Judge orders government to re-do climate analysis on Wyoming oil leases

A natural gas facility stands on the Pinedale Anticline on May 3, 2018 in Pinedale, Wyoming. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, a federal judge wrote that the Department of the Interior must complete a thorough climate change analysis when considering leasing public land for oil and gas extraction.

The opinion included an order to halt all new oil and gas leases on more than 300,000 acres of publicly managed land in Wyoming until the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can complete a proper review.

The case was initially brought in 2016 in the US District Court for the District of Columbia against former President Barack Obama’s DOI. The plaintiffs, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, argued that the DOI made oil and gas lease sales in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming without taking into account the “direct, indirect, and cumulative” impacts to the climate that drilling would have.

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Report: Carbon-capture group gets some serious lobbying muscle

A pipe at a carbon capture plant carrying CO2.

On Tuesday, Beltway news site Axios reported that a carbon-capture-focused lobby created last year has teamed up with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), a powerful lobbying association with lots of resources. The news suggests that proponents of carbon capture and storage (CCS) are getting more serious about pulling strings in Washington after new tax credits were approved last year.

The carbon-capture lobby, called the Energy Advance Center (EAC), was listed last year in April. In 2018, the lobby spent $80,000 on CCS-related lobbying and retained three lobbyists, according to Open Secrets. EAC is supported by oil companies like BP and Chevron, as well as power firm Southern Company and technology firm Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

According to Axios, EAC is now under the umbrella of NAM. That means it will be able to use the lobbying association’s resources to push for more advantageous terms for carbon-capture projects and protect the nascent industry’s new tax credits in the future. Ars Technica contacted NAM and did not receive a response.

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Jobs and pipelines: Notley and Kenney fight over economy as Alberta set for April election

CALGARY — Alberta Premier Rachel Notley called an election Tuesday, kicking off a campaign at a time when some of the province’s labour market indicators are showing their worst signs during a election cycle in more than 30 years.

Notley’s campaign begins at a time when all active pipeline proposals out of the province have been delayed, unemployment has remained persistently high as a result of low and volatile oil and gas prices, and the pace of economic growth is slowing.

“I know these past few years have been very tough. They’ve been scary for a lot of families,” Notley said in Calgary, a key re-election battleground for the NDP government as it fights a challenge from the United Conservative Party.

Jason Kenney, the leader of the UCP, kicked off his campaign Tuesday at an event in an industrial yard south of Edmonton with a sign that had three words stacked on top of each other: “jobs,” “economy” and “pipelines.”

“One thing Albertans hate is unemployment and the corrosive effect it has on people’s lives,” Kenney said, adding that his party would be “obsessed” with creating jobs.

The most recent poll, by Ipsos and conducted for Global News, shows the UCP leading the NDP by 18 percentage points.

The province’s struggling economy is widely expected to be a main point of debate throughout the campaign as Albertans prepare to vote on April 16 and jobs are expected to be a key issue.

“Since the depths of the recession our economy has created over 80,000 jobs,” Notley said, though she noted the province’s economy continues to face challenges including a lack of new pipelines.

The province’s unemployment rate has been rising again, inching steadily up from a two-year-low of 6.2 per cent in Nov. 2018 to 7.3 per cent in Feb. 2019.

More troubling, however, the rate of participation in the province’s labour force is among the worst during an election cycle since data was first recorded in 1976, University of Alberta associate economist professor Joseph Marchand said.

The province’s labour force participation rate, which measures what proportion of able workers are employed or job hunting, is 71.8 per cent, compared with 73.7 per cent during the last election cycle in May 2015.

And the province’s employment rate is 66.5 per cent, compared with 68.9 per cent during the last election cycle.

UCP leader Jason Kenney speaks to the media as he responds to the Speech from the Throne at the Alberta Legislature, in Edmonton Monday March 18, 2019.

“This is historically the worst or tied for the worst,” Marchand said of how the two measurements compare with data from previous election cycles. “I think this should be the central focus of this election cycle.”

