Author: Valerie Brown

About Valerie Brown

Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, US, is a freelance science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. http://www.vjane-arts.com/vjane-arts/writing.html; Twitter: @sacagawea

US-Canada pact eases Arctic fears

Low oil prices have reduced pressure to exploit Arctic fossil fuels and boosted hopes that the region’s fragile environment and indigenous people may be better protected.

OREGON, 20 April, 2016 − A joint pledge by the US and Canada to reduce methane emissions for oil and gas activities in the Arctic and limit fossil fuel extraction is putting pressure on Russia to follow suit.

The pledge was in response to increasing concern across the world at the intention of the eight nations with territorial claims in the Arctic to exploit its resources, even though this risks making climate change far worse.

At the poles, the Earth is warming twice as fast as the global average. In the Arctic, this is disrupting the way of life of about 13 million people – including about 10 per cent who are indigenous – and adversely affecting countless other organisms.

Increased ice melt is opening new sea routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, and is tempting oil and gas companies to dream about new fossil fuel riches onshore and offshore in the warming environment.

More shipping and an extraction boom will not only release more greenhouse gases, but also add to the Arctic’s burden of black carbon, or soot, which darkens land and ice, further speeding up melting.

Thus the Arctic is in the ironic position of being the most vulnerable populated region to climate change and also an untapped trove of climate change’s primary cause.

Safe for humans

The joint statement by US President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month pledged that both countries will take major and co-ordinated action to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas activities, reduce the amount of black carbon (soot from incomplete combustion) emitted in the Arctic, and allow fossil fuel extraction there only when it is safe for humans and the environment.

Eight countries own land inside the Arctic Circle and make territorial claims for varying distances offshore. They jointly administer the region through the Arctic Council (AC), whose decisions must be unanimous to be formally adopted.

The US-Canada statement commits the two countries to policies recently recommended by the AC that failed to achieve unanimous endorsement, says Whit Sheard, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s international Arctic programme.

One of the most important pledges in the statement says: “The leaders commit to reduce methane emissions by 40-45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025 from the oil and gas sector…

“If oil and gas development and exploration proceeds, activities must align with science-based standards between the two nations that ensure appropriate preparation for operating in Arctic conditions . . . We will determine with Arctic partners how best to address the risks posed by heavy fuel oil use and black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping.”

“Russia sees huge potential in the Arctic Council
to promote and expand a constructive agenda
for our common region”

Over short timescales, methane is 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, and reducing leaking or flared methane at oil and gas operations is “incredibly cost effective”, says Drew Nelson, senior manager for natural gas at the Environmental Defence Fund and a former US State Department official. Addressing methane and black carbon is one of the fastest ways to slow the pace of warming.

Besides the US and Canada, the biggest player among the other six AC countries is Russia, which has a very long coastline inside the Arctic Circle and has recently claimed a further 463,000 square miles offshore.

The Russian oil and gas industry is also the world’s largest emitter of oil and gas-related methane. Russia controls more than half of all the identified oil and natural gas in the Arctic, so how the country behaves is vital to the future of the region.

Despite recent fears of a new Cold War between West and East, many observers consider Russia to be operating in good faith with regard to Arctic issues. “They really are trying in the Arctic to continue to be rational actors who work collaboratively,” Sheard says.

In Russia’s 2015 report to the AC on black carbon and methane, its Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment stressed that “Russia sees huge potential in the Arctic Council to promote and expand a constructive agenda for our common region”, and that “there is no room for confrontation or aggravation of nervousness in the Arctic region.”

Meredydd Evans, a scientist with the US Joint Global Change Research Institute, has collaborated with Russian researchers to measure Russia’s oil and gas sector methane emissions. She says Russia was “one of the first countries to adopt a comprehensive methane policy”, and is now doing the same with black carbon from all sources.

“When the Russian government realises there’s a problem, it does work to make changes,” Evans adds.

But what about the other side of the equation – oil and gas production? There is already considerable oil and gas extraction in the Arctic, including the US’s Alaskan North Slope oilfields and Russia’s onshore operations along the Kara and Barents Seas.

