Arctic losing ice cover at faster rate

GREENBELT, Md., March 1 (UPI) — The oldest and thickest arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than younger and thinner ice at the edges of the Arctic Ocean’s floating ice cap, NASA says.

Normally the thicker ice, known as multiyear ice, survives through the summer melt season while young ice that has formed over winter quickly melts again.

The rapid disappearance of older ice is making arctic sea ice even more vulnerable to further decline in the summer, researcher Joey Comiso at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said.

The NASA study published in Journal of Climate examined how multiyear ice — ice that has survived through at least two summers — has diminished with each passing winter over the last three decades.

Multiyear ice “extent” is diminishing at a rate of 15.1 percent per decade, the researchers found.

“The average thickness of the arctic sea ice cover is declining because it is rapidly losing its thick component, the multiyear ice,” Comiso said. “At the same time, the surface temperature in the arctic is going up, which results in a shorter ice-forming season.

“It would take a persistent cold spell for most multiyear sea ice and other ice types to grow thick enough in the winter to survive the summer melt season and reverse the trend.”

New camera can re-focus blurry pictures

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., March 1 (UPI) — A digital camera that looks like no other will allow users to focus or refocus pictures on a computer after they are taken, its California manufacturer says.

Silicon Valley startup company Lytro has begun shipping a camera it says will take “living pictures” that can be manipulated after the fact in a number of ways, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

Users will be able to bring everything in the image into focus at once, regardless of depth, or change the perspective from which the picture is seen, or switch a photo back and forth between 2-D and 3-D, Lytro said.

The $399 Lytro camera is a so-called light-field camera, using different technology than traditional digital cameras that allows it to capture and process more, and different, information about the light hitting its lens than other cameras do.

The resulting digital picture file can be manipulated with software both in the camera and on a computer in different ways, Lytro said.

However, its images can’t be imported into standard photo software, only to its own accompanying software that is only available for Mac computers, although a Windows version is in the works, the company said.

China disputes Philippine’s oil blocks

MANILA, Philippines, March 1 (UPI) — The Philippines’ invitation to foreign investors to explore 15 petroleum blocks in the disputed South China Sea has sparked anger from China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday that “it is illegal for any country, government or company, without the Chinese government’s permission, to develop oil and natural gas in waters under Chinese jurisdiction,” China Daily reports.

But the Philippines maintains that all of the 15 areas are within Philippine territory.

Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Thursday dismissed China’s denouncement, saying: “Now, if they get angry, we cannot control their emotions. But then, we still stick to the fact that these [areas] are within our territory. It is ours. Like our president said, ‘What is ours is ours.’ That’s very definite,” the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.

Gazmin said that foreign oil companies that accept the Philippines’ invitation to invest in the oil blocks could be assured their operations would be secure, stressing that “investors would not come here if they weren’t assured of their safety. We are doing all that we can in order to protect what’s ours.”

So far, 38 companies have signed up as possible bidders for the oil and gas sites, including Shell Philippines Exploration B.V., Total E&P Activities Petrolieres, Esso Exploration International Ltd. and Spain’s Repsol Exploracion S.A.

An editorial published Thursday in China Daily newspaper said the Philippines has chosen “to be a troublemaker.”

By inviting major foreign oil companies to invest in exploration of 15 offshore oil and gas areas in the South China Sea, the editorial stated, “the Philippines should assume direct responsibility for the fresh flare-up of the South China Sea issue.”

“The Philippines should bear in mind that a number of the 15 areas are under Chinese maritime jurisdiction and it does not have the right to invite foreign enterprises to bid for service contracts there,” the editorial said.

China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and adjacent waters and it is unlawful for any country or company to explore oil and gas in areas under Chinese jurisdiction without the permission of the Chinese government,” it continued.

Two of the 15 areas — designated as areas 3 and 4 — are near the offshore area called Reed Bank, a point of contention last year when two Chinese ships were reported as intimidating a survey vessel.

The South China Sea has proven oil reserves of around 7.7 billion barrels, with estimates reaching to 28 billion barrels.

Stop speculating, Markey tells oil traders

WASHINGTON, March 1 (UPI) — Speculators are turning the global market into a “crude oil casino” and U.S. taxpayers are paying for it at the pump, a top congressional Democrat said.

Oil prices are near 9-month highs in part because of concerns in the Middle East. Iran has threatened to close key oil shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz and last month halted crude oil deliveries to Great Britain and France.

The move was largely symbolic as London stopped buying Iranian crude last year, though market jitters helped drive oil prices higher.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, accused Republicans of trying to block rules that would limit speculation in the commodities market.

Markey, in a statement, said there’s a “wild West” mentality on Wall Street. Traders, he said, are exploiting global events to make a profit and U.S. consumers are paying the price.

“Wall Street speculators have turned the oil market into a crude oil casino where the American driver is now on the losing side of the bet,” he said.

Markey had called on U.S. President Barack Obama to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in an effort to lower gasoline prices in the United States. The Obama administration, however, said there’s no “magic bullet” that would influence prices.

Group claims win over ‘dirty coal’

CHICAGO, March 1 (UPI) — Closing two coal-fired power plants in Chicago is a sign the “dirty coal industry” is on its last leg, an environmental advocacy group said.

Utility company Midwest Generation announced it would retire its Fisk and Crawford coal-fired plants following pressure from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The company said it would retire the Fisk station by the end of the year and close the Crawford facility by the end of 2014.

Rainforest Action Network, in a statement, hailed the announcement as a victory in its fight against coal.

“The shuttering of the Fisk and Crawford coal plants pounds two more nails into the coffin of the dirty coal industry and provides even more evidence of why coal is a bad investment,” the advocacy group said in a statement.

