The holiday season can invite a number of agonizing decisions, many of which have an impact on our environment. Perhaps the most confusing of all of them is around what some also consider to be the most prized tradition of the holidays: the tree.
A new study challenges our understanding of natural gas as a clean fuel, and raises new questions about the U.S. energy boom.
Sure, natural gas (or methane, its main component) burns with less pollution than coal, but release it directly to the atmosphere and it is a highly potent greenhouse gas–at least 25 times worse than carbon dioxide. (See related, “Methane: Good Gas, Bad Gas.”) The study indicates that far more methane is escaping than previously thought from both oil and gas operations and from livestock facilities.
The findings have especially great significance because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been grappling with the uncertainty over how much methane is escaping from the nation’s growing shale gas production. (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Natural Gas.”)
Faced with an onslaught of criticism from the industry that it had overestimated the fugitive emissions, the EPA this year incorporated the industry’s own studies to downgrade its estimate of U.S. methane emissions by 25 to 30 percent. But the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), based on the relatively new data gathered from monitoring stations on tall towers and on aircraft, indicate that U.S. methane emissions instead are actually 50 percent higher than EPA has calculated. (See related blog post: “A Move to Capture ‘Fugitive’ Natural Gas Emissions.”)
The study only captures emissions for two years that were early in the shale boom: 2007 and 2008, so it does not provide enough data to see whether methane emissions are increasing over time as gas production ramps up. It also provides no answer on whether the latest estimated trend in overall U.S. greenhouse gas–that the emissions have been falling as natural gas has replaced coal as an electricity fuel–is incorrect. (See related, “U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Emissions Fall to an 18-Year Low” and “Natural Gas Nation: EIA Sees Future Shaped By Fracking.”)
But in an informative Dot Earth blog post by The New York Times’ Andy Revkin, who has been following the fugitive methane issue for years, the authors say that an analysis of more recent years’ data is in the works. The years 2007 and 2008 were the first time that data for such detailed analysis was available from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) cooperative air sampling network. (Both NOAA and DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, as well as the European Commission Joint Research Center and four other academic institutions, collaborated in the paper.)
“The beauty of the approach we’re using is that, because we’re taking measurements in the atmosphere, which carry with them a signature of everything that happened upwind, we get a very strong number on what that total should be,” said co-author Anna M. Michalak, of the Carnegie Institution for Science. “This paper provides the most solid and the most detailed estimate to date of total U.S. methane emissions.”
Lead author Scot M. Miller, a doctoral student in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard, called it a “top-down” approach that provides an important check on the “bottom-up” approach of EPA and other regulatory agencies around the world, which perform a kind of accounting to estimate emissions, based on assumptions on the amount of gases that escape from various operations.
He said it was especially telling was the data showing that the highest emissions, and greatest discrepancy with EPA estimates, were over Texas and Oklahoma, two of the biggest states for natural gas production. “It will be important to resolve that discrepancy in order to fully understand the impact of these industries on methane emissions,” said Miller. The researchers did geostatistical analysis, using data on population density, economic activity, as well as weather patterns, and concluded that natural gas and oil operations are a far more likely source of the excess emissions than, say, landfills, which also emit methane. Also, concentrations of propane, a tracer of fossil hydrocarbons, were much higher over those states.
Methane being released from livestock operations (both from the burping of ruminants like cows and from manure) are as much as double what is currently estimated by the EPA, and they may also be contributing to the emissions over Texas and Oklahoma, the paper said. But Marc Fischer, head of Berkeley Lab’s California Greenhouse Gas Emissions Measurement Project (CALGEM), said even if livestock emissions were ramped up several times higher than inventory estimates for the southwest, it wouldn’t be enough to cover the discrepancy the researchers saw. “That’s why it looks like oil and gas are likely responsible for a large part of the remainder,” he said.
The results concur with those in a separate paper Fischer co-authored earlier this year, in which researchers found that tall tower monitoring data showed California’s total methane emissions are 1.3 to 1.8 times higher than the current official inventory by the California Air Resources Board (CARB).
Miller and his co-authors said they didn’t have detailed enough information on the various sectors within the oil and gas industry to target the methane sources more specifically: Is the methane escaping from drilling sites? Or gas processing facilities? Or pipelines?
