Monthly Archives: October 2012

Top Five Worst Polluters in Gas Flaring

An international coalition led by the World Bank is calling for state-backed and private oil producers to reduce “gas flaring” by an additional 30 percent over the next five years, saying that doing so would be equivalent to taking 60 million cars off of the roads.  Analysts widely characterised the goal as both ambitious and significant, though it follows on an apparent levelling out in flaring reductions in recent years.

Since a major new push began in 2005, the World Bank-led Global Gas Flaring Reduction (GGFR)* partnership estimates that, through 2011, its actions have brought down gas flaring by 20 percent, eliminating around 274 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.  But according to the GGFR – a coalition of 20 major oil companies and 19 countries..both the economic and environmental impacts of gas flaring require far greater reductions.  “A 30 percent cut in five years is a realistic goal,” Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s vice-president for sustainable development, said…

Oil producers resort to flaring when gas, a by-product of oil, is brought up to the surface but cannot easily be repurposed for consumers. Instead, producers simply burn off the product, the value of which the World Bank, based here in Washington, puts at some 50 billion dollars a year.  The total amount of gas estimated to have been flared last year, about five trillion cubic feet, is said to equal the amount of natural gas used in the United States over a full year.

Environmentalists have long called for the outright banning of the practice, though flaring does in fact release far lower levels of greenhouse gases than simply allowing the gas to evaporate. However, the process does not deal with one notorious pollutant, nitrogen oxide, and still releases significant carbon dioxide, and thus significant greenhouse gas-related worries remain.

Alternative uses for this gas range from producing power, refining it for use in local markets, or even putting it back into the ground. But analysts say the economic benefits for companies in doing so are low.  Nonetheless, the World Bank reports slow but steady success in reductions, particularly since 2005. According to data released Mexico has cut its flaring by two-thirds and Azerbaijan by half in just two years, while Kuwait gotten its flaring down to just one percent of previous levels.  In addition, Qatar and Congo have been singled out for using the gas to make electricity.

Significant improvements have also been seen in many of the world’s worst flaring offenders. “Huge investments” by GGFR partners have reportedly helped Nigeria to reduce its flaring by nearly a quarter through 2011, while Russia, the most significant culprit in this regard, has reduced flaring by around 40 percent, though those figures rose last year.  Still, the World Bank warned that both of these countries, particularly Russia, in addition to Mexico, Iraq and Kazakhstan, need to make significant improvements.

Missing from this list, however, is one of the most significant outliers in the global push against gas flaring: the United States, which has increased its gas flaring by more than three times since 2007, more than any other country.  The U.S. is currently in the midst of a sea-changing boom in natural gas production, thanks almost entirely to new technologies (so-called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) that have allowed for the exploitation of previously off-limits gas deposits in shale and other geological formations.

Against the promising country-by-country numbers, total global gas flaring actually increased last year by around two billion cubic metres, which World Bank analysts have put down to output from Russia and, specifically, the U.S. state of North Dakota.  “The small increase underlines the importance for countries and companies to sustain and even accelerate efforts to reduce flaring of gas associated with oil production,” Bent Svensson, manager of the GGFR partnership, said when the 2011 figures became available in July. “It is a warning sign that major gains over the past few years could be lost if oil-producing countries and companies don’t step up their efforts.”

The U.S. is now the fifth-largest flarer, behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq. While part of this is due to the multifold increase in production in recent years, it also appears to be due to a lag in implementing the necessary infrastructure.  “Due to insufficient natural gas pipeline capacity and processing facilities … over 35% of North Dakota’s natural gas production … has been flared or otherwise not marketed,” the U.S. government reported in late 2011. “The percentage of flared gas in North Dakota is considerably higher than the national average; in 2009, less than 1% of natural gas produced in the United States was vented or flared.”…But based on new EPA rules, “the U.S. is going to have 100 percent no-flaring by 2015, which will be pretty good in terms of the rest of the world,” Kyle Ash, a Washington-based legislative analyst with Greenpeace, an advocacy group, told IPS.