A large reason for the declines in employment and labour force participation is there are fewer young people, aged 15 to 24, employed in the province and significantly fewer employed in the energy sector.

For 15- to 24-year-olds, Marchand said there are 10 per cent fewer of those workers in the labour force and 11 per cent fewer employed.

Notley led the NDP to power at a time when large Calgary-based companies were laying off staff to cut costs amid low oil prices, but those jobs did not return as lack of export pipelines negated any gains from rebounding commodity prices.

Of the 45,200 direct jobs lost in the province’s oil and gas sector between 2014 and 2015, roughly 27,500 jobs have been regained, according to Carol Howes, vice-president of communications and the petroleum labour market division of Energy Safety Canada.

“So we’ve seen some (jobs) come back since the end of 2014, we’ve seen some increase, but then we’re still at least 18,000 jobs away from where we were in 2014,” she said, adding that she’s expecting a further decline in oil and gas employment this year as capital investment falls.

Investment in the energy sector in Canada has fallen a dramatic 58 per cent to an expected $23.8 billion this year, compared to $57.2 billion in 2014, according to Conference Board of Canada director, provincial forecasts Marie-Christine Bernard.

Bernard said her last real GDP growth forecast for Alberta show the economy slowing to 1.3 per cent this year, from 2.5 per cent in 2018. But now she expects to revise that forecast down due to lower drilling activity, delays to Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 pipeline and slowdown of Imperial Oil Ltd.’s Aspen oilsands project.

“Investment is not going to be great in the energy sector,” she said.

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ClimaCell bets on IoT for better weather forecasts

To accurately forecast the weather, you first need lots of data — not just to train your forecasting models but also to generate more precise and granular forecasts. Typically, this has been the domain of government agencies, thanks to their access to this data and the compute power to run the extremely complex models. Anybody can now buy compute power in the cloud, though, and as the Boston and Tel Aviv-based startup ClimaCell is setting out to prove, there are now also plenty of other ways to get climate data thanks to a variety of relatively non-traditional sensors that can help generate more precise local weather predictions.

Now you may say that others, like Dark Sky, for example, are already doing that with their hyperlocal forecasts. But ClimaCell’s approach is very different, and with that has attracted as clients airlines like Delta, JetBlue and United, sports teams like the New England Patriots and agtech companies like Netafim.

“The biggest problem is that to predict the weather, you need to have observations and you need to have models,” ClimaCell CEO Shimon Elkabetz told me. “The entire industry is basically repackaging the data and models of the government [agencies]. And the governments don’t create the relevant infrastructure everywhere in the world. Even in the U.S., there’s room for improvement.”

And that’s where ClimaCell’s main innovation comes in. Instead of relying on government sensors, it’s using the Internet of Things to gather more weather data from far more places than would otherwise be possible. This kind of sensing technology could turn millions of existing connected devices — like cell phones, connected vehicles, street cameras, airplanes and drones — into virtual weather stations. It’s easy enough to see how this would work. If a driver turns on a windshield wiper or fog lights, you know it’s probably raining or foggy. Often, these cars also relay temperature data. If a street camera sees rain, it’s raining.

What’s more complex is that ClimaCell has also developed the technology to gather data from how atmospheric conditions impact the signal propagation between cell phones and their base stations. And to take this one step further — and beyond the ground level — it has also figured out how to gather similar data from satellite-to-ground microwave signals.

“The idea is that everything is sensitive to weather and we can turn everything into a weather sensor,” said Elkabetz. “That’s why we call it the weather of things. It enables us to put in place virtual sensors everywhere.”

Using all this data, ClimaCell is providing its customers, like airlines, ridesharing companies and energy companies, with real-time weather data and forecasts.

Using all of this data the company also recently launched flood alerts for about 500 cities that can provide 24 to 48-hour warnings ahead of major flood events. To do this, the company combined its weather data with its own hydrological model.

