Toyota unveils plug-in hybrid, to test on roads

By Chang-Ran Kim, Asia auto correspondent

TOKYO (Reuters) – Toyota Motor Corp. (7203.T: Quote, Profile, Research) unveiled a “plug-in” hybrid car based on its popular Prius model on Wednesday, saying it would test the fuel-saving vehicle on public roads — a first for the industry.

But the world’s biggest automaker said the car, called the Toyota Plug-in HV, was not fit for commercialization since it uses low-energy nickel-metal hydride batteries instead of lithium-ion batteries believed to be a better fit for rechargeable plug-in cars.

Unlike earlier gasoline-electric hybrids, which run on a parallel system twinning battery power and a combustion engine, plug-in cars are designed to enable short trips powered entirely by the electric motor, using a battery that can be charged through an electric socket at home.

Many environmental advocates see them as the best available technology to reduce gasoline consumption and global-warming greenhouse gas emissions, but engineers say battery technology is still insufficient to store enough energy for long-distance travel.

“It’s difficult to say when plug-in hybrids could be commercialized, since it would depend largely on advances in battery technology,” said Executive Vice President Masatami Takimoto, in charge of Toyota’s powertrain technology, told a news conference.

The Toyota Plug-in HV, which is due to be tested also in the United States and Europe, has a cruising range of just 13 km (8 miles) on one charge, even with its trunkful of batteries.

Detroit’s General Motors Corp. (GM.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and Ford Motor Co. (F.N: Quote, Profile, Research) are also working on plug-in hybrids, with cooperation from battery makers such as Germany’s Continental AG (CONG.DE: Quote, Profile, Research) and Korea’s LG Chem (051910.KS: Quote, Profile, Research)

GM in January showed a concept version of the plug-in Chevrolet Volt that would be powered by a lithium-ion battery. It has set 2010 as a target for production.

Ford this month partnered with No. 2 U.S. electric utility Southern California Edison for real-world testing of a fleet of up to 20 rechargeable vehicles to be based on the Escape Hybrid SUV. Ford has said plug-ins could enter showrooms in five to 10 years.

Toyota, which launched the world’s first mass-volume gasoline-electric hybrid car, the Prius, in 1997, said it would test eight prototypes of the plug-in hybrid to gather data on real-life driving over the next three years after gaining government approval on Wednesday.

Many automakers including Toyota, Nissan Motor Co. (7201.T: Quote, Profile, Research) and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. (7211.T: Quote, Profile, Research), are working with Japanese battery makers to develop next-generation lithium-ion batteries with improved capacity to store energy.

Toyota has sold over half of its hybrid sales in the U.S. market. Jim Lentz, Toyota’s U.S. sales chief, said the automaker expected to sell 250,000 Toyota and Lexus-branded hybrids this year in the U.S. market.

Led by gains for the Prius, Toyota’s U.S. hybrid sales were up 69 percent in the first half of 2007 from a year earlier.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki in Detroit)

Erosion may send Alaska oil wells into the ocean

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – Old Alaskan oil wells could be swallowed by the ocean as rising temperatures speed up erosion of the state’s Arctic coastline.

The disappearance of sea ice that shields against storm-waves, and of permafrost that holds shorelines together, is eating away at the coast of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study.

Erosion rates have risen steeply along the coastline of the reserve — where the administration of President George W. Bush wants to increase oil drilling — possibly due to warmer weather, the study showed.

“Coastal erosion has more than doubled along a segment of the Arctic Alaska coast during the past half century,” it said, adding the land loss was being magnified by the conversion of freshwater “thermokarst” lakes into saltwater bays as they become inundated with waters from the Arctic Ocean.

“There’s a warming trend in Alaska, and that’s documented,” said John Mars, primary author of the study. “We think that that is related to what we’re seeing.”

The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the reserve, has identified about 30 old oil exploration wells that need to be cleaned and plugged before the sea claims them.

“Hopefully we’ll get all of these wells before anything happens,” said Sharon Wilson, spokeswoman for the BLM’s Alaska regional office.

CLEANING UP

The BLM has already cleaned and plugged the J.W. Dalton well in 2005 after more than 300 feet of shoreline was eaten away in a single summer. That well, drilled in 1979, is now underwater.

“There was sort of a mass failure in terms of the land that just melted away,” said Wayne Svejnoha, a BLM scientist, adding the cleanup is expected to cost around $20 million per well.

Cleanup is planned next year for a 1976 well on the east side of Teshekpuk Lake, Svejnoha said, although a waste pit has been breached and may be leaking pollutants into the lake.

Environmentalists find it ironic that BLM is on the verge of authorizing new oil developments in the Teshekpuk wetlands.

