've been a CEO for 22 years," Rogers said. He was referring in large part to the looming question of whether the U.S. Congress will regulate carbon in the future (see Ryan Lizza's piece, "As the World Burns" in this week's New Yorker for an enlightening, if depressing, inside look). Happily, in my opinion, he's now assuming the question is not if, but when. Surely, at some point in the next, oh, 50 years -- the anticipated lifespan of a power plant -- Congress will tighten the carbon belt. Or at least that's the calculation he's making.
In a move that counter-proliferation experts have called a step backward, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Obama administration is in "advanced negotiations" with Hanoi to share nuclear fuel and technology. Furthermore, in going against the model that the Obama administration used for other nuclear deals -- requiring the country to not enrich uranium -- the new agreement also reportedly allows Hanoi todo just that. Although signatories of the UN's Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty have the right to enrich uranium, the United States has previously required countries interested in civilian nuclear cooperation to renounce that right.
The WSJ found that many aren't too excited for the State Department-led negotiations that are expected to continue in the fall:
Congressional staff and nonproliferation experts briefed on the negotiations have been quick to criticize the State Department's position as a rollback of a key Obama administration nonproliferation platform. They also say Washington's position exposes it to criticism from Arab and developing countries that the U.S. is employing a double standard in pursuing its nuclear policies. […]
"It's ironic...as nonproliferation is one of the president's top goals that the U.A.E. model is not being endorsed here," said a senior Arab official whose government is pursuing nuclear power. "People will start to see a double standard, and it will be a difficult policy to defend in the future.
To make this even more interesting, China was completely uninvolved in the negotiations about the potential for uranium enrichment on its southern border. This comes after China criticized Secretary Clinton for supporting Hanoi's position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea…territorial disputes that seem to be ongoing.
This week's quiz question:
The world's deepest offshore oil-drilling platform sits in how many feet of water?
a) 5,280 feet (1mile) b) 6,600 feet (1.25 miles) c) 8,000 feet (1.5 miles)
Answer after the jump …
For the last nine years, the U.S. has funded a major hydropower plant in Kajaki, Afghanistan. Why? To boost economic growth and bolster electrical infrastructure, in the hope of generating support for President Karzai's government among Taliban sympathizers. But the venture has one conspicuous flaw: the American-sponsored power plant intended to stymie the Taliban, as it turns out, sponsors the Taliban.
The U.S. has invested over $100 million in the Kajaki plant, which provides most of southern Afghanistan's electricity; but this tactical outlay yields a particularly insidious benefaction to Taliban officials, who preside over many of the districts in the electrical grid (located in the Helmand province, a notorious breeding ground for insurgents).
The Taliban benefits from the hydropower plant in more ways than one: its commanders collect electricity bills from civilians, deprive revenue from Karzai-allied officials (they lose an estimated $4 million per year to Taliban officials), and channel irrigation for their opium poppy harvests. They also intercept the power lines running straight from the Kajaki plant and sell off the surplus themselves. To put it simply:
"The more electricity there is, the more the Taliban make," says Hajji Gul Mohammad Khan, tribal-affairs adviser to the governor of Helmand.
At least the inclusion of a more civilian-oriented battle in the counterinsurgency plan -- for the hearts and minds of Afghans -- seems potentially constructive. But the U.S. has implemented other initiatives that inadvertently support the Taliban, and those lack the same rationale:
A Congressional subcommittee last month issued a report on how protection payments by Department of Defense trucking contractors have become a "'significant potential source of funding for the Taliban."
That's to say that U.S. contractors are actually paying the Taliban to withhold attacks on American convoys... a strategy that seems relatively on par with bribing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to slow down nuclear proliferation with a multi-million dollar check.