For now, most of ClimaCell’s business model focuses on selling its data and predictions to other businesses. The company plans to launch a consumer app in May, though. I got a sneak peek of the app; while I can’t vouch for the forecasts, it’s a very well-designed application that you’ll probably want to look at, no matter whether you’re a weather geek or just want to see if you can get a quick bike ride in before the rain starts.

Why a consumer app? “We want to become the biggest weather technology company in the world,” Elkabetz said. To get to this point, the company has raised a total of $68 million to date from investors that include Clearvision Ventures, JetBlue Technology Ventures, Ford Smart Mobility,  Envision Ventures, Canaan Partners, Fontinalis Partners and Square Peg Capital.

New fuel cell material can run efficiently in reverse, storing energy

Close-up of a hydrogen fuel cell.

Lithium batteries can readily smooth out short-term hiccups in the supply of intermittent renewable energy. But they’re not ideal for long-term storage, since they’ll slowly discharge. They also aren’t great for large quantities of energy—to store more, you keep having to buy more battery. Because of these issues, there has been research into a number of technologies that scale better, like flow batteries and renewable fuel production. But these pose their own challenges, both chemical and economic.

But researchers are now reporting a possible solution to some of these problems: a fuel cell that can be run efficiently in both directions, either using hydrogen or methane to produce electricity or using electricity to produce these fuels. Their measurements suggest that, after doing a complete cycle, they get out 75 percent of the electricity they put in to start with.

Limitations abound

Batteries, as we mentioned above, don’t work for longer-term storage, as they will typically lose charge slowly. They’re also expensive, as adding capacity means adding more batteries. Flow batteries solve some of these problems by storing the charged and discharged forms of a chemical in different tanks; larger or additional tanks are cheap, making expanded capacity relatively simple and inexpensive. But flow batteries aren’t as efficient as traditional batteries, and the chemicals they use can be toxic or corrosive.

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862,520 Fiat-Chrysler vehicles have emissions issues, will be recalled

RAM logo covered in snow.

Issues with the catalytic converters of 862,520 Fiat-Chrysler vehicles are prompting a semi-voluntary recall, according to officials from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

The vehicles in question include:

  • 2011-2016 Model Year (MY) Dodge Journey
  • 2011-2014 MY Chrysler 200/Dodge Avenger
  • 2011-2012 MY Dodge Caliber
  • 2011-2016 MY Jeep Compass/Patriot

The recall will be conducted in phases, with owners of older cars being notified first that they can bring their cars in to be fixed. The last phase is expected to begin in the fourth quarter of 2019. Unlike previous Fiat-Chrysler emissions recalls, these fixes require replacement parts.

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The next great debate will be about the role of tech in society and government

The Industrial Revolution dramatically re-ordered the sociology of politics. In the US, the Populist Party in the United States was founded as a force in opposition to capitalism, wary of modernity. In the UK, the profound economic changes reshaped policy: from the Factory and Workers Act through to the liberal reforms of David Lloyd George, which ultimately laid the ground for the welfare state, the consequences were felt for the whole of the next century.

Today, another far-reaching revolution is underway, which is causing similar ripple effects. Populists of both left and right have risen in prominence and are more successful than their American forebearers at the turn of the 19th century, but similarly rejecting of modernisation. And in their search for scapegoats to sustain their success, tech is now firmly in their firing line.

The risk is that it sets back progress in an area that is yet to truly transform public policy. In the UK at least, the government machine looks little different from how it did when Lloyd George announced the People’s Budget in 1909.

The first politicians who master this tech revolution and shape it for the public goodwill determine what the next century will look like. Rapid developments in technologies such as gene-editing and Artificial Intelligence, as well as the quest for potential ground-breaking leaps forward in nuclear fission and quantum computing, will provoke significant changes to our economies, societies and politics.

Yet, today, very few are even asking the right questions, let alone providing answers. This is why I’m focusing on technology as the biggest single topic that policymakers need to engage with. Through my institute, I’m hoping to help curate the best thinking on these critical issues and devise politically actionable policy and strategy to deal with them. This will help put tech, innovation and investment in research and development at the forefront of the progressive programme. And we do so in the belief that tech is – and will continue to be – a generally positive force for society.

