The Top Energy Stories to Watch in 2008

There's a big year ahead in the drive for alternative fuels.


Say goodbye to the year that brought a 65 percent run-up in the price of a barrel of oil and a Nobel Peace Prize to punctuate the message of the heralds of climate disaster. It was a year that moved Washington to enact the first increase in automobile fuel economy standards in 32 years and prompted the company blamed for killing the electric car, General Motors, to pledge to bring a breakthrough battery-powered vehicle to market. And 2007 brought new hope for big-scale energy from the sun, wind, and ocean waves, even while Asian economic growth drove coal power to greater dominance over the globe.

This year, however, is shaping up to be an even more momentous time for the struggle over fossil fuel. Here are some top energy stories to watch in 2008.

Schwarzenegger v. Bush. Within weeks, California will sue the Bush administration over what the state sees as its legal right to set a high standard limiting carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks, a program that so many states have vowed to adopt that it would in effect become the first national standard on greenhouse gases. Two California politicians fortuitously positioned as congressional committee chairs, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Henry Waxman, will hold hearings scrutinizing how the administration came to its anti-Golden State decision, with special attention assured for meetings Vice President Dick Cheney had with auto industry executives.

Gasoline prices spring ahead. Weeks before the summer driving season begins, expect the nation's oil refineries to sputter as they have in recent years, creating a spring of more pain at the pump. This year, it looks as if the starting point is already near $3 a gallon. Some harbingers of tight supplies: The International Energy Agency just predicted that global demand would grow faster than previously expected in 2008, mainly because of developing countries, like China, where government subsidies protect people from high prices that would otherwise dampen consumption. And as reported here previously, one economist thinks that the Bush administration's plans to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in coming weeks will worsen the situation.

Nuclear (and antinuke) renaissance. Last year saw the first application for a new nuclear power plant in the United States in nearly 30 years. Expect as many as 20 more applications in 2008. The anti-nuclear-power movement, however, has been revving up, too—undaunted by the view of some environmentalists and politicians, and, of course, the industry that carbon-free nuclear power will be essential for addressing climate change. The old names from the 1979 No Nukes concert roster, including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and Graham Nash, are there, but their target is an updated one: They've been fighting the billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees that Wall Street views as essential before it backs nuclear construction. Whether or not they've been successful so far is in dispute, as can be seen here and here.

Next-generation ethanol production begins. It was certainly with the fortunes of the Corn Belt in mind that Congress included in its big energy bill a massive mandate for production of more ethanol. However, even America's abundant breadbasket can't produce enough grain to turn into the amount of alcohol fuel that the new law envisions. Hence, the importance of Range Fuels' plan to begin commercial production of ethanol from timber-industry waste late in 2008. This Silicon Valley-backed firm aims to gain the jump in bringing so-called cellulosic ethanol to market by using heat and pressure to create fuel instead of expensive bioengineering.

The drive to capture coal's carbon. Coal had a rough 2007 in the United States, with state regulators rejecting several plants and utilities abandoning others. The eyes of the utility industry are on a Wisconsin experiment, with results expected sometime in 2008, to demonstrate that coal can be made cleaner by the capture and storage of the carbon dioxide it gives off to produce energy. Whether it can be done at a sensible cost will be the key question. Palang Thai, a Thailand-based environmental nonprofit organization, has put together a list of U.S. coal plants that were rejected in the past year. But lest you think coal is on its way out, Worldwatch Institute points out that "King Coal has a New Emperor in the East."

An Olympic-size energy problem. And speaking of China, the eyes of the world will turn to Beijing for the summer Olympics this August, with the problem of fueling economic growth while addressing climate change in full view. There will be plenty for China to boast about, like the state-of-the-art solar array at Beijing National Stadium. But concerns that choking pollution will hinder athletic performance are already casting a pall over the games. Although China has done much to move to "cleaner" coal, those improvements have been overshadowed by the sheer increase in the volume it burns. Beijing's coal consumption hit an all-time high of 30 million tons last year. That's double what China had been aiming for by 2008, according to a posting on the games' official website in 2003. No athlete competing at the Olympic Green will face a more daunting hurdle than the challenge of fueling a cleaner future that makes sense for both the developed and developing worlds.