June 29, 2013

Pekin Looks Forward To Pipeline's Economic Boost

Officials in Pekin say an oil pipeline that will travel through the community on its way from Flanagan to Cushing, Okla., will bring 600 workers to town over the next few years.

Pekin Economic Development Director Leigh Ann Matthews says workers building the 36-inch Flanagan South Pipeline will spend money that will boost local businesses. She also told the Pekin Daily Times that pipeline builder Enbridge Inc. has leased a vacant local building to serve as its local hub.

The Canadian company plans to build the nearly 600-mile pipeline to move 600,0 gallons of crude oil a day. Enbridge says crude moving through the new pipeline will eventually make its way to Gulf Coast refineries.

Flanagan is about 30 miles northeast of Bloomington.

smoke stacks at power plant
(Saul Loeb /AFP/Getty Images)
June 20, 2013

Obama Working On Plan That Limits Power Plant Emissions

President Obama will soon unveil a plan that will put limits on the carbon emissions of existing power plants, the administration's top energy adviser said on Wednesday.

The New York Times reports this is the most consequential part of a bigger plan to curb climate change. The Times adds:

"Electric power plants are the largest single source of global warming pollution in the country, responsible for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. With sweeping climate legislation effectively dead in Congress, the decision on existing power plants — which a 2007 Supreme Court decision gave to the executive branch — has been among the most closely watched of Mr. Obama's second term.

"The administration has already begun steps to restrict climate-altering emissions from any newly built power plants, but imposing carbon standards on the existing utility fleet would be vastly more costly and contentious."

Bloomberg reports that the plan will include other actions that don't require congressional action, including "pushing energy efficiency standards for appliances [and] clean-energy production on public lands."

According to Bloomberg, the details of the new plan came from energy adviser Heather Zichal, who was speaking at a forum sponsored by The New Republic magazine.

Zichal said that Obama "is serious about making it a second-term priority."

Obama himself hinted at the coming changes when he spoke in Berlin yesterday.

"For the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late," Obama said.

May 08, 2013

Sanitary Officials Hold Meeting on Selling Wastewater to Fertilizer Company

There is a public meeting Wednesday night on a proposal for the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District to sell millions of gallons of treated wastewater to Cronus Chemical LLC, a company that is thinking about building a fertilizer plant in Tuscola.

Illinois is in a bidding war over Cronus Chemical’s $1.2 billion facility. The company overseeing the plant is mulling over whether to build it in Illinois or Iowa. The Cronus facility is expected to create 2,000 construction jobs and 150 full-time jobs.

The Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District said it was approached by economic development officials in Tuscola about selling 6.3 million gallons of waste water a day to the company to help operate the fertilizer plant. If that happens, less water would flow to the Copper Slough and Saline Branch streams in the Champaign-Urbana area.

Attorney Kim Knowles is with Prairie Rivers Network, a group in Champaign that advocates for clean water and healthy rivers. She said there needs to be more time spent looking at what impact diverting the water would have on the ecosystem.

“We tend to talk about aquatic life like it's just fish, but there are other forms of aquatic life that are affected differently when you change flows," Knowles said.

"So, typically those are macroinvertebrates or you might want to call them bugs, water bugs," she added. "There’s other wildlife that lives on the land, but is dependent on the streams that could be affected, and then there are people.”

Rick Manner heads the sanitary district. He said he is still looking for community input about the wastewater proposal, and that no final plans have been set.

“There is a real concern in regards to the volumes that are available, and make sure that we have some going to all of those needs," Manner said. "We think we have that covered.”

Manner said his department would generate about a million dollars a year in revenue through the sale.

“One of the things that my board has agreed to is that we would invest some fraction of the money that we would be getting from any income in attempting to work on habitat recreation and repair to the water bodies in the district,” he said.

Wednesday's public meeting is at 6:30 p.m. at the sanitary district at 1100 E. University Ave. in Urbana.

The Illinois legislature is considering a bill to offer tax breaks to Cronus Chemical as a way to encourage it to build the fertilizer plant in Tuscola.

