Puerto Rico Could Face 6 Months Without Power

After Puerto Rico was pummeled by Hurricane Maria last week, a Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds, the island has been left in shambles. After suffering widespread power outages thanks to Irma, 1 million Puerto Ricans were left without electricity. 60,000 still hadn’t gotten power when Maria brought a total, island-wide power outage and severe shortages in food, water, and other supplies.

As of today there’s still no power on the island except for a handful of generators powering high-priority buildings like select hospitals, and the island likely won’t return to full power for another half a year. This also means that there are next to zero working cell phone towers and no reception anywhere on the island.

Due to the blackout, many residents are relying on small gas-fed generators, and fuel is running out (though authorities in Puerto Rico insist that it’s a distribution problem, not a shortage). Puerto Ricans are waiting in six-hour lines for fuel, while many stations have run completely dry. In most of Puerto Rico there’s no water either – that means no showers, no flushable toilets, and no drinkable water that’s not out of a bottle. In some of the remoter parts of the island, rescue workers are just barely beginning to arrive.

Puerto Rico is experiencing all of the normal catastrophes brought on by a major hurricane – and then some. In Houston after Harvey and Florida after Irma, wastewater pumping systems failed, causing significant sewage spillage. The same is almost guaranteed to happen in Puerto Rico thanks to the sustained power outages, but will be greatly exacerbated by the fact that the island’s electrical system was already “degraded and unsafe”.

In fact, nearly every problem typically faced in the wake of natural disaster will be amplified and accelerated in Puerto Rico thanks to long-existing financial and environmental problems and far fewer rescue and relief workers. Florida and Texas also dealt with contamination from Superfund sites, but Puerto Rico has a whopping 23 in its relatively tiny area.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Public Services, a superfund site is “any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.” These sites are put on the National Priorities List (NPL), a list of the most dire cases of environmental contamination in the U.S. and its territories. These are places where a person can’t even walk on the ground and breathe the air without seriously endangering their health.

Even within the designation of Superfund, sites can be ranked in their level of catastrophism, and Puerto Rico is home to one of the very worst. For sixty years the U.S. military used Vieques, an outlying island, for extensive bomb testing. Two thirds of the island now have extreme levels of contamination which have been related to disproportionately high cancer rates among the 9,000 residents. Even today Vieques remains blanketed with unexploded bombs, bullets, and projectiles.

Puerto Rico also has more contaminants to worry about thanks to the coal industry, which has been stockpiling coal ash in southern Puerto Rico. According to Adriana Gonzales of the Sierra Club, an uncovered five-story pile of coal ash situated next to a low-income and minority community in the town of Guayama threatens to toxify the entire area thanks to its content of heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, and chromium that will be released when the rain liquefies the ash.

The coal industry also dumped thousands of tons of coal ash in Puerto Rican landfills for years, a common practice that has recently mushroomed into a disaster as local landfills overflowthanks to the territory’s financial crisis. While the ash is not Puerto Rico’s (it’s owned by Pennsylvania-based Applied Energy Systems) they are now faced with its toxic burden, despite the fact that the Puerto Rican government ordered the company to cover and secure the pile under the threat of Hurricane Irma, weeks before Maria hit.

Puerto Rico’s fallout of Maria will result in a long, long road to recovery. Even though the island is home to 3.5 million U.S. citizens, help is few and far between compared to response in the U.S., and the island’s pre-existing poverty and environmentally dangerous Superfund Sites will make rebuilding a tricky and toxic business, costing in the billions of dollars.

Originally written for Oilprice.com

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Is Egyptian Oil Set For A Rebound?

This week Egypt signed three major exploration deals with oil giants Royal Dutch Shell and Apex worth at least $81.4 million. The hefty international contracts will kickstart a large-scale oil and gas exploration in 16 new fields in the oil-rich Western Desert.

In a statement released by the Petroleum Ministry, it was announced that Shell will be investing $35.5 million in a single deal, while U.S.-based Apex has signed two different deals totalling $45.9 million, a hefty investment for their first ever projects in Egypt. The deals collectively encompass a massive 1.7 million acres, comprised of the areas of West Badr el Din and South East Meleiha.