The paradoxical outcomes of U.S. strategies only highlight the likelihood that, as the war in Afghanistan grows increasingly complex, concession and compromise will become inevitable. But in Afghanistan, an insurgent needs only $200 per month to fight effectively, and the Kajaki power plant alone funnels millions (from the wallets of U.S. taxpayers) to the pockets of potential insurgents. In light of those disconcerting numbers, should the U.S. government at least reconsider their investment? If they do, they'll need to act fast: they plan to launch a $400 million upgrade to the Kajaki plant in 2011.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
As Congress reconvenes the most recent of the BP executives' unenviable appointments in Washington this afternoon, a word about Tony Hayward's current inquisitor: California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. There's an interesting symmetry between today's hearing and one that Waxman held a quarter century ago, when he was a subcommittee chairman. The news peg, then as now, was an unprecedented environmental catastrophe: the December 3, 1984 chemical leak at Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed over 3,000 people. And then as now, Waxman (whose committee drafted the House climate change bill last year) was engaged in a protracted, long-odds battle for a game-changing piece of environmental legislation: the expanded pollution regulations that would eventually be signed into law as the 1990 reauthorization of the Clean Air Act.
Among the pollutants that Waxman was hoping to regulate were the same categories of air toxics that had caused the Bhopal disaster, and shortly after the incident he and his staff pulled together a field hearing in West Virginia, near another Union Carbide plant that produced the same chemicals as the one in Bhopal, and posed similar risks. It was a canny political set piece, and while the Clean Air Act reauthorization wouldn't make it into law for years, the spectacle whipped up by the Bhopal hearing prompted Congress to pass a precursor law requiring chemical plants to inventory and disclose their toxic emissions. It was a milestone in environmental regulation in the United States: Never before was anyone but the chemical companies understood the sheer quantity of the toxic pollutants, 2.7 billion pounds of which were emitted in 1987 alone.
I bring all of this up because in several ways, Waxman is working from the Bhopal playbook today. In The Waxman Report, the autobiography he published last year, the congressman distills the lessons of Bhopal for the sort of long, grueling legislative crusades that are his stock in trade:
In contrast to what many people imagine, legislative debates rarely occur within fixed parameters, or at least not for very long -- the center is constantly moving. In the years it can take to pass a major piece of legislation like the Clean Air Act, the terms of debate often shift significantly. Sometimes the balance shifts gradually and by design, such as from a sustained lobbying effort. At other times, the shift happens suddenly and without warning, the consequence of a new president, a shake-up in Congress, or a major news event that recasts public opinion.
The BP spill has certainly recast public opinion on oil drilling, but its implications for broader environmental policy, particularly a future energy and climate change bill, are far from clear. At the New Republic, Bradford Plumer offers a particularly gloomy reading on the response to the spill among American politicians and the public; plenty of other pundits have noted that in his widely panned Oval Office speech earlier this week, President Obama was conspicuously reluctant to tie the disaster to specific policy goals.
But keep an eye on what comes out of today's hearing. Waxman and his House colleagues are less central to the future of a climate bill than their opposites in the Senate, or the president. Still, the guy knows how to make use of a disaster.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
It's from a firm called Covalence that calculates companies' ethical reputations and, on a neat mapping tool, tracks them against the amount of attention the companies are receiving in the media. (Methodology here.) From this report, a look at how different international industries have fared over the past half-decade, as the volume of information about them has generally increased:
Not only is the oil and gas industry in the basement, but it's one of the only industries whose reputation gets actively worse the more we know about it. For the largest oil and gas companies, the relationship is even starker -- spikes in attention track closely with drops in reputation.
On one level, this is probably just a measure of the very different reasons that different industries find themselves in the headlines. (When a tech company is in the news, it's because it's launching the iPad. When an oil company is in the news, it's because it has befouled a major ecosystem for a generation.) And energy companies are often particularly bad actors on the world stage.
But I suspect it's also a testament to the degree to which both the oil industry and the global public that depends on it are more comfortable when the latter knows less about how the former does its work -- the business of energy production is rarely pretty. Which is why all the unflattering attention is important: The best case for drilling domestically in the United States, rather than somewhere like Nigeria, is that the added scrutiny that operations here receive -- from the government, the media, and environmental organizations -- makes companies behave better than they do in the Niger River Delta, where oil operations are estimated to have leaked an amount comparable to the Gulf oil spill since the 1970s, and garnered a fraction of the international outrage.
