Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (photos: Getty Images)
This year’s election is about power — the power to shape the nation’s domestic and foreign priorities; the power to lead, to legislate, to govern. Energy policy, defining how we use energy to power our economy and our lives, is among the most pressing issues for the next four years.
In this special two-hour edition of BURN, stories about the power of one: how, in this election season, a single person, place, policy or idea can — with a boost from science — affect the nation’s search for greater energy independence.
Hour One: The Power of One Election and America’s Energy Future
President Barack Obama and his opponent, Mitt Romney, share one broad policy goal — greater energy independence for the United States. They differ on how to achieve it. In this hour of BURN, host Alex Chadwick goes to the sometime swing state of Pennsylvania to examine fracking, the politically volatile exploration technology that has made natural gas the single most important element remaking our energy economy. We also go to Michigan, where voters will say yea or nay to wind power — praised by many Democrats as a renewable energy source well worth supporting; criticized by many Republicans as not viable in the free marketplace.
A burn-off from a fracking site illuminates the Pennsylvania sky.(Photo: Les Stone)
Mention the words “Marcellus Shale” to most folks in the U.S., and you’d probably get no response. Mention those words to Pennsylvanians and the reaction is likely to be sharp and opinionated, because the economic well-being of the state in significant part is tied to everything those two words represent. The Marcellus Shale is a vast, underground repository of natural gas that runs beneath parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. The extraction of that fossil fuel has helped resuscitate economies, including Pennsylvania’s, providing residents with jobs and money-laced mineral leases. For the nation, the Marcellus Shale has meant a bountiful and relatively cheap new energy source. The Marcellus Shale has generated considerable controversy, however. Some argue that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) — the underground injection of vast quantities of water and chemicals to mine the natural gas — is harmful to the environment. Once that water has served its purpose, it has to be disposed of, and fracking wastewater has its own set of issues: it is laced with toxins, and there’s so much of it that it’s hard to find safe disposal sites. All this is the backdrop to our story, which examines the impact natural gas exploration has had on one place – Pennsylvania – and particularly on a group of people who had the misfortune of living on top of a Marcellus Shale flashpoint.
Physicist Richard Muller says he is a “converted skeptic.” Once one of the most prominent voices questioning the link between human activity and global warming, Dr. Muller has since conducted his own exhaustive research and changed his mind. Now, he is out with a book entitled “Energy for Future Presidents,” in which he plots a course for what is to come. Alex speaks with Dr. Muller to find out what he would advise for the next four years.
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Part 2: What Should the President Know?
If you had JUST ONE MINUTE with the president of the United States, what would you tell him about our energy future? We posed that challenge to researchers and experts in various aspects of the energy question.
Listen to Robert’s minute. Or listen here on iPhone & iPad.
Robert Bullard: Dean of Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. Bullard is a leading scholar of environmental justice and says power plants, as well as waste dumps, are often sited in communities of color. More about Robert
Listen to Steven’s minute. Or listen here on iPhone & iPad.
Steven Cowley: Director of the UK’s leading fusion research center. Cowley is working towards bringing the technology out of the realm of science fiction into science fact. More about Steven
Listen to Jane’s minute. Or listen here on iPhone & iPad.
Jane Long: Associate Director at Large for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory working on energy and climate. Long is looking into how to adapt energy systems in light of climate change. More about Jane
Listen to Alec’s minute. Or listen here on iPhone & iPad.
Alec Loorz: Our youngest expert, at 18-years-old, Loorz has taken up the mission of informing his peers about global climate change. He is the founder of the organization “Kids vs Global Warming.” More about Alec
Listen to Lisa’s minute. Or listen here on iPhone & iPad.
Lisa Margonelli: Director of the Energy Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. Margonelli writes about the economy of energy and is the author of the book “Oil On the Brain: Petroleum’s Long Strange Trip to Your Tank.” More about Lisa
Listen to Ron’s minute. Or listen here on iPhone & iPad.
Ron Ness: President of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, a trade association representing the oil and gas industry in North Dakota. More about Ron
From fish to biofuel Mike Mageau has developed a fish-algea-plants greenhouse facility that aims to grow plants, raise fish, and make biofuel all at the same time. What would his one-minute energy advice moment be with the president?
Part of a wind farm in Gratiot County, Michigan.(Photo: Scott Carrier)
In Michigan during this election, voters could dramatically alter the manner in which the state consumes and conserves energy. Michigan now gets 80 percent of its electricity from coal burning plants. But the election could usher in the era of wind power, making the state a model for setting renewable energy standards.
A referendum on the Michigan ballot this fall would require 25 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable energy resources by the year 2025. An estimated 80 percent of that energy will come from 2600 new wind turbines to be installed in clusters, or wind farms, around the state. Proponents claim that electricity from wind is now cost effective, close to the cheapest way to generate electricity. It’s also clean. Opponents – primarily coal and gas companies striving to preserve their market share of energy production in Michigan – say that wind energy has been cheap only because of large federal subsidies, which will soon expire. They claim the end result of the referendum, if passed, will be higher utility bills.
Reporter Scott Carrier addresses the question Michigan voters may confront one day after the November elections: If the referendum passes, then what? What is the science behind wind power and how do you get people to accept a field of enormous machines in their community?