While Egypt was once a major player in the global oil supply, their production has fallen sharplyover the last years as demand has increased, putting them in the unfortunate position of being a net importer after years of being an energy exporter. Now, after the last few years of political turmoil, the government is making effort to get back on its feet. These deals with Shell and Apex are just the latest in an aggressive government campaign to bring foreign investment and exploration back onto Egyptian soil.

Earlier this month Egypt’s General Authority for Petroleum (EGPC) also announced that it would hold a tender for bids for oil exploration on the opposite side of the country in the Eastern Desert, including 50-square-kilometer Wadi Dara and 20-square-kilometer block G in West Gharib. All bids must be submitted before the end of the year.

In addition to a major boost in oil, Egypt is also aggressively ramping up its gas output. According to predictions by the country’s petroleum ministry, three of the nation’s newest natural gas fields are expected to collectively raise Egyptian gas output by 50 percent by 2018 and by 100 percent in 2020. Output has already been on the rise this year, and the government has released figures that show 5.1 billion cubic feet per day of production, a 0.7 billion cubic increase from last year thanks to the opening of a new phase of BP’s North Alexandria project. These developments are coming at the same time that Egypt (along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other Gulf allies) is boycotting Qatar, the largest liquefied natural gas exporter in the world.

In 2015, Italy’s Eni discovered Egypt’s largest gas field “Zohr” in the Mediterranean, with estimated reserves of about 850 billion cubic feet. The company completed development procedures in February, and aims to begin production by the end of this year, a big step toward Egypt’s goal of natural gas self-sufficiency by the end of 2018.

International investment institutions are watching all of these developments with a hopeful eye. Egypt is expected to experience major economic improvement and a significant decrease in inflation rates in the next years thanks to increased foreign spending, mostly in oil and gas and a dramatic cut of interest rates by the Central Bank of Egypt.

According to a report on the Egyptian economy, UAE-based Renaissance Capital said that over half of the foreign $4.1 billion in direct investment in Egypt in the fourth quarter of 2016 went to the oil and gas sector. The biggest buyers were Britain (who has always been the biggest foreign contributor in Egypt), the United States and Belgium, while the United Arab Emirates is the largest investor from the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. And if you don’t take them at their word, just follow the money: Renaissance Capital also recently announced that it will be opening a Cairo office.

Not everyone, however, is so confident about Egypt’s potential turnaround. Swiss financial firm Credit Suisse Group has forecasted that the global demand for Egyptian oil will fall to 5,000 this year, a 90.1% from last year’s 51,000 barrels per day. They also predict that that number will continue to fall, reaching a low of 4,000 barrels per day in 2018.

Despite the mixed messages, the majority of industry experts seem to agree that Egypt is heading toward a major economic turnaround in the coming years. We can likely expect a new era of plentiful oil and gas coming from Egypt in the energy comeback of the year.

Originally written for Oilprice.com

Can Mexico Capitalize On This Golden Oil Opportunity?

As the political and economic climate in Venezuela continues to deteriorate and oil output sinks to new lows, a production vacuum is opening up in the Caribbean. Seeing an opportunity to take up the gauntlet, the Mexican finance and foreign ministries are working hard on a plan to become the region’s new reigning oil producer.

The plan begins in nearby Cuba. Venezuela had been providing Cuba with generously subsidized oil for over a decade, making the region entirely dependent on agreements and alliance with Caracas. Now Mexico is considering replacing these subsidies to Cuba in addition to a few other Caribbean nations, potentially ending the 18-year alliance between Cuba and Venezuela. If the plan comes to pass, it would compound Venezuela’s issues and isolation, making it possible for the U.S. to impose even heavier sanctions and scoring points for Mexico in Washington D.C.

Just this week Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro called Venezuelan bond holders to a meeting with Economy Minister Ramon Lobo to discuss the consequences of U.S. sanctions. Maduro’s administration has pointedly claimed that the people who will be hurt most by the sanctions aimed at stymieing the nation’s ballooning debt will be shareholders in the U.S. Indeed, there is outcry that the potential banning of oil imports from Venezuela–the 3rd biggest supplier of oil to the U.S. behind Canada and Saudi Arabia–will dramatically drive up gasoline prices and hurt the U.S. job market. Additionally, the sanctions will block Venezuela from refinancing its debt with U.S. investors and prevents U.S. firms from issuing dividend payments to bankrupt nation.