U.S. Coast Guard
Plugging BP's catastrophic oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico, as you may have heard, is difficult. But how difficult, exactly? Nearly a month ago, BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay compared it to performing "open heart surgery at 5,000 feet in the dark with robot-controlled submarines."
In the weeks since, the executives, engineers, government officials, and sundry experts who have descended on the Gulf may or may not be much closer to fixing this thing, but they have gotten pretty good at describing just how difficult fixing it is. Here's BP Managing Director Bob Dudley:
"Like arm-wrestling between two equally strong people."
Energy analyst Byron King, riffing on McKay's original:
"It's like doing brain surgery using robots under a mile of water with equipment that's got 30,000 horsepower of energy inside of it."
Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University:
"It's kind of like pushing toothpaste through an obstacle course."
James J. O'Brien, professor emeritus of Meteorology and Oceanography at Florida State University:
"It's like trying to unclog a toilet while you're standing on a ten-foot ladder with a long stick attached to the plunger."
Thomas Bickel, deputy chief engineer at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories:
"It's like trying to do an operation on the moon."
Andy Bowen, an oceanographer at Woods Hole, on the area of the seafloor where the leak occurred:
"It's sort of like being in the Grand Canyon with the lights out and in a snowstorm."
Dudley again, on the gas that's escaping with the oil:
"It's like a soda can, shaking it up and popping it off ... it's difficult to measure."
Does BP have someone on staff coming up with these all day? Does the company have Thomas Friedman on retainer?
Help us out here -- there must be more of these lurking among the talking points.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The NASA sattelite image above terrifyingly shows both how big the Gulf of Mexico oil slick is -- compare it to the size of New Orleans -- and how close it's getting to the Louisiana coast.
For more on the ongoing cleanup effort, see this week's FP explainer.
NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team
Jamal Saghir, the director of the energy, transport, and water programs at the World Bank responds to a Foreign Policy article by Phil Radford, the executive director of Greenpeace USA.
Mr. Radford's recent
column "Banking on Coal" provides a highly misleading and inaccurate picture of
the World Bank Group's efforts to help countries fight poverty and develop
He asserts that the World Bank Group is funding coal projects to the detriment of renewable energy (RE). Wrong. Our RE and energy efficiency (EE) financing levels are at historic highs -- over 40 percent of total fiscal year 2009 energy financing.
He says the Bank has been increasingly subsidizing coal projects. Wrong. Our fossil fuel share of financing has been declining for years, and two thirds of our fossil fuel financing is for natural gas, the cleanest fuel for base-load supply. Mr. Radford cites 2008 as a big year for coal financing, but neglects to mention that in fiscal year 2009 our coal financing then dropped 62 percent. Mr. Radford says that Bank fossil fuel financing is twice what we finance in RE/EE projects. Wrong again. In fiscal year 2009 we financed more RE/EE projects (over 40 percent) than fossil fuels (about 32 percent).
Over the last six years, coal represented 7.5 percent of all World Bank Group financing for energy. In some years it was as low as one or two percent. And fully a third of the spending on coal is to clean up inefficient, polluting old plants, something that surely Greenpeace would not want us to stop.
Mr. Radford criticizes the Bank's recently released draft energy strategy. We haven't issued a draft strategy. What we are doing is consulting in an open way with key stakeholders, including civil society organizations, whose input will help us to write a draft strategy next year.
Mr. Radford's criticisms lack context. He says that the Bank-financed projects are a significant source of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Wrong. Our projects are a minuscule fraction of the global footprint. The new proposed South African project he criticized will use the cleanest super-critical technology and has $750 million in financing for renewable energy and low carbon energy efficiency components that otherwise would not be part of the project.
We're proud to be a leader in advancing environmental financing innovation, such as the Climate Investment Funds ($6.3 billion pledged with $3.2 billion in investment plans already endorsed to support more than $30.5 billion in clean technology projects), the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, climate risk management products, and "Green Bonds."