But drilling and moving oil and gas in the Arctic environment is expensive, dangerous and risky. In late 2015, Shell abandoned its Chukchi Sea offshore project because it was unable to find recoverable oil.

Volatile price

Environmentalists stress the impossibility of cleaning up an oil spill in the dark, cold, storm-wracked Arctic. The low and volatile price of oil globally also makes Arctic extraction less attractive in the short term.

So, for the time being, there is something of a hiatus on the extraction side of the Arctic climate conundrum, deflecting attention from what Elliot Diringer, a former senior policy adviser at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, calls the “tension that runs through [climate policymaking]”.

Diringer, who is currently an executive vice-president at the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, adds that, while it is “imperative to reduce GHG emissions, on the other hand we’re not going to move away from fossil fuels overnight”.

If and when energy companies and fuel-hungry nations ramp up their Arctic extraction efforts, the tension will take centre stage again.

In the meantime, the US-Canadian statement seems likely to encourage other countries to take positive steps to protect the Arctic.

The willingness of two highly-developed and significant greenhouse emitting nations to “do the right thing” in the Arctic, Sheard says, will apply moral pressure to those AC countries that have signalled willingness, but have stopped short of full commitment. – Climate News Network

Low oil prices have reduced pressure to exploit Arctic fossil fuels and boosted hopes that the region’s fragile environment and indigenous people may be better protected.

OREGON, 20 April, 2016 − A joint pledge by the US and Canada to reduce methane emissions for oil and gas activities in the Arctic and limit fossil fuel extraction is putting pressure on Russia to follow suit.

The pledge was in response to increasing concern across the world at the intention of the eight nations with territorial claims in the Arctic to exploit its resources, even though this risks making climate change far worse.

At the poles, the Earth is warming twice as fast as the global average. In the Arctic, this is disrupting the way of life of about 13 million people – including about 10 per cent who are indigenous – and adversely affecting countless other organisms.

Increased ice melt is opening new sea routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, and is tempting oil and gas companies to dream about new fossil fuel riches onshore and offshore in the warming environment.

More shipping and an extraction boom will not only release more greenhouse gases, but also add to the Arctic’s burden of black carbon, or soot, which darkens land and ice, further speeding up melting.

Thus the Arctic is in the ironic position of being the most vulnerable populated region to climate change and also an untapped trove of climate change’s primary cause.

Safe for humans

The joint statement by US President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month pledged that both countries will take major and co-ordinated action to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas activities, reduce the amount of black carbon (soot from incomplete combustion) emitted in the Arctic, and allow fossil fuel extraction there only when it is safe for humans and the environment.

Eight countries own land inside the Arctic Circle and make territorial claims for varying distances offshore. They jointly administer the region through the Arctic Council (AC), whose decisions must be unanimous to be formally adopted.

The US-Canada statement commits the two countries to policies recently recommended by the AC that failed to achieve unanimous endorsement, says Whit Sheard, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s international Arctic programme.

One of the most important pledges in the statement says: “The leaders commit to reduce methane emissions by 40-45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025 from the oil and gas sector…

“If oil and gas development and exploration proceeds, activities must align with science-based standards between the two nations that ensure appropriate preparation for operating in Arctic conditions . . . We will determine with Arctic partners how best to address the risks posed by heavy fuel oil use and black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping.”

“Russia sees huge potential in the Arctic Council
to promote and expand a constructive agenda
for our common region”

Over short timescales, methane is 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, and reducing leaking or flared methane at oil and gas operations is “incredibly cost effective”, says Drew Nelson, senior manager for natural gas at the Environmental Defence Fund and a former US State Department official. Addressing methane and black carbon is one of the fastest ways to slow the pace of warming.

Besides the US and Canada, the biggest player among the other six AC countries is Russia, which has a very long coastline inside the Arctic Circle and has recently claimed a further 463,000 square miles offshore.

The Russian oil and gas industry is also the world’s largest emitter of oil and gas-related methane. Russia controls more than half of all the identified oil and natural gas in the Arctic, so how the country behaves is vital to the future of the region.

