Nation roundup for April 21
Study: Fuels from corn are not better than gas
WASHINGTON (AP) — Biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term, a study shows, challenging the Obama administration’s conclusions that they are a much cleaner oil alternative and will help combat climate change.
A $500,000 study paid for by the federal government and released Sunday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change concludes that biofuels made with corn residue release 7 percent more greenhouse gases in the early years compared with conventional gasoline.
While biofuels are better in the long run, the study says they won’t meet a standard set in a 2007 energy law to qualify as renewable fuel.
The conclusions deal a blow to what are known as cellulosic biofuels, which have received more than a billion dollars in federal support but have struggled to meet volume targets mandated by law. About half of the initial market in cellulosics is expected to be derived from corn residue.
The biofuel industry and administration officials immediately criticized the research as flawed. They said it was too simplistic in its analysis of carbon loss from soil, which can vary over a single field, and vastly overestimated how much residue farmers actually would remove once the market gets underway.
“The core analysis depicts an extreme scenario that no responsible farmer or business would ever employ because it would ruin both the land and the long-term supply of feedstock. It makes no agronomic or business sense,” said Jan Koninckx, global business director for biorefineries at DuPont.
Later this year the company is scheduled to finish a $200 million-plus facility in Nevada, Iowa, that will produce 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol using corn residue from nearby farms. An assessment paid for by DuPont said that the ethanol it will produce there could be more than 100 percent better than gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
The research is among the first to attempt to quantify, over 12 Corn Belt states, how much carbon is lost to the atmosphere when the stalks, leaves and cobs that make up residue are removed and used to make biofuel, instead of left to naturally replenish the soil with carbon. The study found that regardless of how much corn residue is taken off the field, the process contributes to global warming.
“I knew this research would be contentious,” said Adam Liska, the lead author and an assistant professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I’m amazed it has not come out more solidly until now.”
NASA: Engineer vital to moon landing dies
SCARBOROUGH, Maine (AP) — John C. Houbolt, an engineer whose contributions to the U.S. space program were vital to NASA’s successful moon landing in 1969, has died. He was 95.
Houbolt died Tuesday at a nursing home in Scarborough, Maine, of complications from Parkinson’s disease, his son-in-law Tucker Withington, of Plymouth, Mass., confirmed Saturday.
As NASA describes on its website, while under pressure during the U.S.-Soviet space race, Houbolt was the catalyst in securing U.S. commitment to the science and engineering theory that eventually carried the Apollo crew to the moon and back safely.
His efforts in the early 1960s are largely credited with convincing NASA to focus on the launch of a module carrying a crew from lunar orbit, rather than a rocket from Earth or a space craft while orbiting the planet.
Houbolt argued that a lunar orbit rendezvous, or lor, would not only be less mechanically and financially onerous than building a huge rocket to take man to the moon or launching a craft while orbiting the Earth, but lor was the only option to meet President John F. Kennedy’s challenge before the end of the decade.
NASA describes “the bold step of skipping proper channels” that Houbolt took by pushing the issue in a private letter in 1961 to an incoming administrator.
“Do we want to go to the moon or not?” Houbolt asks. “… why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive? I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox, but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted.”
Houbolt started his career with NASA’s predecessor in Hampton, Va., in 1942, served in the Army Corps of Engineers, and worked in an aeronautical research and consulting firm in Princeton, N.J., before returning to NASA in 1976 as chief aeronautical scientist. He retired in 1985 but continued private consulting work.
Born April 10, 1919, in Altoona, Iowa, Houbolt grew up in Joliet, Ill., and earned degrees in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He earned a doctorate from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich in 1957.
Fracking foes cringe as unions back drilling boom
PITTSBURGH (AP) — After early complaints that out-of-state firms got the most jobs, some local construction trade workers and union members in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia say they’re now benefiting in a big way from the Marcellus and Utica Shale oil and gas boom.
That vocal support from blue-collar workers complicates efforts by environmentalists to limit the drilling process known as fracking.
“The shale became a lifesaver and a lifeline for a lot of working families,” said Dennis Martire, the mid-Atlantic regional manager for the Laborers’ International Union, or LIUNA, which represents workers in numerous construction trades.
Martire said that as huge quantities of natural gas were extracted from the vast shale reserves over the last five years, union work on large pipeline jobs in Pennsylvania and West Virginia has increased significantly. In 2008, LIUNA members worked about 400,000 hours on such jobs; by 2012, that had risen to 5.7 million hours.
Nationally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says total employment in the nation’s oil and gas industry rose from about 120,000 in early 2004 to about 208,000 last month. Less than 10 percent of full-time oil and gas industry workers are represented by unions.
Alex Paris, head of a Pittsburgh-area contracting firm founded by his grandfather in 1928, said many of the jobs in the early years of the boom went to out-of-state workers, perhaps because the biggest drilling firms come from Texas and Oklahoma. Now there’s been a shift to hiring local contractors that use union labor.
“It has created more work for our business. There’s jobs here for the first time in many, many years. Legitimate, good-paying jobs,” Paris said of a region that was hit hard by the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s and ’90s.
The increasing use of union construction labor has given energy companies a powerful ally as drilling is debated in communities nationwide. Many Republicans have been pro-drilling, but now some unions traditionally associated with Democrats are using their political clout to urge politicians to reject bans on pipelines or drilling.
For example, LIUNA has urged members of Congress to support liquefied natural gas exports and regional gas pipeline expansions, and union members plan to participate in a pro-drilling rally in Pennsylvania’s capital next month.
“The unions are powerful and influential,” said David Masur, director of Penn Environment, which has been critical of the drilling boom.
The Marcellus and Utica shale fields, rich in natural gas and oil, lie deep underneath large parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, and more than 6,000 new wells have been drilled there over the last five years.
In the early days of the shale drilling boom, there were complaints about the number of local jobs. In 2010, one union leader told a Pennsylvania House Labor Relations Committee that local people had little or no success in getting work from the industry. And even now some powerful unions are withholding judgment. Anthony Montana, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers, declined to comment on how much drilling is helping that industry.
But others say the trend toward more local jobs is clear.
Mike Engbert of the Ohio Laborers District Council said that while some companies still use a lot of out-of-state labor, “Across the board, job gains have really shot up.”
For some, the drilling-related work is a big improvement over low-wage service jobs.
“I’ve probably worked 15 jobs, and none of them nearly as stable as this one, or nearly as interesting,” said Amy Dague, 38, of Wheeling, W.Va. She’s worked for a pipeline construction and maintenance company for a little more than a year.
“It’s definitely changed the way I see my future. I see this as long-term employment,” Dague said.
Some energy companies say they’re happy with local workers, too.
Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources of Fort Worth, Texas, wrote in an email: “We are in need of reliable, consistent, quality work at a reasonable price and the local trades have stepped up in a significant way.”
Some environmental groups worry that what’s happening in the region is a repeat of the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline, when some major unions and green groups took opposite sides. Penn Environment has called for much stronger regulations and a ban on drilling in some areas, such as state forests.
“I understand the dynamic at play. It feels fairly short-sighted,” Masur said of how workers and unions are embracing oil and gas drilling. “This could leave the same sort of legacy as coal.” He urged more investments — and thus jobs— in wind and solar power.
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