The bottom line is that for our 186 member countries, our primary focus is
fighting poverty. There are 1.6 billion people living today without access to
electricity. Under very limited, case-by-case situations with strict criteria,
and when alternative lower-carbon technologies are not immediately available,
we will support least cost, carbon-based energy solutions. And we will do this
as an interim measure while we continue to help a country prepare for a cleaner
energy development path in the medium term.
The Indian plant he references will have lower emissions than the average for OECD countries (2005). Turning away from South African or Indian aspirations for affordable energy means turning away from energy for schools and hospitals and homes in those countries. It's particularly ironic for Mr. Radford in the United States to criticize our very modest portfolio when half of U.S. electricity comes from coal. While the World Bank Group is working to support low carbon paths, Mr. Radford advocates a double standard that will help ensure poor countries will not cooperate in addressing global climate change.
The World Bank Group is committed to fighting poverty and supporting economic growth and opportunity in a sustainable manner. Our increased lending for renewable energy and energy efficiency and our innovative financing demonstrates that we are serious about it.
See the World Bank's climate site here.
John Moore/Getty Images
"And they shall beat their swords into plowshares," could easily be turned into, "And they shall dismantle their nuclear warheads into enriched uranium for nuclear power plants."
The New York Times reports 10 percent of electricity in the United States is generated from old nuclear bombs. For comparison, hydropower accounts for 6 percent and solar, biomass, wind and geothermal combined account for 3 percent. No data exists for how much power bunnies contribute.
In recent years, disarmament has generated a wealth of nuclear fuel. As the New York Times article says, "the fuel from missiles that may have once been aimed at your home may now be lighting it."
45 percent of nuclear fuel in American reactors comes from old Soviet bombs. The problem is that the fuel is running out, and in order to keep powering 4.5 percent of the United States more disarmament is needed.
The old program, known as Megatons to Megawatts will end in 2013, but because nuclear plants need to buy fuel three to five years in advance, the issue is of utmost importance right now. A new supply of fuel would become available if the United States and Russia would agree to renew the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December. Currently the USA has 2,220 warheads and Russia has 2,800.
With or without the added Soviet fuel, the US is investing heavily in the old-bombs-to-new-fuel strategy, as a factory is being built in South Carolina to dismantle American warheads. It will be able to recycle 34 tons of nuclear fuel that can power a million homes for 50 years.
United Nations Photo/Flickr
The headline on this story reads: "Obama will go to Copenhagen to clinch deal."
That's a touch misleading.
What the headline on this story should really read is: "Obama will go to Copenhagen if and only if his appearance is necessary in order to clinch a deal."
On one hand, this is good news. Even if the United States can't be a strong party in climate change negotiations, it is of vital importance that Obama act as a strong diplomat and negotiator on this issue. The whole world is at stake.
On the other hand, isn't this a bit rich? The U.S. slow-walk on this issue is part of the reason the Copenhagen negotiations have been so fraught. If a comprehensive agreement falters in December, the United States will be in no small part to blame. But its leader might parachute in at the last moment to save the day? Sigh.
LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images
28 years ago, Israel launched an airstrike against the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad, terrified by the prospect of an Iraq with nuclear weapons. 19 year ago, the U.N. imposed comprehensive economic sanctions against Iraq, declaring the country's nuclear program needed oversight. Seven years ago, former president Bush announced that an Iraq with access to weapons of mass destruction, potentially including nuclear technology, demanded a U.S. military response.
Photo: RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images
Move over ethanol, there is a new bio-fuel in the world... bunnies.
"We are shooting rabbits in Stockholm center, they are a very big problem," he said. "Once culled, the rabbits are frozen and when we have enough; a contractor comes and takes them away."
Tuvunger is leading the fight to continue sniping bunnies for warmth. Several animal rights groups in Sweden have come out in opposition to the practice, saying that if the rabbits are a problem there are non-lethal ways to deal with them. But Tuvunger is having none of that, "If you do that you only move the problem 100 meters away."