“On the one hand, they’re having to scramble and clean up old wells that may soon be covered by water. And on the other hand, they may be proposing to expand that oil-field infrastructure in the same area,” said Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska.

He and others oppose BLM plans for new exploration along Teshekpuk Lake, a potentially oil-rich area but also critical to migrating geese, caribou and other Arctic wildlife.

But Svejnoha said new oil drilling would lack some erosion-related environmental risks. Operators no longer store drilling waste in pits next to wells, eliminating the specter of such pits unleashing their contents into the sea, he said.

Coastal erosion is among the climate impacts — such as reduced periods for hard-frozen tundra and solid sea-ice cover — that environmentalists say makes North Slope oil operations riskier than before.

More than oil sites are affected by erosion, with sections of the North Slope’s sole highway at risk, as well as abandoned defense communications structures built early in the Cold War — many of which have associated hazardous-waste stockpiles.

Ozone cuts plant growth, spurs global warming: study

By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The affects of greenhouse gas ozone, which has been increasing near Earth’s surface since 1850, could seriously cut into crop yields and spur global warming this century, scientists reported on Wednesday.

Ozone in the troposphere — the lowest level of the atmosphere — damages plants and affects their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, another global warming gas whose release into the atmosphere accelerates climate change, the researchers wrote in the journal Nature.

While carbon dioxide is blamed for global warming, it also has a beneficial effect on plant growth, and ozone counteracts this effect, said Stephen Sitch, a climate researcher at Britain’s Met Office, which deals with meteorology.

“As CO2 (carbon dioxide) increases in the atmosphere, that stimulates plant growth,” Sitch said by telephone. He noted that many scientific simulations that predict the impact of global warming have included this effect but “they haven’t included the other effect, the negative effect of ozone damaging productivity.”

Plants and soil currently slow down global warming by storing about a quarter of human carbon dioxide emissions, but that could change if near-surface ozone increases, the researchers said.

Projections of this rise in ozone “could lead to significant reductions in regional plant production and crop yields,” they said in a statement.

Carbon dioxide’s fertilizing effect can be powerful, Sitch and his colleagues reported, pushing global plant productivity by 88.4 billion tons a year.

This figure does not take into account the depressing effect of ozone; with that factored in, the fertilizing power of carbon dioxide is 58.4 billion tons, the scientists wrote.

Without accounting for increased ozone, earlier simulations have underestimated the amount of carbon dioxide that will remain in the atmosphere, Sitch said.

Ozone’s damaging effect on plants means they will suck up less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, leaving more of this chemical to contribute to greenhouse warming, he said.

“Carbon dioxide is the largest greenhouse warming gas but … (ozone) is reducing plant productivity by an appreciable amount,” Sitch said.

Ozone has doubled since the mid-19th century due to chemical emissions from vehicles, industrial processes and the burning of forests, the British climate researchers wrote. Carbon dioxide has also risen over that period.

Unlike carbon dioxide, which is directly caused by these human-spawned emissions, ozone is a so-called secondary air pollutant, produced by reactions with other chemicals like nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide.

Tropospheric ozone is different from stratospheric ozone, which contributes to a protective layer high above Earth’s surface that guards against harmful solar radiation.

Southeast Europe hit by heatwave

By David Chance

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Up to 500 people are estimated to have died across Hungary last week, partly due to a heatwave gripping central and southeast Europe, Hungarian medical officials said on Tuesday.

Record-breaking high temperatures also killed 12 Romanians, one man in Macedonia and another man on the island of Corfu, officials said, while firefighters, soldiers and volunteers battled wildfires across a tinderbox southeastern Europe.

In southern Italy, thousands of tourists were trapped on beaches in the Puglia region as a fast-moving bush fire forced people from campsites and hotels to run for their lives. At least two people have died, local authorities said.

Britain, however, was experiencing what many said was the worst summer in living memory. Emergency workers fought to hold back overflowing rivers as the worst floods in 60 years engulfed towns and villages, mainly in central England.

The worst toll appeared to come from Hungary which said the heatwave, touching 41.9 Celsius in one part of the country may have contributed to the early deaths last week of 500 people.

Scorching temperatures across in France in 2003 led to the early deaths of 15,000 mainly elderly people.

“In this period, in the central area of Hungary … this (heat) contributed to the premature death of 230 more people which (extrapolated) to a national level means about 500 deaths,” said the National Institute of Environmental Health.

In Puglia, emergency services used patrol boats and helicopters to whisk some 4,000 holidaymakers and residents to safety, media reported.

Many had rushed to the beach in bathing suits, leaving all belongings behind. The fire spread quickly, threatening hotels and holiday villages, port police said. The nationalities of those involved were not immediately clear.

GLOBAL WARMING?