Emanuel, in a statement, said the company made the “appropriate decision.”

Environmental groups say pollutants from coal-fired plants are a danger to human health. The U.S. government in December called on utility companies to lower the amount of pollutants the plants release.

Republican leaders have opposed legislation that would place restrictions on the coal industry. U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio., sponsored a bill that passed through the House Natural Resources Committee that would prevent U.S. President Barack Obama from enacting “unnecessary” regulation regarding coal mining.

“We are now one step closer to stopping President Obama’s war on the coal industry and the jobs that go with it,” Johnson said in a statement. “There is no question that coal is vital to providing reliable, low-cost electricity to America.”

U.S. ready for trial in BP case

WASHINGTON, March 1 (UPI) — The U.S. government is ready to go to trial over the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told lawmakers.

An explosion sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April 2010, killing 11 rig workers and leading to one of the worst disasters in industry history.

British energy company BP announced in February that the U.S. District Court in New Orleans postponed a trial investigating its role in the accident until next week to allow for talks on a possible settlement.

Holder testified before the House Appropriations Committee that the government was ready to go to trial if the settlement talks fall through.

“We are prepared to go to trial,” he told the committee Tuesday. “We were ready to go to trial yesterday.”

The government, he added, has a “strong case” regarding potential violations of the Clean Water Act. BP denies the allegations though it’s set aside $3.5 billion to settle the alleged violations. Holder didn’t discuss the potential settlement specifically.

EIA: Canada No. 1 crude exporter to U.S.

WASHINGTON, March 1 (UPI) — Canada is the No. 1 exporter of crude oil to the United States, passing Saudi Arabia and Mexico, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reports.

December data from the EIA indicate the United States imported around 2.4 million barrels of Canadian crude oil per day, eclipsing Saudi Arabia and Mexico with a combined 2.1 million bpd.

Critics of U.S. President Barack Obama say his energy policies fall short of what’s needed to shield the country from overseas crises. Tensions with Iran are part of the reason for higher energy prices in recent weeks.

The Obama administration counters that oil production in the United States is reaching high levels, though others say that’s because of policies enacted by the previous administration.

Canadian officials said they were looking to deliver more crude oil to Asian markets because of delays in a presidential permit for the planned Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta.

The EIA said global petroleum consumption increased 36 percent to 23 million barrels per day from 1980-2010. During that period, consumption in North America increased 16 percent though Asian demand for petroleum increased 146 percent to nearly 15 million barrels per day.

Clinton warns Islamabad on Iranian gas

WASHINGTON, March 1 (UPI) — Pakistan is reminded there will be consequences if it moves forward with a natural gas pipeline from Iran, the U.S. secretary of state said.

Pakistan is coping with a natural gas shortage by pursuing two pipeline options. The United States supports an option from Turkmenistan that would travel through Afghanistan, while Iran has pressed for its version since its inception in the 1990s.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before a U.S. House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee there would be consequences if Pakistan went ahead with the Iranian option.

“We have been very clear in pointing out the consequences of building this pipeline,” she said at the hearing.

Pakistan has moved closer to the Iranian project despite U.S. objections. Pakistani authorities suggested land surveys were under way for their part of the pipeline.

The Turkmenistan pipeline has the support of the Asian Development Bank though security and pricing issues continue to overshadow developments.

U.S. State Department officials had said the Iranian natural gas pipeline was “a bad idea.”

A budget request from the State Department included funds to help Pakistan cope with its energy crisis.

Analysts: Saudi oil capacity strained

NEW YORK, March 1 (UPI) — The ability of Saudi Arabia to keep major economies supplied with oil amid Iranian concerns will be put to the test, energy analysts said.

Saudi Arabia last year increased crude oil production to offset market disruptions from the conflict in oil-rich Libya. The Financial Times said activity at some Saudi Arabian oil terminals suggests the country is ramping up production to address a market crisis sparked by tensions with Iran.

“Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are already close to their maximum production level, so it will all be up to Saudi Arabia,” Paul Tossetti, an analyst at PFC Energy, told the newspaper.

The Financial Times notes energy traders are divided over the effects of an increase in Saudi oil production. Some said more Saudi crude would lower prices while others said it would cut into spare capacity.

The International Energy Agency in January said Saudi Arabia was pumping more crude oil than it has in more than 30 years and domestic demand is expected to drag on spare capacity during the summer.

Mike Wittner, head of oil research at Societe Generale, told the Financial Times it remains to be seen how well Riyadh can handle the latest crisis.

“Maybe they can do it, maybe they can’t,” he said. “I guess we’re going to find out.”

Divisions over gas price link to Keystone

WASHINGTON, March 1 (UPI) — With TransCanada moving ahead with a U.S. leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, analysts were divided over the impact on retail gasoline prices in the United States.

TransCanada announced in February it was moving ahead with its so-called Gulf Coast Project to handle growing supplies of U.S. crude oil.

The larger Keystone XL pipeline could move as much as 830,000 barrels of oil per day from tar sands projects in Alberta to southern U.S. refineries. The Canadian government said in 2010 it would eventually result in a higher price for Canadian crude.

“The Canadian plan was to use their market power to raise prices in the United States and get more money from consumers,” Philip Verleger, founder of energy consulting firm PK Verleger LLC, told Bloomberg News. This could lead to a 20 cent increase in the price of gasoline in some U.S. markets, he said.

TransCanada, however, told the news service the Gulf Coast Project would result in cheaper gasoline. Ray Perryman, a consultant working for the Canadian pipeline company, said Keystone XL would lower the price of gasoline in the United States by around 4 cents per gallon.

Tensions with Iran are one of the factors behind higher oil prices, which are a main component in prices at the pump.