In order to replace the Venezuelan oil subsidies deal, known as Petrocaribe, Mexico would have to supply Cuba with 55,000 barrels per day and another 39,000 barrels per day to other Petrocaribe nations in the Caribbean and Central America. This is actually a tiny amount compared to what Venezuela was doling out before their production went into steep decline. 5 years ago Venezuela was exporting about 100,000 barrels per day to Cuba and another 120,000 barrels daily to Central America and the Caribbean.

If Mexico goes through with the plan, it will be a bold step. The amount of shipments, especially at a subsidized price, would be a big financial burden on Mexico. The move may improve relations with the U.S. and give Mexico better leverage in NAFTA negotiations, but is likely to be politically unpopular in a time when oil domestic production is less than its best and the economy is volatile.

The plan is being pushed ahead by Mexico’s ministries of finance and foreign affairs, who see the possible fall of Venezuela as an opportunity to create more allies in Central America and the Caribbean. On the other hand, the Mexican energy ministry is not nearly as gung-ho, voicing their considerable concerns about Mexico’s low levels of crude production. Although there is hope for a boost in local production after the country opened its oil fields to foreign investors this year, it’s going to be hard to make the kind of turnaround needed after a 13-year production decline.

Thanks to the proposed Venezuelan sanctions, the U.S. will also be much more thirsty for Mexican oil after losing their 3rd biggest supplier. The gas-guzzling giant will likely be looking to import in much larger quantities of heavy oil from Canada, Mexico and Colombia to meet demand, and Mexico would be foolish to say no to an influx of dollars. The question is, will Mexico be able to respond to demand from the United States and replace Petrocaribe at the same time? There’s no way to predict the future, but it’s extremely unlikely, to say the least, at the rate they’re going.

Originally written for Oilprice.com

Is Cactus Gas The Future Of Biofuel?

The prickly pear cactus (locally known as nopal) is ubiquitous in Mexico. Farmed in massive quantities across the nation, it’s a local food staple, an ancient sacred symbol, and the centerpiece of the nation’s flag. Now, it could be the key to the nation’s energy future.

In the past, the spiny outer layer of the cactus has always been a waste product, but no longer–a group of scientists in Mexican green energy start up Suema discovered a way to turn it into a completely sustainable biogas.

The pilot project dedicated to developing the cactus biogas generator began this May in the south of Mexico City in Milpa Alta, an area already famous for its cactus cultivation. The agricultural district is home to more than 7,000 acres of prickly pear fields and produces 200,000 tons of prickly pear cactus per year, about 10 tons of which–the thick and spiked outer layers–are thrown away daily. The generator is now in place at a local cactus market, where the vendors are enthusiastic about this new way to utilize the tons of cactus husks that once went directly to the trash.

This is not the first time that Mexico has garnered attention for its achievements in green energies. In 2015, it was the first emerging country to publish its emissions reduction targets for the United Nations climate accord, with the ambitious goal of slashing emissions in half by 2050. At the time, it seemed far-fetched but it would now appear that they’re making moves to make good on these promises. Last year green energy comprised 15.4% of the Mexico’s energy mix, but a mere 0.1% of this came from biogas. All of that is about to change.

Suema’s new generator produces biogas by mixing cactus scraps with a special blend of bacteria and heating it to 131 degrees Fahrenheit. This model, a prototype for what hopefully will continue to develop and be made even more efficient, produces 175 kilowatt hours—enough electricity to keep nearly 10,000 low-energy light bulbs burning. When the generator reaches full capacity later this year, it will be able to process 3-5 tons a day, producing 45,000 gallons of biogas. Completing the (re)cycle, at the end of the process, the leftovers can be used for compost.

The government of Mexico City has poured nearly $840,000 into the project, and they intend to keep expanding the project until they have the cactus biogas generators installed at every one of the city’s more than 300 markets with the goal of making them completely energy-autonomous and self-sufficient.