Excerpts, By Carey L. Biron, U.S. Outlier in New Push to Reduce Gas Flaring,Inter Press Service,Oct. 24, 2012

*The GGFR partners include: Algeria (Sonatrach), Angola (Sonangol), Azerbaijan, Cameroon (SNH), Ecuador (PetroEcuador), Equatorial Guinea, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), France, Gabon, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Khanty-Mansijsysk (Russia), Mexico (SENER), Nigeria, Norway, Qatar, the United States (DOE) and Uzbekistan; BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ENI, ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, Maersk Oil & Gas, Pemex, Qatar Petroleum, Shell, Statoil, TOTAL; European Union, the World Bank Group; Associated partner: Wärtsilä.

Japan and the Polluted Radioactive Water

Japan’s crippled nuclear power plant is struggling to find space to store tens of thousands of tonnes of highly contaminated water used to cool the broken reactors, the manager of the water treatment team has said.About 200,000 tonnes of radioactive water, enough to fill more than 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools, are being stored in hundreds of gigantic tanks built around the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has already chopped down trees to make room for more tanks and predicts the volume of water will be more than tripled within three years.  “It’s a time-pressing issue because the storage of contaminated water has its limits, there is only limited storage space,” the water-treatment manager, Yuichi Okamura, told the AP news agency in an exclusive interview this week.  The Yotukura fishing village was one of the areas devastated by the Mar. 11, 2011 tsunami that caused the nuclear plant meltdown.

Dumping massive amounts of water into the melting reactors was the only way to avoid an even bigger catastrophe after the meltdown at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power reactor, caused by the Mar. 11, 2011 tsunami.  Okamura remembers frantically trying to find a way to get water to spent fuel pools located on the highest floor of the 50m high reactor buildings.  Without water, the spent fuel likely would have overheated and melted, sending radioactive smoke for miles and affecting possibly millions of people.

But the measures to keep the plant under control created another huge headache for the utility: What to do with all the radioactive water that leaked out of the damaged reactors and collected in the basements of reactor buildings and nearby facilities.  “At that time, we never expected high-level contaminated water to turn up in the turbine building,” Okamura said.  He was tasked with setting up a treatment system that would make the water clean enough for reuse as a coolant, and was also aimed at reducing health risks for workers and at curbing environmental damage.  At first, the utility shunted the tainted water into existing storage tanks near the reactors.

Meanwhile, Okamura’s 55-member team scrambled to get a treatment unit up and running within three months of the accident, a project that would normally take about two years, he said.  Using that equipment, TEPCO was able to circulate reprocessed water back into the reactor cores.  But even though the reactors now are being cooled exclusively with recycled water, the volume of contaminated water is still increasing, mostly because groundwater is seeping through cracks into the reactor and turbine basements….

Masashi Goto, a nuclear engineer and university lecturer, said the contaminated water build-up posed a major long-term threat to health and the environment.  He said he was worried that the radioactive water in the basements may already be getting into the underground water system, where it could reach far beyond the plant via underground water channels, possibly reaching the ocean or public water supplies.  “There are pools of some 10,000 or 20,000 tonnes of contaminated water in each plant, and there are many of these, and to bring all of these to one place would mean you would have to treat hundreds of thousands of tonnes of contaminated water which is mind-blowing in itself,” Goto said.  “It’s an outrageous amount, truly outrageous,” Goto added.

The plant will have to deal with contaminated water until all the melted fuel and other debris is removed from the reactor, a process that will easily take more than a decade.

Japan Struggling to Store Nuclear Water, Inter Press Service, Oct. 25, 2012

The Yemen Drone War

A U.S.-backed military onslaught may have driven Islamist militants from towns in Yemen they seized last year, but many have regrouped into “sleeper cells” threatening anew the areas they vacated, security officials and analysts say.  The resilience of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), despite increased U.S. drone strikes to eliminate militants, is worrying for top oil exporter Saudi Arabia next door and the security of major shipping lanes in the seas off Yemen.