Scientists blamed the heavy rains in Britain on the jetstream, a fast-moving air current that is more southerly than usual this year, bringing with it stormy weather.

“Extreme events such as we have seen in recent weeks herald the specter of climate change and it would be irresponsible to imagine that they won’t become more frequent,” Nick Reeves, executive director of The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, a scientific group, said.

But Alastair Borthwick, an engineering professor at Oxford University, said there was not enough data to judge whether climate change was a factor in the flooding.

Serbia battled 50 forest fires on what meteorologists predicted would be the hottest day of the year, with the temperature topping 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit).

In Romania, the new deaths pushed the toll from the heatwave up to 30, and 19,000 people have been admitted to hospitals in the region’s second devastating hot spell this year.

More than 35 people died in Romania, Turkey and Greece in June when the mercury shot up to 46 Celsius.

Forests in Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece have been ravaged by flames this week, blamed on record-high temperatures after the dry winter.

In Macedonia temperatures hit an all-time record of 45 degrees, and many parts of the country had no power.

In Bosnia, the town of Citluk, the Adriatic port of Neum and the mountain town of Visegrad declared states of emergency.

There were 18 fires burning in Serbia’s Kosovo province, and police, forestry officials and soldiers from the resident NATO-led peacekeeping force KFOR battled flames.

In Athens, Greeks and tourists walked with umbrellas and newspapers covering their heads. Many flocked to nearby beaches.

“It’s like having a sauna without having to pay, a free sauna from God,” a woman shopping in Athens told Reuters TV.

(Additional reporting by Kole Casule in Skopje, Fatos Bytyci in Pristina, Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo, Luiza Ilie in Bucharest, Renee Maltezou in Athens and Ljilja Cvekic in Belgrade)

Automakers eye House after fuel fight

By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The fight over higher automobile fuel efficiency standards shifts to the House of Representatives this week with big car companies regrouping after a stinging defeat in Senate energy legislation.

“Major changes are still needed to make this bill achievable,” Ford Motor Co. government affairs Vice President Bruce Andrews said.

The Senate measure, the first major rewrite of efficiency goals in 30 years, would require the U.S. vehicle fleet of passenger cars, sport utilities, pickups and vans average 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a 10 mpg improvement over today’s standards.

Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp. called the efficiency provision in Senate energy legislation approved last Thursday a “very aggressive target” and “extreme.”

On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by industry ally Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, will prepare its energy bill for consideration by the full House. It does not currently include a mileage proposal.

“This is a long process and we are continuing to work constructively to develop reasonable fuel economy standards that are affordable,” said Dave McCurdy, president of the industry’s chief trade group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Auto Workers, which represents hourly employees at Ford, General Motors Corp., and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group, said the Senate bill threatened jobs.

The auto industry and their congressional allies waged an unsuccessful campaign to replace the stricter Senate efficiency initiatives with more modest targets, but did persuade lawmakers to scale back some provisions.

For instance, the Senate dropped a requirement for 4 percent annual efficiency gains after 2020 and modified the expected contribution of alternative fuels to reach the 35 mpg target.

Proponents of sharply higher efficiency, including some consumer and environmental experts, believe upgrading 1970s-era gasoline mileage standards under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program is the most viable way to cut oil dependence, although they also support gasoline alternatives.

Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, calls it the “sweet spot of energy policy.”

Dingell’s House panel could not agree on a fuel standards approach, so the committee leadership stripped it from the bill last week and promised to take it up in the fall as part of climate change legislation.

On autos, his proposal would establish grants to increase the availability of alternative fuels, like E85, a gasoline-ethanol blend, biodiesel and plug-in hybrids. It would also create a loan guarantee program for production of advanced batteries, crucial for electric cars.

Although Dingell wants to defer fuel standards, at least one member of his committee, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey, disagrees. Markey plans to sponsor a fuels amendment, possibly during this week’s committee review of the bill or during consideration by the full House.

While an aide would not confirm details of Markey’s plan, he has previously advocated updated fuel economy standards that would boost efficiency to 35 mpg by 2018.

“It is our intention that a strong fuel economy provision is in this summer’s energy package. We want to see action this summer,” said Markey spokeswoman Jessica Schafer. She said the Senate action may boost support in the House.

EPA sees little economic impact from CO2 cuts

By Chris Baltimore

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Senate proposal to cap and eventually reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions would stunt economic growth by no more than 1.6 percent by 2030, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found on Tuesday.

The EPA analysis counters claims from some who oppose mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions that the U.S. economy would take a sizable hit if the United States enacted legislation backed by Democratic leaders of both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Senators Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Independent, and John McCain, Arizona Republican, asked the EPA in February to analyze their plan to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 65 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The EPA found that the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act of 2007 would shave up to 1.6 percent, or $419 billion, off a baseline forecast for U.S. gross domestic product in 2030 and up to 3.2 percent, or $1.332 trillion, by 2050.