David Allen, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources at the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved in the new study, says that further regional measurements and analyses, and source-specific studies, are needed to identify how methane emissions might be reduced. (See related, “Natural Gas Stirs Hope and Fear in Pennsylvania,” and interactive, “Breaking Fuel From Rock.”) Allen is leading a research team, funded by the Environmental Defense Fund and nine natural gas producers, that is attempting to get a better handle on methane emissions in the industry. (See related, “For Natural Gas-Fueled Cars, A Long Road Looms Ahead,” The New Truck Stop: Filling Up With Natural Gas For the Long Haul,” “Trading Oil for Natural Gas in the Truck Lane.”)
Allen’s team published a paper in PNAS based on data from 190 production sites throughout the United States, including the first-ever direct measurements of some sources. It appeared to reach a hopeful conclusion, that methane control equipment being used at the well completion sites reduced emissions 99 percent. (See related blog, “Natural Gas Study: Allays Fears for Some, Inspires Hot Air From Others.”
But Allen noted in testimony at a Senate hearing earlier this month that the team also found emissions from certain types of pneumatic devices, which control devices such as valves on well sites, had emissions from 30 percent to several times higher than EPA estimates.
In an email, Allen said that the new study by Miller and colleagues makes “an important contribution by using a large number of measurements of ambient methane concentrations to estimate methane emissions to the atmosphere.” But he said more work is needed.
“Fossil fuel production and processing and animal husbandry are large and complex activities, with a large number of potential emission sources,” he said. “So, a logical follow-up question is which sources within these sectors are responsible for the emissions. Some emission sources may be more important than others.”
It’s a slow turn, but the Obama administration seems to be steering the wind power industry toward killing fewer birds. The latest sign: For the first time, a wind power company is paying for neglecting to do what it could to protect birds, including golden eagles. (See related blog post: “Federal Study Highlights Spike in Eagle Deaths at Wind Farms.”)
The company is Duke Energy Renewables, subsidiary of energy giant Duke Energy. The bird deaths – 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected birds, including hawks, blackbirds, larks, wrens and sparrows – occurred at two Duke Energy Renewables wind farms in Wyoming.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, which brought the prosecution under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act :
“Under a plea agreement with the government, the company was sentenced to pay fines, restitution and community service totaling $1 million and was placed on probation for five years, during which it must implement an environmental compliance plan aimed at preventing bird deaths at the company’s four commercial wind projects in the state. The company is also required to apply for an Eagle Take Permit which, if granted, will provide a framework for minimizing and mitigating the deaths of golden eagles at the wind projects.”
The government had charged that Duke “failed to make all reasonable efforts to build the projects in a way that would avoid the risk of avian deaths by collision with turbine blades, despite prior warnings about this issue from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).”
The feds did add that “to its credit, once the projects came on line and began causing avian deaths, Duke took steps to minimize the hazard.” In a statement, Duke said it installed radar to detect eagles in flight and instituted other means that allow it to shut down turbines when eagles are spotted, among various measures. (See related post: “Wind Farm Faces Fine Over Golden Eagle Death.”)
“Top of the World and Campbell Hill were some of the first wind sites we brought into service, during a period when our company’s and the wind industry’s understanding of eagle impacts at wind farms was still evolving,” said Tim Hayes, environmental development director at Duke Energy Renewables.
Duke said that after it began monitoring for eagles and curtailing power production as necessary, “more than a year passed without any known golden eagle fatalities” at the sites near Casper, Wyoming.
The American Wind Energy Association called the plea deal “a clear example of a wind company taking responsibility for unforeseen impacts to wildlife and providing conservation measures to not only offset those impacts, but also with respect to other sources of impact existing in the landscape today.” The agreement, the industry group said, “will help advance the knowledge of wind wildlife interactions to further reduce the industry’s relatively small impacts.” (See related post: “Thousands of Songbirds Killed at LNG Plant: Unusual, but Not Unprecedented.”
This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and has been republished with permission.
The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act could give Montana its first newly designated wilderness area in 30 years, as a public lands bill containing that and other protections was passed unanimously out of a Senate committee o
As we commemorate the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death, we should also remember his legacy of protecting wild lands.
At climate change talks in Warsaw this week, just as in the previous 18 annual rounds of negotiations, delegates never were able to overcome the divide between rich and poor nations.
We map the starkly different views of the climate crisis that have led to stalemate in our newly revised interactive, Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footrpints. (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Climate Change Science.”)
Our map zeroes in on just a small number of nations–14–but they happen to be responsible for 80 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. The numbers come from the World Resources Institute’s excellent climate data navigator, CAIT 2.0, one of the few data sources that enables apples-to-apples comparisons of emissions from around the world.