When a nationwide uprising against autocratic rule erupted last year, tying up security forces and causing a power vacuum, militants charged into the major south Yemen towns of Zinjibar, Jaar and Shuqra and set up Islamic “emirates”.  To broad their appeal, the militants renamed themselves Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), appointed spokesmen to deal with the media and put up signposts and flags. Poverty, unemployment and alienation from a central government seen as aloof and corrupt spurred some young men to join the cause.  Residents said the militants included Saudis, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Chechens and Somalis, hinting at the international scope of the jihadi threat to Saudi and Western interests.

After President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally bowed to popular revolt and stepped down in February, the U.S.-backed Yemeni military swept in and wrested back southern towns from the militants, sometimes after heavy fighting.  But the south, where resentment of tribal domination from the north has long run high and a separatist movement revived in 2007, has since become a more dangerous place, residents say…A rash of deadly violence in the major southern province of Abyan ensued, indicating that Ansar militants were still lurking in the vicinity of the towns they had once controlled.  Nine jihadis including the head of the Jaar “emirate” Nader al-Shaddadi were killed by a U.S. drone missile fired into a farmhouse where they were hiding just outside town on October 19.  Five of the militants were teenagers from Jaar itself who had quietly moved into the farmhouse as a typical sleeper cell, a Yemeni security source told Reuters.

The next day, militants ambushed an army base in Shuqra, killing 16 soldiers, after apparently slipping out of lairs in the barren rugged mountains rearing up above the town.  “Most people are concerned about sleeper cells. We’re aware of it and people have started to be more careful,” said Hasan Ali Hasan, 35, from the Mansoura district of Aden where security forces raided some suspected “safe houses” this month.

In June, the commander of the army’s southern division, a southerner who replaced a Saleh ally from north Yemen in March, was killed by a car bomb in a suburb of Aden, the sprawling main city and port in the south. Security forces subsequently uncovered numerous caches of suicide belts in the area.  There have been dozens of other attacks and kidnappings by undercover militants targeting security and military officials.

Yemeni security sources said the two leading figures in Ansar al-Sharia, Nader al-Shaddadi and Galal Bil-Eidy, are believed to be sheltering in mountains around Shuqra where they form the link between urban cells in Aden and AQAP commanders like Nasser al-Wuhayshi tucked away in mountains to the north.  They said such regional militant chieftains had activated sleeper cells to carry out assassinations of security officials in Aden and attacks like the one in Shuqra.

Formed in 2009, AQAP has carved out a reputation as al Qaeda’s most formidable regional wing with suicide attacks on tourists, diplomats and operations against neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and U.S. targets abroad….

Excerpt, Andrew Hammond, Al Qaeda goes underground in Yemen against U.S.-driven crackdown, Reuters, Oct 23 2012

Covert Operations in Pakistan Yemen and Somalia

How Iran Copes with Sanctions?

According to the latest figures from the Natural Gas Vehicle Knowledge Base, Iran, with the world’s second-largest natural gas reserves after Russia, in 2011 became the world leader in natural gas vehicles with some 2.9 million on the road, narrowly edging Pakistan, which is trailed by Argentina, Brazil and India, respectively.  Iran’s reliance on its cleaner fossil fuel seems unlikely to diminish as international sanctions continue to bear down on its nuclear program, which in turn have curbed imports of gasoline; though Iran has large oil reserves, its ability to refine its own gasoline falls well short of its needs.  But for ordinary Iranian motorists, natural gas is less a geopolitical or environmental issue than a pocketbook concern. “This sort of fuel is cheap, and it gets me home every day — that’s what I care about,” said Sasan Ahmadi, a 42-year-old office assistant filling up his Iranian-made Kia Pride at a natural-gas station for his hour commute home.

The government began promoting natural gas about a decade ago, and not just in response to American-led sanctions. A big initial reason was the increasingly thick yellow blankets of smog that often engulf greater Tehran and its 12 million inhabitants. That was a result of rising auto sales by domestic carmakers like Iran Khodro and Saipa, which took off as oil revenue began rising sharply around 15 years ago, enriching tens of millions of Iranians…..