At a hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Environment Committee on Tuesday, Lieberman noted that “nothing is free,” but called the impact “manageable and affordable.”

The full U.S. Senate could weigh climate change legislation for the first time this fall, Lieberman said.

The Senate Environment Committee must sort through at least five proposals to cut global warming.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, the panel’s chairman, said she wants members to review all the proposals when they return from their summer recess in September.

The United States is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, melting glaciers and rising sea levels.

Lieberman also said the EPA analysis found that his plan would hold U.S. carbon dioxide levels below 500 parts per million by the end of the century, a key level that international scientists say will allay the worst global warming impacts.

The EPA analysis also found that U.S. gasoline prices would rise by 26 cents a gallon in 2030 and 68 cents a gallon by 2050, and electricity and natural gas prices would rise slightly.

Cap-and-trade regimes envisioned in many legislative proposals in Congress would create a multibillion-dollar market for trading emissions credits.

If the McCain-Lieberman bill is enacted, the EPA found the market for credits and offsets would be $25 billion in 2030 and $57 billion in 2050.

To protect U.S. consumers from price fluctuations in these markets, four U.S. senators on Tuesday proposed legislation that would form a body reminiscent of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors to monitor carbon markets and intervene during severe price fluctuations.

Worldwide floods show lessons still need learning

By Peter Apps

LONDON (Reuters) – As communities around the world battle the worst floods in living memory, experts warn such events may become more frequent due to climate change and that lessons still need to be learnt to limit losses.

Floods may result in lower death tolls than earthquakes, wars or tsunamis — and therefore gain less international attention — but they can cause similar devastation.

Recent weeks have seen a string of such disasters.

Parts of China had the heaviest rainfall since records began, killing more than 400. Some 770 people have been killed by flooding in South Asia with hundreds of thousands displaced by flash floods in southern Pakistan.

“They had no time to react,” said UNICEF spokeswoman Kathryn Grusovin from the affected province of Baluchistan.

“They hadn’t seen rains like this in living memory. There had been episodes of flooding but this was right off the map. You are talking massive amounts of rain that has never been seen before.”

It is a similar story around the globe.

More than 50 people were killed in Sudan. Hundreds had to flee homes in northern England as the water rose. In Colombia, slums disappeared under rising floodwaters and some 50,000 people were displaced.

PROBABLE LINK

Experts say the worldwide floods are probably linked. One explanation could be strong waves in the jetstream, high in the atmosphere.

“There are certain configurations that can produce flooding simultaneously in different parts of the world,” said Professor Colin Thorne, head of physical geography at England’s Nottingham University.

Climate change could make the problem worse, he warned. Many scientists say the world is warming because of carbon emissions from human activity, making weather more unpredictable.

“You can’t attribute particular events to climate change,” Thorne said. “But on the other hand, the conditions that promote serious flooding will become much more frequent than they are now so the probability is we will have more extreme events.”

Huge strides have been made in coping with the consequences.

A couple of decades ago, floods in Bangladesh used to kill thousands, almost all from disease. Now, cholera outbreaks after floods have been almost eradicated, mainly through better access to sanitation and public education.

When floods hit Mozambique earlier this year, aid workers say the government was swift to broadcast radio warnings and evacuate people from vulnerable areas. Some 45 people died, compared to 700 in 2000-2001.

LESSONS

But experts say many lessons still need to be learned and warn that flood defenses have sometimes created a false sense of security, particularly in the most developed countries.

“With floods, the first thing to learn is that you cannot stop them,” said Professor Graham Chapman at Lancaster University. “You have to have a society that learns to live with them.”

Rural communities from the Zambezi in southern Africa to Bangladesh traditionally used small mounds of raised ground to escape floodwater, but rapid urbanization and reliance on dykes and embankments built by European colonizers have reduced the emphasis on traditional coping strategies.

Raised railway lines or roads can limit drainage and stop water escaping — which is why they are so often swept away, experts say. And yet post-disaster Western aid frequently concentrates on rebuilding them exactly as they were before.

Drainage is often inadequate, while building is carried out without regard to flood patterns. Sometimes there is no long-term flood planning at all.

Experts recommend building houses that are more durable and survivable as well as capable of being brought back into use within a couple of months instead of over a year.

Failings in the response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans showed that even a developed country like the United States could fall short in the face of widespread flooding if it is not fully prepared.

“Flood plains are not bad places to live 99 per cent of the time,” said Nottingham University’s Thorne. “Most of the world’s great civilizations grew up along rivers — people are always going to live there. But you have to have plans for flooding.”