April 30, 2013

House GOP Members Push for Fracking Vote

Illinois House Republicans are pushing for a vote on a bill regulating high-volume oil and gas drilling in Illinois.

Minority Leader Tom Cross said Tuesday that the legislation would create tens of thousands of jobs and revenue. He says it should be acted on immediately.

The plan to facilitate and regulate fracking has been negotiated by lawmakers and the industry. But it's been held up in committee.

Cross and Republican Rep. David Reis, a sponsor of the bill, allege that House Speaker Michael Madigan is politicking. They say he's using the measure as political leverage on pension legislation and other issues.

Madigan has said he wants a moratorium on fracking while safety and regulation issues are studied. His spokesman Steve Brown said Tuesday that all the issues haven't been worked out.

April 23, 2013

Ameren to Begin Decontaminating Champaign's 5th and Hill

In about a week, Ameren Illinois is poised to decontaminating soil at the Fifth and Hill street site in Champaign, located in an area that once housed a manufactured gas plant.

Ameren now owns the property. The decontamination process is expected to take up to six months, and it involves using steel pipes to inject a chemical into the ground that is meant to break down the toxicity of the soil.

The chemical, which consists of iron and hydrogen peroxide, will be injected at various depths from approximately three to 40 feet.

Brian Martin is a consulting environmental scientist for Ameren, and he is the project manager of the cleanup effort. He said the chemicals used will not be hazardous to the general public.

“It doesn’t present any odor concerns, anything like that,” Martin said. “People around the property won’t notice pretty much anything. All the work is going to be done on our property, and what it does is essentially oxidize the contaminants. It breaks them down into harmless, essentially water, carbon dioxide and other innocuous compounds.”

From 2009 through 2011, Ameren excavated soil from the site by replacing contaminated soil with clean soil. Claudia Lennhoff, the executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said Ameren should return to that process.

“While we’re glad that the contamination there is being treated, we question about whether that form of remediation is good enough compared to what was done on the rest of the property,” Lennhoff said.

The Illinois’ Environmental Protection Agency approved the cleanup project, which begins Monday.

A decal advertising E85 ethanol is displayed on a pump at a gas station in Johnston, Iowa.
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
April 01, 2013

EPA's Push for More Ethanol Could Be Too Little, Too Late

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could soon issue a final ruling that aims to force oil companies to replace E10, gasoline mixed with 10 percent ethanol, with E15.

This move could come just as widespread support for ethanol, which is made from corn, appears to be eroding.

Mike Mitchell was once a true believer in ethanol as a homegrown solution to foreign oil imports. He owns gas stations, and he went further than most, installing expensive blender pumps that let customers choose E15, E20 and all the way up to E85.

The result was a variation on the old adage, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink."

"We're environmental people and we kind of jumped on the bandwagon early, and it bit us," Mitchell says.

Many car companies, especially the Detroit Three, have been making vehicles that can use the higher blends of ethanol for more than a decade. They're called "flex-fuel" vehicles.

Most people who own those cars still use the lowest ethanol blend they can find, because ethanol negatively affects gas mileage.

Philip Verleger, an economist who tracks the oil industry, says when Congress approved the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2007, foreign oil imports were rising.

Then came tar sands and new ways to drill for oil.

"The oil crisis is going away," Verleger says. "We have plenty of oil. We have too much oil."

Verleger says the switch to E10 was driven by the Clean Air Act to reduce smog, and it worked pretty well.

The switch to E15, however, is being driven by the renewable fuel mandate, which directs the EPA to require a greater volume of ethanol in gasoline every year, pretty much, no matter what.

Even some environmental groups don't like that mandate, because corn ethanol requires so much energy and water to produce.

"The need for the ethanol program is gone," Verleger says, "but the thing is ... once you get something it's very hard to undo it."

Oil companies say they're absolutely not going to put E15 into the marketplace, and if they're forced, they'll take their product elsewhere.