As a means to counter outside economic pressure, natural gas’s usefulness is clear. Because of its inadequate investment in oil refineries, Iran has long been forced to refine a portion of its own crude at refineries in Europe to satisfy rising domestic demand for gasoline. So when the European Union in July barred gasoline sales to the country, natural gas helped to blunt the blow.

Despite the sanctions against Iran, motorists like Mr. Ahmadi can make their commute for the equivalent of less than a penny a mile using the alternative fuel at subsidized prices. Gasoline is more expensive, especially because government subsidies have been reduced, but it is still incredibly cheap by Western standards: less than $1 a gallon….

Excerpt, THOMAS ERDBRINK, Oil-Rich Iran, Natural Gas Turns Wheels, New York Times, Oct. 23, 2012

United States Air Dominance

The Pentagon is inviting the aerospace industry to help brainstorm the next era in U.S. air- combat superiority after the F-35 and F-22 fighters are retired, decades from now.  Reflecting the rise of drone warfare, an 18-month evaluation will consider both piloted and unmanned aircraft working in tandem with a network of weapons, sensors, electronic warfare and command-and-control capabilities, according to a memo by Frank Kendall, the under secretary of defense for acquisition, obtained by Bloomberg News.  The intent of the “concept definition” initiative is to start preparing the Pentagon for a time when today’s F-22 jets and the new F-35s still being developed reach the end of their service lives. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will sponsor the effort, providing $20 million to $30 million in funds, according to Kendall…

The Pentagon assumes 8,000 hours of flying time for each of the planned 2,443 F-35s over 30 years. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have their own variations of the aircraft, with the last in the fleet to be produced in 2035.

The F-35 program has been subject to criticism for its ballooning cost, which at $395.7 billion is up 70 percent percent from the $233 billion projected when Lockheed Martin won the program from Boeing Co. (BA) in late 2001, after adjusting for inflation.  The plane, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, has been the Pentagon’s only high-performance aircraft in development for a decade.  The Pentagon has spent $67 billion to buy 188 of the supersonic F-22 jets from Lockheed Martin. The military plans to spend an additional $11.7 billion to upgrade the planes, which were conceived during the Cold War as a fighter for the 21st Century.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, is the Pentagon research arm dedicated to maintaining the U.S. military’s technology edge. The agency, which played a role in developing the Internet, displays on its website the slogan, “Creating & Preventing Strategic Surprise.”  Agency spokesman Eric Mazzacone said Darpa “is in the early stages of working” with the Navy and Air Force to develop an implementation plan, including the timing of the competition among contractors.  Kendall said the new competition can help sustain the U.S. defense industry’s expertise in military aviation design, which he called “an important national resource.”  “Our ability to design cutting-edge platforms of this type is already atrophying” and the “potential for viable future competition in this area will shrink or be eliminated” if the Pentagon “doesn’t take action soon,” Kendall said.

Excerpt, By Tony Capaccio, U.S. Launches Air-Combat Brainstorm: What’s After F-35?, Bloomerg Businessweek, Oct. 22, 2012

Private Military Firms and their Bonanzas

The past decade – particularly the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – provided rich pickings for firms providing private armed guards, drivers and other services that would once have been performed by uniformed soldiers.  But as the conflicts that helped create the modern industry wind down, firms are having to adapt to survive. They must also, industry insiders say, work to banish the controversial image of mercenary “dogs of war” that bedevil many firms, particularly in Iraq, Reuters reports. “This industry has always gone up and down,” Doug Brooks, president of the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA), told Reuters on the sidelines of its annual conference in Washington. “What we’re seeing now is that it is becoming much more mature – and much more responsible.”

The free-for-all atmosphere that pervaded the industry, particularly in the early years of the war in Iraq, insiders say, appears gone for good. A string of high profile incidents – often involving armed private guards firing on sometimes unarmed Iraqis – trashed the reputation of firms such as Blackwater, a Virginia-based firm since renamed several times, as well as the wider industry.  Members of the ISOA – which include some but not all of the major contracting firms as well as smaller players – subscribe to a code of conduct that they say helps identify responsible firms.