Despite recent fears of a new Cold War between West and East, many observers consider Russia to be operating in good faith with regard to Arctic issues. “They really are trying in the Arctic to continue to be rational actors who work collaboratively,” Sheard says.

In Russia’s 2015 report to the AC on black carbon and methane, its Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment stressed that “Russia sees huge potential in the Arctic Council to promote and expand a constructive agenda for our common region”, and that “there is no room for confrontation or aggravation of nervousness in the Arctic region.”

Meredydd Evans, a scientist with the US Joint Global Change Research Institute, has collaborated with Russian researchers to measure Russia’s oil and gas sector methane emissions. She says Russia was “one of the first countries to adopt a comprehensive methane policy”, and is now doing the same with black carbon from all sources.

“When the Russian government realises there’s a problem, it does work to make changes,” Evans adds.

But what about the other side of the equation – oil and gas production? There is already considerable oil and gas extraction in the Arctic, including the US’s Alaskan North Slope oilfields and Russia’s onshore operations along the Kara and Barents Seas.

But drilling and moving oil and gas in the Arctic environment is expensive, dangerous and risky. In late 2015, Shell abandoned its Chukchi Sea offshore project because it was unable to find recoverable oil.

Volatile price

Environmentalists stress the impossibility of cleaning up an oil spill in the dark, cold, storm-wracked Arctic. The low and volatile price of oil globally also makes Arctic extraction less attractive in the short term.

So, for the time being, there is something of a hiatus on the extraction side of the Arctic climate conundrum, deflecting attention from what Elliot Diringer, a former senior policy adviser at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, calls the “tension that runs through [climate policymaking]”.

Diringer, who is currently an executive vice-president at the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, adds that, while it is “imperative to reduce GHG emissions, on the other hand we’re not going to move away from fossil fuels overnight”.

If and when energy companies and fuel-hungry nations ramp up their Arctic extraction efforts, the tension will take centre stage again.

In the meantime, the US-Canadian statement seems likely to encourage other countries to take positive steps to protect the Arctic.

The willingness of two highly-developed and significant greenhouse emitting nations to “do the right thing” in the Arctic, Sheard says, will apply moral pressure to those AC countries that have signalled willingness, but have stopped short of full commitment. – Climate News Network

Markets cannot solve the climate crisis

How did we get to where we are now? “Free range” capitalism could be the explanation for climate change, and needs taming, says one writer.

LONDON, 28 December, 2015 – It may not be polite to mention Karl Marx in America, but leading thinkers on the left think that capitalism may be the cause of climate change, and that to save the planet the system needs fundamental reform.

According to a new book the profit motive, which drives capitalism above all other considerations, forces it to extract everything from the planet that will generate a surplus, at the expense of real benefits to humans and ecosystems.

Fossil Capital: the Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, by Andreas Malm, out in hardback from Verso in January 2016, analyses capitalism’s role in global warming by delving into its past.

The book builds on the work of Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. Both ask whether catastrophic climate change can be averted without at least a major makeover – or the outright elimination – of capitalism.

Malm, a professor of human ecology at Sweden’s Lund University, starts with James Watt’s patenting of the rotating steam engine in 1784. This was also the first year that rising carbon dioxide and methane levels were observed in polar ice.

First Malm attacks the accepted theories of David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus. who developed and reinforced the capitalist notion that markets are the cure for all social ills. He shows that mills adopted coal power instead of water only because it enabled mill owners to move to populated areas to find docile and skilled workers, who were in short supply in the countryside.

More biddable

Coal enabled this move because, once out of the ground, it is highly portable. The machines, of course, eliminated many jobs and made others both simpler and more difficult. Owners started hiring women and children because they were easier to control than adult men.

The demands of the machines set the pace of work, and it was only after massive strikes and riots in the 1840s that a ten-hour workday was established; but this, Malm shows, only caused the mill owners to speed up the machinery and make workers adapt further, producing more in less time.

This in turn increased the demand for coal. The energy transition fostered a “bourgeois fantasy” that self-sustaining machines, godlike in their power but also biddable, would create a golden age.

