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Oil, Gasoline Prices Hit All-Time Highs in 2011—and May Continue Rising

Average prices of oil and gasoline at the pump reached an all-time high in 2011, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Brent crude oil, the global benchmark, averaged $111 a barrel—the first time it broke $100 for a whole year.

In some ways, these records snuck up on Americans, since there was no extreme spike in oil prices as in 2008 or in the 1970s energy crises. In inflation-adjusted dollars, gasoline averaged $3.56 a gallon, beating the previous record of $3.41 in 1981. But households felt the bite, spending an average of $4,155 on gasoline in 2011.

Prices at the main U.S. benchmark site—in Cushing, Okla.— averaged $95 a barrel, lower than the global price, in part because of bottlenecks in transporting crude oil, while extraction of shale oil in the central U.S. and tar sands in Canada increased. (Production in North Dakota, primarily from shale oil, exceeded 500,000 barrels for the first time, surpassing Ecuador, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.)

The U.S. imported about half of its oil (despite some articles late last year that gave the false impression the country had become an oil exporter), so the U.S. was not immune to high international oil prices.

This year, oil prices are likely to increase further, many analysts said, possibly setting a new record. Former Shell Oil CEO John Hofmeister said gasoline may reach $5 a gallon by the end of 2012.

Cobbling Together an Energy Revolution

Key U.S. federal subsidies for clean energy lapsed at the end of 2011, but many states are pushing ahead with their own clean energy funds, which encourage investment in technology research hubs, start-ups, and green job training programs. These state funds could help get much more renewable energy installed and create many new jobs, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation.

These smaller, localized efforts will accomplish more than a big “moon-shot” program by the federal government, according to a new MIT study on energy innovation.

Energy efficiency improvements could become easier to fund in California, if a program advanced by the state’s Public Utility Commission goes through. The program, based on a proposal by the Environmental Defense Fund, would allow customers to gradually pay off the cost of efficiency renovations through their utility bills. The Commission is taking comments on the proposal and if it moves forward, would be the first state-wide program of this kind.

“Ambitious” Clean Air Rules

At the end of January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to release its first rules for greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, an EPA official said. This follows on new rules for emissions of mercury and other toxic elements, higher vehicle mileage standards and other efforts that together constitute the “most ambitious clean air rules in decades.”

Meanwhile, President Obama stopped at the EPA to offer his support of the agency, which has been under fire by Republican candidates for the presidency, some of whom vowed to drastically cut back the agency’s powers.

Also, a new EPA tool makes detailed data on greenhouse gas emissions public for the first time. This includes a searchable database and an interactive map showing regions that have the highest greenhouse gas emissions and which power plants are the largest polluters.

In addition to tackling emissions of carbon dioxide, there are also opportunities for cheaply and easily cutting warming by cutting emissions of heat-trapping methane and soot, according to a new study by an international team of scientists. “In the short term, dealing with these pollutants is more doable …,” said lead author Drew Shindell of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Solar-Powered Law Enforcement

In an effort to save gasoline and the cost of replacing batteries the Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff’s Department outfitted many of its cars with solar panels to help power all the electronics on board. Recent budget cuts stopped the program, but other law enforcement agencies—in Ohio and New Jersey—have launched similar programs.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.