This is not to ignore the problems that surfaced as a result of these changes, because there are genuine issues around privacy and public interest.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 23: Monitors show imagery from security cameras seen at the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative on April 23, 2013 in New York City. At the counter-terrorism center, police and private security personel monitor more than 4,000 surveillance cameras and license plate readers mounted around the Financial District and surrounding parts of Lower Manhattan. Designed to identify potential threats it is modeled after London’s “Ring of Steel” system. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The shifts that have and will occur in the labour market as a result of automation will require far more thinking about governments’ role, as those who are likely to bear the brunt of it are those already feeling left behind. Re-training alone will not suffice, and lifelong investment in skills may be required. So too does a Universal Basic Income feel insufficient and a last resort, rather than an active, well-targeted policy solution.

“The first politicians who master this tech revolution and shape it for the public goodwill determine what the next century will look like.”

But pessimism is a poor guide to the future. It ends in conservativism in one form or another, whether that is simple statism, protectionism or nationalism. And so the challenge for those us of who believe in this agenda of harnessing the opportunities, while mitigating its risks is to put this in a way that connects with people’s lives. This should be a New Deal or People’s Budget type moment; a seismic change in public policy as we pivot to the future.

At the highest level this is about the role of the state in the 21st century, which needs to move away from ideological debates over size and spend and towards how it is re-ordered to meet the demands of people today. In the US, President Obama made some big strides with the role of the Chief Technology Officer, but it will require a whole rethinking of government’s modus operandi, so that it is able to keep up with the pace of change around it.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Kheng Guan Toh

Across all the key policy areas we should be asking: how can tech be used to enable people to live their lives as they choose, increase their quality of life and deliver more opportunities to flourish and succeed?

For example, in education it will include looking at new models of teaching. Online courses have raised the possibility of changing the business of learning, while AI may be able to change the nature of teaching, providing more personalised platforms and free teachers to spend their time more effectively. It could also include new models of funding, such as the Lambda School, which present exciting possibilities for the future.

Similarly with health, the use of technology in diagnostics is well-documented. But it can be transformative in how we deploy our resources, whether that is freeing up more front-line staff to give them more time with patients, or even in how the whole model currently works. As it stands a huge amount of costs go on the last days of life and on the elderly. But far more focus should go on prevention and monitoring, so that people can lead longer lives, have less anxiety about ill health and lower the risks of illnesses becoming far more serious than they need to be. Technology, which can often feel so intangible, can be revolutionary in this regard.

In infrastructure and transport too, there are potentially huge benefits. Whether this is new and more efficient forms of transport or how we design our public space so that it works better for citizens. This will necessitate large projects to better connect communities, but also focus on small and simple solutions to everyday concerns that people have about their day to day lives, such as using sensors to collect data and improve services improve every day standard of living. The Boston Major’s office has been at the frontier of such thinking, and more thought must go into how we use data to improve tax, welfare, energy and the public good.

Achieving this will better align government with the pace of change that has been happening in society. As it stands, the two are out of sync and unless government catches up, the belief and trust in institutions to be seen to working for people will continue to fall. Populism thrives in this space. But the responsibility is not solely on politicians. It is not enough for those in the tech world to say they don’t get it.

Those working in the sector must help them to understand and support policy development, rather than allow misunderstandings and mistrust to compound. Because in little more than two decades, the digital revolution has dramatically altered the shape of our economies in society. This can continue, but only if companies work alongside governments to truly deliver the change that so many slogans aspire to.

Las Vegas convention authority wants The Boring Company to build 2-mile loop

On Wednesday, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) announced that it would recommend The Boring Company to build a two-mile loop under the city’s massive, expanding convention center.

The LVCVA’s recommendation must be approved by the authority’s board on March 12 to move forward.

The Boring Company is Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s third company, started with the intention to make large-scale tunneling projects cheaper and easier to complete. Musk offered tours of a rough initial tunnel in December 2018 in Hawthorne, California, under the SpaceX Headquarters.

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