"It's my opinion that refiners have very limited choices in order to comply," says Andy Lipow, an oil industry consultant, "and one way to comply is to export ever-increasing amounts of gasoline and diesel fuel, or otherwise just simply shut down the refineries."

That's a bluff, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group for the corn ethanol industry. Its president, Bob Dinneen, says the EPA should call that bluff.

Dineen says this is the way Congress envisioned the mandate working: more and more ethanol over time in a gallon of fuel, and less and less petroleum.

"This is about market share," Dinneen says. "This is about their profitability; it's not any more complicated than that."

The problem is that the mandate applies only to the oil companies, not the people who blend the ethanol into the gas, and not the gas stations that buy the blended product.

There's that "horse to water" problem again. Because half of all gas stations are completely independent of the oil companies, they could just keep ordering lower-ethanol gas, and they probably will.

Even though the EPA says E15 is safe for any car built after 2001, car companies insist that it isn't.

"There is no guarantee that fuel will work properly in your vehicle," says Brent Bailey. Bailey heads a research group that has done 20 studies on the effects of higher-ethanol blends on nonflex-fuel cars. He says while most cars will probably be fine, it's "a little bit like Russian roulette."

"You may have plenty of blanks out there, but then there might be some damage in certain cases," Bailey says.

While that might make for an interesting experiment, oil companies, car companies and gas stations are worried about class-action lawsuits.

The petroleum industry is doing everything it can to postpone a showdown. If the EPA approves the increase, and if the refineries comply, E15 may show up in local gas stations sometime next year.


April 01, 2013

UI Students Design Car that Could Reach 100 Mpg

You think a car averaging 40 miles per gallon is fuel efficient? Think again.

A team of University of Illinois students has designed a car that could reach 100 miles per gallon.

The (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette reports the students will present their car in an international competition sponsored by the oil giant Shell in Houston starting Thursday.

The car seats two people and uses a hydrogen fuel cell. Its carbon-fiber chassis weighs less than 70 pounds.

The team developed the car with a $56,000 budget. They have received support from the university's College of Engineering and several corporations.

The vehicle will have to complete six miles at a minimum average speed of 15 miles per hour around downtown Houston as part of the competition.

March 20, 2013

Both Sides Agree on Tough New Fracking Standards

In an unlikely partnership between longtime adversaries, some of the nation's biggest energy companies and environmental groups have agreed on a voluntary set of standards for gas and oil fracking in the Northeast that appear to go further than existing state and federal pollution regulations.

The program announced Wednesday will work a lot like Underwriters Laboratories, which puts its UL seal of approval on electrical appliances that meet its standards. In this case, drilling and pipeline companies will be encouraged to submit to an independent review of their operations, and if they are found to be taking certain steps to protect the air and water, they will receive the blessing of the brand-new Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development.

If the project succeeds, it could have far-reaching implications for both the industry and environmental groups. A nationwide boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has unleashed huge new energy reserves but also led to fears of pollution and climate change.

Shell Oil Vice President Paul Goodfellow said this is the first time the company and environmental groups have reached agreement to create an entire system for reducing the effects of shale drilling.

"This is something new," said Bruce Niemeyer, president of Chevron Appalachia. "This is a bit of a unique coming-together of a variety of different interests."

In addition to Shell and Chevron, the participants include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, the Heinz Endowments, EQT Corp., Consol Energy and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and the organizers hope to recruit others.

It may be part of a trend. Earlier this month a coalition of industry and environmental groups in Illinois announced that they worked together on drilling legislation now pending there. But the Pittsburgh project, which has been in the works for nearly two years, would be voluntary.

"We believe it does send a signal to the federal government and other states," said Armand Cohen, the director of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force. "There's no reason why anyone should be operating at standards less than these."

The new standards include limits on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and the flaring, or burning off, of unwanted gas; reductions in engine emissions; groundwater monitoring and protection; improved well designs; stricter wastewater disposal; the use of less toxic fracking fluids; and seismic monitoring before drilling begins.