Despite these efforts, industry insiders and other observers say quality remains mixed. Some firms providing armed guards for merchant ships passing through the Somali pirate-infested Indian Ocean, for example, only hire elite personnel who have served in the Marines or special forces. Others, however, have a reputation for being less discriminating and for unreliable staff and weapons.  In the aftermath of last month’s attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, critics have seized on the hiring of a little-known British private security firm now accused of providing inadequate protection at the mission….

The most vulnerable firms, many in industry say, may be those who have relied on ongoing U.S. military work that is now drying up as the Pentagon “Operational Contingency Allowance” – the additional funding earmarked for the wars – tapers off.  At its peak, the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, a bipartisan legislative commission established to study wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, estimated there might have been as many as 260,000 contractors in the two countries.

“At the moment, everyone is looking for work that is not OCA-funded,” one industry executive told Reuters on condition of anonymity, saying he expected an era of mergers and even bankruptcies. “It’s going to be like when the tide goes out at the beach and you suddenly find out who has been naked.”  New Pentagon priorities, many believe, will provide fewer openings for traditional private military contractors. Washington’s strategic “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region will involve mainly warships or uniformed Marines, with little need for extra hired muscle.  Companies that take a broader approach and also provide logistic, intelligence and other functions, however, could have a much better decade.  “If your definition of a private security contractor is only someone with a gun at a checkpoint in Afghanistan, then yes, you may be seeing a decline,” says David Isenberg, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute in Washington.  “But if your definition is of private contractors performing tasks that would once have been done almost exclusively by government and military, it’s a very different picture.”

When it comes to conventional security, many in the industry believe the real growth will come from serving the private sector – particularly the oil, gas and mining industries.  Even with U.S. troops gone from Iraq and the number of government contractors down, some companies say they are finding strong demand from energy firms for protection, particularly around Basra in southern Iraq.  “We are as busy as ever and the need has never been greater,” said Pete Dordal, senior vice president at GardaWorld, a global risk management and security services firm. “I don’t want to say it’s a gold rush, but business is very good.”

Private security firms, insiders say, evacuated the vast majority of the thousands of foreign nationals plucked from Libya as its civil war erupted early last year. Most were contracted by other private firms, although governments also used them heavily. London-based Control Risks told Reuters last year that China hired it directly to fly hundreds of its nationals out by airliner.

Some in the industry believe the number of contractors in Afghanistan could even rise with the planned departure of all U.S. combat troops in 2014, as mining companies exploit largely untapped mineral resources.  It’s a similar picture in Africa, where even in war-torn Somalia, a handful of companies are setting up shop. They often work with local tribes and other groups to safeguard visiting journalists, business representatives and prospectors.  Focusing on finding reliable local staff, some say, may ultimately prove both cheaper and more reliable than foreign hired guns. In Libya, some energy firms long turned to local desert tribes to protect their facilities – a tactic that proved remarkably effective during last year’s civil war after foreign security staff were swiftly withdrawn.

The trick may be to avoid having grandiose ambitions.  A handful of British firms in particular have made millions from providing on-board protection teams for Indian Ocean shipping. But those who have tried to go a step further and start their own private navies – hoping to escort merchant ships for cash – have struggled to find sufficient funding.

Within Somalia some credit the hiring of private contractors with Gulf state money to bolster the Coast Guard of the independent enclave of Puntland as being behind recent drops in pirate attacks. But it proved so controversial that funding was eventually pulled, leaving behind half-trained local fighters that some worry could prove a regional security threat in their own right.

Private contractors are increasingly central to operations such as the African Union’s AMISOM peacekeeping mission in Somalia, performing roles such as bomb disposal, logistics and technical support. ISOA and some experts argued they could do much, much more.  The few dozen foreign contractors from the now-defunct British firm “Executive Outcomes,” together with the hundreds of local fighters they trained, are often credited with turning the tide in Sierra Leone’s 2001 civil war.  But after years of discussions at the United Nations, few of the world’s governments appear enthusiastic about the idea of private security firms becoming the norm.  “In some places, contractors might be more effective than some of the troops from contributing nations,” said Edmond Mulet, U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations.  “But the U.N. is simply the sum of its member states and some of them are opposed to the use of contractors in some roles,” he told the conference.