Not long after he took office, President Obama created the first White House Office on Energy and Climate Change. He put a heavyweight at the head: former EPA Director Carol Browner. The office was situated on high prestige territory — in a suite next to the West Wing in the stately Old Executive Office Building. It was clear, it seemed, that the Obama administration was ready to push ahead with meaningful climate and energy legislation. The political odds seemed good: democrats held the House and Senate. The President himself had said prior to his election: “Energy we have to deal with today. Health care is priority number two.” Within two years, Browner had resigned, the office was disbanded, and prospects were dead for energy and climate legislation. The Obama Administration chose to withdraw from a political battle that could have produced the first serious U.S. energy and climate legislation. What happened? Alex talks with Carol Browner about why energy legislation, and especially energy/climate legislation is so hard, and examines what prospects remain for new energy and climate legislation at the national level.
Hour Two: The Power and Politics of New Energy Frontiers
In the next four years, the United States will have one fundamental energy policy challenge — how to make the country more self-sufficient. Here are stories about the next frontiers of energy development, the fields of exploration that may help the U.S. to produce more energy at home and import less from abroad.
Elizabeth Arnold reports from the frozen Arctic Ocean, traveling on the U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreaker “Healy.” (Photo: Andrew Trites)
The Arctic is the new frontier for oil and gas production, with reserves potentially so large that the bounty could mean an unprecedented level of energy self-sufficiency for the United States. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic holds about 22 percent of the world’s untapped oil and natural gas resources. But can industry safely operate a drill rig in such extremes and in the worst case, clean up an oil spill? Reporter Elizabeth Arnold takes listeners to the far north — 200 miles above the Arctic Circle to the top of Alaska, where Inupiaq (Native Alaskan) Eskimos are torn between the benefits of new oil development and the risks Arctic oil will pose to their 1,000-year-old whaling culture.
Pacific walrus inhabit the Arctic region, primarily living on the sea ice above the continental shelf. In recent summers, with less sea ice available, many have moved to the coast of Alaska and Russia.
(Photo: Andrew Trites)
The icebreaker HEALY backs and rams North through the Bering Srait to the Chukchi Sea. It’s capable of breaking 4 1/2 feet of ice continuously at 3 knots.
(Photo: Tom Van Pelt)
HEALY is one of more than two dozen vessels deployed in the Arctic this past summer as Shell prepared to drill exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.
(Photo: Tom Van Pelt)
Wind, solar, electric cars - all have a toehold in the American energy mix, but there’s one technical dilemma holding them back: batteries. Batteries are essential energy storage devices for anything touted as clean tech but right now they’re limited to a few hours of performance: they’re expensive, big and chemically dangerous.
Touted as the holy grail of green machines, there’s an international race going on to build a better battery. The people in that race will not only shift our energy future, they stand to make a lot of money. Amy Prieto, a chemist at Colorado State University, has designed a battery that seemingly has the right stuff. She’s created a prototype that recharges in a few minutes, discharges slowly, and is manufactured using non-toxic chemicals. She still has to solve some big challenges before the prototype can become a battery she can put in the hands of consumers, and that will likely take a few more years. Alex visits Amy Prieto and her team to learn just what the Prieto Battery is about and why creating a better battery is so difficult. . . . . . blank line . . . . .
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Mike Pethel has driven fast cars for years, an interest afforded by his work as a color technologist who makes movies and commercials look more dazzling. Troubled by his own advertising campaigns for cars and trucks he came to see as wasteful, he sets out to build a ‘Green’ high-performance car. Starting with the carcass of an early 70’s BMW 3.0 CS, he is building a battery-powered car that is lighter and much quicker than the original. With an estimated 800 horsepower, it can beat any Ferrari ever built. Along the way, Mike learns how and why electric cars can be very good, very troublesome …and very, very fast. In one man’s obsessive quest for Green speed, we discover what lies ahead for those who hope electric cars might become a carbon salvation.
Alex visits Elco Welding in Venice, CA
Bob Libow's father started Elco Welding in 1937
Repairing a cracked aluminum engine worth $7,000
Elco doesn't stock parts - they make parts
The carcas of a 1973 BMW soon to be a supecar
Bob Libow of Elco and Car builder Mike Pethel
All photos by Hugh Hamilton
Web Extra: Batteries: The Unsung Hero of Modern Man – and How They Work
Batteries are everywhere and play an integral role in our lives. They’re also way under-appreciated.
Here is a simple explanation of how the Unsung Hero of Modern Man actually works.
Alex speaks with Arun Majumdar, the former director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). The agency, inside the Department of Energy, is the only one of its kind to consider pioneering research that could transform our energy future. Among Majumdar’s favorite projects: research into creating gasoline completely inside a laboratory – without the need for plants or dug-up oil.
GRETEL'S NOTEBOOK Read notebook selections. Join science writer Gretel Ehrlich on her most recent trip to Greenland. She writes: "Twenty years after my first visit to Greenland, I returned...to contemplate the demise of ice."
Glacier Slideshow Take a narrated tour of Gretel Ehrlich's aerial photos of glaciers.
Gretel Ehrlich narrates photos of her boat trip among the icebergs near Ilulissat, Greenland.