Mexico’s road to renewables has not been easy. Efforts to construct wind farms in Oaxaca, which power half of massive Mexico City, have created a lot of public unrest among the locals. There have been widespread protests among civilians who mistrust the government and the energy companies, accusing the multinational energy firms of breaking promises, leading Mexican into unfair contracts, lack of transparency, and failure to consult with local indigenous communities.

The potential to create energy from prickly pears holds an enormous amount of potential to transform the public image of renewables in Mexico. The technology and the materials are home-grown, so to speak, and the process does not interrupt or interfere with existing communities, where cactus farming is already the primary source of income and way of life. It the government is able to expand the program to the size they desire, it could be a huge step to getting Mexico to their ambitious goal of halving emissions by 2050.

While Mexican oil has seen a big uptick since the country opened its vast reserves to private interests for the first time in nearly 80 years, investing in Mexican petroleum is anything but a sure thing. Recently the Mexican national oil company Pemex was swept up in corruption charges relating to Brazilian construction firms.

The promise of green energy that cactus gas presents is a fresh opportunity in many ways for Mexico and its investors–it’s completely sustainable, making it impervious to the volatility that the local oil industry experiences; it’s funded locally, distancing it from a struggling federal administration bogged down with corruption charges and widespread public distrust; and finally, it’s future-forward. One look at the recent spending history of supermajors and you’ll see that even the powers that be in the oil industry are facing a future where fossils are not the primary source of fuel. Mexico may have vast, untapped reserves of oil, but there’s one thing it has even more of: cactus.

Originally written for Oilprice.com

Alaskan Oil Returns With A Vengeance

After years of steady decline in production and bottomed-out oil prices, Alaska is in a rough spot. They’re over a billion dollars in debt, in large part thanks to unfulfilled cash incentives to oil companies, and now many of their remaining oil producers are pulling out at the same time that the North Slope and Cook Inlet oil fields face thousands of layoffs.

Over the last three decades the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which peaked back in 1988, has been steadily draining. Where 2.1 million barrels oil once flowed through daily, now 500,000 barrels trickle through. Older oilfields in Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope have long since been drilled dry, with onetime powerhouses like Prudhoe Bay, the Kuparuk River and the Alpine now nearly out of commission.

But all hope is not lost. Now, after an executive order from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is updating their assessments of oil and gas on Alaska’s North Slope. The USGS is looking into areas that have been protected from drilling since the 1980s, and reevaluating whether they should be opened anew for petroleum exploration. For the first time in a long time, Alaska is now facing the very real potential of a major energy industry comeback.

It has long been believed that large swaths of protected land in Alaska’s North Slope are home to vast reserves, potentially holding hundreds of millions or even billions of barrels of oil. Since these lands are home to environmentally important and delicate ecosystems, growing more precious all the time, legislation and land management policies have kept them closed to oil interests for decades. Now, with the current bullish administration and a changing government attitude toward environmental regulations, this could all be changing shortly.

Already there is some development stirring on the long-stagnant slope. In April Armstrong Oil & Gas discovered the Pikka Field, which could produce up to 1.2 billion barrels of oil, and is just one of three major finds that have reignited oil interest in the waning North Slope. In March ConocoPhillips announced the unexpected discovery of a reserve that could produce up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day, which prompted them to purchase grand parcels of land in state and federal lease sales last December.

Indeed, ConocoPhillips Alaska has already begun drilling this month at one of their new sites on the North Slope, a big development after the project was delayed last year in response to dismal oil prices. The site, a source of viscous oil, was previously deemed not to be worth the more difficult and costly extraction required for the thicker form of oil. Now, in a turn of events few could have predicted, the $460 million project is back on track and they expect oil to be flowing at the new site before the end of the year at an anticipated rate of 8,000 barrels a day.

Inspired by the new discoveries, other oil companies are now testing their luck as well. This summer Accumulate Energy Alaska, working with Burgundy Xploration of Houston, drilled a test well 40 miles south of the North Slope to experiment with hydraulic fracking, a method that had not yet been tested in the region. Though the oil-flow tests are still in progress at that site, the company already has plans to push forward and drill two new wells next spring after the ground thaws and roads become passable once again.