Each of the four viewpoints in our map is accurate, as far as it goes. But each alone is inadequate. Like the legendary blind men surveying the elephant, nations that contemplate the massive global warming problem from only one vantage point will end up groping at a portion of the truth and griping at each other, missing the whole picture. (See related, “Q&A With Philippines Climate Envoy Who’s Fasting After Super Typhoon Haiyan.”)
For the United States and most other industrialized nations, the operative view is “Current Emissions,” and the alarming reality that China’s carbon output has grown more than 40 percent, and India’s, by 25 percent, since our last version of the map, based on 2005 data. (See related “Pictures: A Rare Look Inside China’s Energy Machine.”) Any treaty that is designed like the Kyoto accord, with binding carbon emissions cuts only for the richest countries, will fail to stem the rising threat of Asia’s rapidly mounting emissions.
The U.S. and Europe often point to the climate progress they’ve made by focusing on what we call “Intensity,” on our map, their relatively low greenhouse gas emissions per unit of economic output. Indeed, carbon intensity has fallen dramatically in wealthy nations over the past few decades. But no nation is an island, and these efficiency improvements are in part because energy-intensive manufacturing has moved to the developing world, often to make goods that are being shipped, bought and consumed in the developed world. And even if all nations were reducing their intensity, it would matter little if absolute emissions are rising at their current rate.
Developing nations frequently rebuff calls that they face binding emissions cuts, pointing to their low “Per Capita” emissions, compared to the giant footprint of the United States and other wealthy countries. Several years ago, India in particular made relatively low per capita emissions the cornerstone of its climate policy, but the trends here too are alarming. India’s per capita carbon emissions are up 12 percent since our previous map, China’s are up 40 percent and now nearly on par with those of Europe. The atmosphere will be overwhelmed if per capita emissions continue to grow at this rate in nations with large and growing populations, and yet these countries still face the very real and necessary challenge of extending electricity to millions of people living in poverty and without access to the grid. (See “Related: Five Surprising Facts About Energy Poverty.”)
But most of the debate in Warsaw has centered around the title on our map called “Cumulative Emissions.” When measured since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere by the United States and Europe far surpass those of any single developing nation. If, as the scientists now say, the world has a limited “carbon budget” and more than half of it already has been spent, developing nations point out that the United States and Europe have burned up more than their fair shares of fossil fuel on their paths to economic progress.
Cumulative emissions are about more than emissions, they are now about money. Wealthy nations have long promised to establish a fund to bolster the defenses of those at the greatest risk of sea level rise and extreme weather. Developing countries now want to see that funding plus an additional mechanism for the nations with the largest cumulative emissions to compensate the poorer, vulnerable nations for “loss and damage” due to climate events. They could point to one example playing out in real time, the tragedy unfolding in the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan.
But cumulative emissions, too, are changing. Just prior to the Warsaw talks, the United Nations Environmental Program released its “emissions gap” report, showing how nations’ current commitments on climate change fall well short of what’s needed to curb the risk of catastrophic global warming. UNEP noted that until about the year 2000, it was clear that the wealthy nations’ historic emissions far outweighed those of the poor countries. Since then, emissions have grown so rapidly in the developing world since then that the balance has changed significantly. Now, developed nations and developing nations’ share roughly 50-50 responsibility for the atmosphere’s cumulative carbon load since 1850.
Recent research on cumulative emissions cited by the UN, by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, shows how tricky a single viewpoint of emissions can be. Some have suggested for example, discounting some past emissions to account for technological progress. The authors point out that the United Kingdom, for instance, had a long history of high emissions due to the use of inefficient steam engines. But nations developing today don’t need to repeat that history; they can employ much more advanced technologies and emit far less carbon for the same level of economic output.
Another way to look at cumulative emissions, the authors point out, is to grant each nation a “deduction,” so to speak, for “basic needs.” In this approach, nations would not be held responsible for the carbon emissions necessary to meet the basic needs of their people.
Discounting past emissions to account for technological progress would tend to lessen responsibility for wealthy nations, while deductions for “basic needs” would lessen the pressure on poorer and developing nations. But the recent research on cumulative emissions underscores the point of our interactive map, the importance of looking at the world’s climate crisis globally and from many different points of view, and not just from the poor frame of reference circumscribed by any one nation’s borders.