As Iraq and Afghan wars end, private security firms adapt, Reuters, Oct. 22, 2012

Cost per Kill of Drones Armed with Cheap Weapons

Guided missiles are ludicrously expensive. A Tomahawk cruise missile costs about $1.5m, and even the Hellfire, an air-to-ground rocket that weighs a mere 50kg, is $115,000 a pop. In exchange for, say, an enemy tank, that is probably a fair price to pay. To knock out a pick-up truck crewed by a few lightly armed guerrillas, however, it seems a little expensive, and using its shoulder-fired cousin the Javelin ($147,000) to kill individual soldiers in foxholes, as is often the case in Afghanistan, is positively profligate. Clearly, something has to change. And changing it is.

An early sign of this change came in March 2012, with the deployment in Afghanistan of the APKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) made by BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman. The APKWS II is a smart version of the old-fashioned 70mm (2.75-inch) rocket, which has been used by America’s armed forces since 1948. It is also cheap, as guided missiles go, costing $18,000 a shot.  The APKWS II is loaded and fired in the same way (pictured above) as its unguided predecessors, from the same 19-round pods, making its use straightforward. The difference is that it can strike with an accuracy of one metre because it has been fitted with a laser-seeking head which follows a beam pointed at the target by the missile’s operators. This controls a set of fins that can steer the missile to its destination.  Standard practice with unguided 70mm missiles is to use as many as two pods’ worth (ie, 38 rockets, at $1,000 a round) to blanket a target. That means the APKWS II comes in at less than half the cost per kill. It also means that many more targets can be attacked on a single mission.

BAE and Northrop are merely the first to market with this sort of device. ATK, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are all close behind. Meanwhile, the American navy has been working on its own cheap guided missile, the Low-Cost Imaging Terminal Seeker (LCITS), which it tested successfully last year.  The LCITS is another upgraded 70mm weapon, but instead of laser guidance it picks out its targets by their heat signature. Because the operators do not need to keep pointing a laser at the target, they can fire several missiles in quick succession—a useful feature if a ship is being attacked by a swarm of boats.

Smaller precision weapons are useful, too, in circumstances where weight is a crucial factor. Shadow, a drone used by the American, Australian and Swedish armies, is too light to be able to carry Hellfires and is thus, at the moment, restricted to reconnaissance duties. But not for much longer. Shadows are now being armed with a small, still-classified guided missile. This follows the earlier success of arming Hunter drones with Viper Strike, a laser-guided glide bomb weighing 20kg originally developed by Northrop Grumman as an anti-tank weapon and now owned by MBDA. Viper Strike, along with Raytheon’s Griffin, a similar weapon, also arms the marines’ Harvest Hawk, an aerial gunship based on the Hercules transport aircraft. Viper Strike means these aircraft are capable of hitting a large number of targets with great precision from a distance of several kilometres.

The most determined effort to develop a small, cheap guided weapon, though, is the Forward Firing Miniature Munition (F2M2, or Spike missile), from the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California. Steve Felix, the F2M2’s project manager, wanted to make such a weapon for just $5,000, using off-the-shelf components. The result, which weighs less than 3kg and is the size of a baguette, is claimed to be the world’s smallest.  Spike has been tested successfully as a shoulder-launched missile, and also fired from drones. It has an ingenious optical-guidance system—a camera that can either lock on to an operator-designated object or can pick up a laser spot and home in on it. It has a range of 1,500 metres and, though the warhead is too small to damage a tank, it can destroy cars and other light targets far more cheaply than the alternatives.

Precision weapons have already changed warfare radically, even though they have sometimes raised the price of battle. Low-cost guided missiles, often carried on small drones rather than expensive piloted aircraft, will change it further still. When such missiles cost a thousand dollars rather than a million, no target will be too cheap to engage.

Excerpts, Cheap smart weapons: Rockets galore, Economist, Sept. 29, 2012, at 85