While it’s too early to say if Alaska is poised for a return to its former glory, it’s certainly an exciting time on the North Slope. With once-frozen projects beginning to thaw, administrative and regulatory tides changing, and international investors pivoting north once again, Alaskan oil is ready for its resurrection.

Originally written for Oilprice.com

Review: Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

Autobiography of RedAutobiography of Red by Anne Carson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is an unbelievably beautiful read. It’s delicate, and honest, and unflinchingly unique. Anne Carson pushes straight past cliches and overly poetic trappings and forges something completely new and unabashedly tender. I plan on re-reading it many times, because there are so many layers of allusion and symbolism and just plain lovely writing in this book.

View all my reviews

Off The Beaten Path: A Road Trip Through Iceland

When I arrived, I wasn’t totally sure what I was going to do with my 2 weeks in  Iceland. I had heard that the country was among the most costly in the world, and that all of the biggest attractions were far from Reykjavik (the capital and home of the country’s only international airport), and not too easy to get to for a penniless backpacker like myself.

Amazing Landscape of Iceland- 2 Weeks in Iceland

I considered the options: a tour was out of the question, for reasons of price and my own distaste for set itineraries. Buses were similarly unaffordable and were limited in terms of destinations, and hitchhiking was just too hit-or-miss in September, as tourist season was waning. After asking around at various hostels, I finally landed on the answer. Together with a group of backpackers, we found an agency that rented well-used cars at a fraction of the price of a normal car rental. Our beat-up Subaru wasn’t much to look at, but she was the answer to all our dreams. We loaded up the hatchback and hit the road.

Enjoying the heat from the Blue Lagoon- 2 Weeks in Iceland

Before leaving Reykjavik, we hit the essential highlights.  We started with the famous “golden circle” of attractions right outside of Reykjavik: the thundering Gulfoss waterfall, Geysir, the gusher that gave all geysers their name, and the stunningly pristine Thingvellir National Park. Next we paid a visit to the world-famous Blue Lagoon. While the entry was a bit pricier than I would have liked, the experience in the ethereally aquamarine geothermal waters was a once-in-a-lifetime luxury.

The Untouched Crashed Plane- 2 Weeks in Iceland

Having seen the essentials of Iceland’s southwest corner, we hit the road. We made our first stop at hveragerði, where we hiked an hour and a half through lushly rolling hills to a river that naturally runs steaming hot. The sensation of the thermal waters was unbelievable, it was a heavenly feeling that I’ve never experienced before or since. In the same day, we made it to Seljallandfoss, a waterfall that you can walk behind for amazing views through the falling water and a black sand beach that’s home to a crashed plane that has never been cleaned up. Leaving a surprising, and unsettling monument on the sand.

Amazing views at Skaftafell National Park- 2 Weeks in Iceland

Over the next few days we crossed Southern Iceland, encountering more natural wonders, each more incredible than the last. We camped next to the breathtaking Skogafoss waterfall, hiked through the Skaftafell National Park to see the incredible waterfall with its geometric basalt columns, and passed by the noble tongues of the Vatnajökull glacier on the way to the final destination of our trip: the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.

Feeling cool at Jökulsárgljúfur National Park- 2 Weeks in Iceland

It’s nearly impossible to explain the beauty of Jökulsárlón. The stoic lake, littered with giant hunks of marbled ice from the nearby glacier, carries a singular sense of peace. The blue water, the blue sky, the floating icebergs, and the reticent glacier behind combine to create a truly breathtaking plateau. The beauty, so unearthly and exaggerated, is the perfect summary of what makes Iceland so special and so hard to capture.

Watching the tide roll in at Black Sand Beach- 2 Weeks in Iceland

Our last stop before heading back towards Reykjavik, was the black sand beach just south of Jökulsárlón. This is where the glacier fragments make their last stand, before washing out to sea. Walking on the sand amongst the sparkling sculptures, I had one of those moments that every traveler aims for. I felt at once far from home but far from homesick, with a sense of interconnectedness with nature. I forgot every external worry, every bit of daily stress, and was, for a brief and precious time, completely lost in the moment.

Orignally written for the Happy Nomad