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Officials flicked on the switch at two of Germany's most important new solar energy sites on Thursday. In the eastern state of Brandenburg, the world's second-largest solar energy project went online. And halfway across the country, in North Rhine-Westphalia, a smaller scale but perhaps equally important facility launched -- Germany's first solar-thermal power plant.
MICHAEL GOTTSCHALK/AFP/Getty Images
Josh Kucera has been blogging this week from newly self-governing Greenland and shares a mind-blowing statistic:
Greenland’s government, using US Geological Survey data among others, says that the mean estimates for its oil reserves is about 50 billion barrels. That number is a bit abstract, so I did some math: The island has about 56,000 people, and if things go as they appear to be going, it will be an independent country some time in the next couple of decades. That means each Greenlander will own about 900,000 barrels of oil.
Compare that to some other oil powers. These are the top three countries in terms of oil reserves per capita:
Kuwait: 39,900 barrels per personYes, Greenland could have 50 times more oil per capita than Kuwait.
UAE: 37,576 barrels per person
Qatar: 18,071 barrels per person
As the world watches Iran, one unexpected country is paying particularly acute attention: Uganda. That country's oil-exporting future lies -- for now at least -- in the hands of whoever sits in power in Tehran.
The country's President Yoweri Museveni recently concluded talks with Iran's President Mahmood Ahmadinejad for the construction of an oil refinery in the East African country. At least some of the funding for the refinery will come from Iran (reports vary on how much -- for example here and here). Tehran also promised to instruct Ugandans at its University of Petroleum Studies and invest throughout the oil pumping chain.
Uganda is a newcomer to the world of oil export. Its resources, now estimated at 2 billion barrells (Iran, by comparison, has reserves of about 130 billion), are just now beginning to come online. The deal with Iran is aimed at making the country's oil industry self-sufficient and value added; unlike other exporters on the continent such as Nigeria, crude oil will be refined in country and sent as a finished product for export. In theory, that could save the country some money -- and the need to ironically re-import its own gasoline. But some wonder if the refinery, at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion, will really be cost effective for a country looking to pump out just 100,000 barrels per day.
Either way, it's somewhat disconcerting to imagine Uganda following in Iran's path as an energy giant. The behemoth of oil revenues failed to improve the country's lot last year; and instead, economic calamity set in. If Uganda looks to that example, Iran's election outcome isn't the only gamble in the country's future.
Why exactly is the EU-Russia energy conference being held in the far-Eastern city of Khabarovsk, 11 time zones from Brussels and a place that even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev avoids visiting unless absolutely necessary? The FT investigates:
Was it a fiendish plot to disorientate the easily divided Europeans ahead of tricky negotiations on Russian gas? It seems not.
The Kremlin, apparently, had not wanted to choose the location for fear of offending powerful regional governors who were gunning for the honour of hosting it, “so they said ‘let the Europeans choose’”, according to an east European diplomat.
José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, and Václav Klaus, Czech president – the Czechs hold the revolving EU presidency – had a look at the list of prospective sites before Mr Klaus picked Khabarovsk, because “he hadn’t been there before and wanted to see it”, according to a diplomat, who asked not to be named.
That's nice for Klaus, but not so nice for the assembled delegates whose heads, the article notes, "had a pronounced tendency to loll if they were allowed to sit for too long."
Sometimes it seems like we just can't win. We finally find a power source that doesn't release fossil fuels, can't be made into a weapon of mass destruction, doesn't pose a risk of flooding and doesn't contain poison gas, and guess what? It tortures goats to death!
Late-night noise from spinning wind turbines on an outlying island of Taiwan may have killed 400 goats over the past three years by depriving them of sleep, an agricultural inspection official said on Thursday.
After the eight turbines were installed in the notoriously windy Penghu archipelago in the Taiwan Strait, a neighbouring farmer reported that his goats had started dying, Council of Agriculture inspection official Lu Ming-tseng said.
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