The project will cover Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio — where a frenzy of drilling is under way in the huge, gas-rich Marcellus and Utica Shale formations — as well as New York and other states in the East that have put a hold on new drilling.

Shell said it hopes to be one of the first companies to volunteer to have its operations in Appalachia go through the independent review. Chevron said it expects to apply for certification, too, when the process is ready to start later this year.

Mark Brownstein, an associate vice president with the Environmental Defense Fund, said many oil and gas companies claim to be leaders in protecting the environment, and "this can be one opportunity for them to demonstrate that leadership" by submitting to an audit.

"Anyone who claims to be placing a priority on good management practice" should be rushing to sign up, he said.

The project will be overseen by a 12-member board consisting of four seats for environmentalists, four for industry and four for independent figures: former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill; Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency chief; Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon; and Jane Long, former associate director at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The center's proposed 2013 budget is $800,000, with the two sides expected to contribute equal amounts, said Andrew Place, the project's interim leader and director of energy and environmental policy at EQT, an Appalachian energy company.

Mark Frankel, an expert on ethics and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, said the idea sounds promising, but it remains to be seen if the new standards are a significant improvement over existing laws. He said there are also ethical and policy questions.

"What does it mean to have an independent board? Who's on it? How do they get on it?" he asked.

George Jugovic, president of the environmental group PennFuture, one of the participants, said the industry's involvement makes this different from past debates over fracking.

"Buy-in from them is huge. That provides leadership from within," Jugovic said. "It's very different from someone from the outside saying, 'You can do better.'"

March 14, 2013

Fracking Supporters Announce Well Fees, Tax Rates

Illinois legislators say they have reached a deal on the taxes and fees companies that use hydraulic fracturing must pay the state.

It was the last major stumbling block of an agreement on how to regulate the oil and gas drilling technique known as fracking.

Mark Denzler, who represents business groups that favor fracking, said the amount of money Illinois will make depends on the productivity of the wells.

"You could see at 200 barrels a day, you could see upwards of about $200,000 per well, per year," Denzler said.

The tax rate starts at 3-percent per well, and over time could step up to 6-percent.

Drillers would also pay $15,000 per well to the Department of Natural Resources, which would enforce state laws on fracking.

Although environmental groups negotiated the regulations, they say they would rather see fracking banned altogether. That has prompted other environmentalists to accuse those advocates of selling out, but they say given that the process is largely unregulated now, some rules are better than none.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Michael Madigan stated he favors a temporary ban on the oil and gas drilling.

"I'm for the moratorium," Madigan told reporters.

State Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion), who is one of Madigan's top lieutenants, said he doesn't expect legislators will ever get the chance to vote on a fracking moratorium.

Bradley and other prominent officials -- including Attorney General Lisa Madigan -- had negotiated with both business interests and environmental groups to agree on the regulations.

A House committee will vote on Friday to move the fracking bill to be considered by the full House.

State Rep. Chad Hays (R-Catlin) said he plans to support the bill.

“You know, this is going on in many, many states,” Hays said. “It’s certainly nothing short of a gold rush in states like South Dakota and Texas. There are a lot of measures in there from a safety perspective.”

The process of hydraulic fracturing uses water, sand and chemical mixtures to crack deep rock formations to release oil and natural gas.

March 12, 2013

Fracking Opponents Rally at Illinois Statehouse

Dozens of environmentalists and land owners are meeting with lawmakers in Springfield hoping to persuade them to temporarily ban high-volume oil and gas drilling in Illinois.

Opponents of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking,'' held a rally and lobbied Illinois legislators Tuesday. They're hoping to win support for a two-year moratorium on the practice instead of regulations that would allow it.

Fracking opponents say they were ignored during negotiations over a regulatory bill, which proponents say would give Illinois the nation's toughest regulations.

Protesters say they fear the water around their southern Illinois homes could be polluted by the practice.

Fracking uses high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals to crack rock formations to release oil and natural gas.

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