Malm frames non-fossil energy – air, water and light – as “the flow”, a constant movement of forces not generated by humans that can sometimes be harnessed for human ends. Coal – and by extension all further fossil fuels – is “the stock”, something manufacturers can buy, accumulate, and use at need.

Humans were extremely vexing to the industrialists, because they behaved more like the flow than the stock. Coal-powered engines drastically reduced manufacturers’ dependence on human workers.

Dispensing with people

“The engine is much more tractable and civil than the hod-man,” wrote Edward Tufnell, a member of the Factories Enquiry of 1833, “easier managed, keeps good hours, drinks no whiskey, and is never tired.”

Thus, Malm asserts, capital’s switch from water to coal, and even later to oil, resulted fundamentally from an attempt to dispense with the services of human workers to the greatest possible extent. “Some humans introduced steam power against the explicit resistance of other humans,” he writes.

Workers were aware of this from the beginning. The millions who flocked to northern British cities, dispossessed by enclosures of formerly public lands, nonetheless hated the factories.

Scotsmen, Malm notes, viewed factories as prisons – and for good reason: the average temperature inside a steam-powered textile factory was 84-94°F (29-34°C).

Levels of carbon dioxide in the air could reach 2,800 parts per million – ten times the atmospheric levels at the time. The faster the mill owners pushed their machines, the more boiler explosions occurred, killing nearly one person a day in the 1850s.

But labour was eventually crushed with the aid of government soldiers. Coal was king, and the rest is history. This should be a cautionary tale for the present – if government allies with capital rather than the citizenry, Malm asserts, there will be no stopping climate change.

“People must try at least to modify free-range capitalism, echoing the cries of workers who challenged capital in the world’s first general strike in 1842: Go and stop the smoke!

The grandiose schemes for geo-engineering and other technical fixes bankrolled by the likes of Bill Gates, the major oil companies and the American Enterprise Institute,says Malm, would keep mitigation in the wrong hands – and in any case are too dangerous to try.

Insisting that the real authors of the climate crisis comprise a tiny, all-male, all-white fraction of the planet’s population, Malm objects to calling this the Anthropocene epoch; he would rather call it the “Capitalocene.” And capital, he insists, is not capable of solving the crisis it created.

What we need instead, he writes, is a return to “the flow”: distributed solar, wind and water power. Moreover, in order to avoid severe damage to civilisation, we need to abandon carbon immediately, and this can be accomplished only by intentional and decisive governmental action.

The governments that are doing best at this, Malm observes, are state and city governments, which have no obligation to generate profits and are not owned by Big Capital.

Malm recognises that “socialism is an excruciatingly difficult condition to achieve.” He’s not envisioning a new Stalinist nightmare to replace runaway capital. For one thing, Malm observes, capitalist ideology is so deeply ingrained in society that, quoting Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Still, he says, people must try at least to modify free-range capitalism, echoing the cries of workers who challenged capital in the world’s first general strike in 1842: “Go and stop the smoke!” – Climate News Network

ISBN-13: 978-1-78478-129-3 paperback

Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, US, is a freelance science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists.

http://www.vjane-arts.com/vjane-arts/writing.html;

Twitter: @sacagawea

Aviation industry faces pressure to stop GHG threat

Emissions from planes are a major clause of climate change, yet they remain unregulated. Can they be curbed in time to protect the planet? OREGON, 1 January, 2015 − If commercial aviation were a country, it would rank seventh in global greenhouse gas emissions according to a recent report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). The aviation industry is growing so quickly that its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are expected on present trends to triple globally by 2050. The industry itself is committed to reducing its emissions, but technological and political constraints are hindering rapid progress. Technologically, the fate of aviation GHGs depends on how much more fuel-efficient airplanes can become, and how soon lower-carbon fuels can be made available at a palatable cost. Politically, it depends on whether the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) can establish agreement among member states on a regulatory mechanism, which in turn may depend largely on whether – and when – the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chooses to regulate aviation emissions. A final unknown is whether the sector’s efforts can produce results in time to  avoid climate catastrophe. By 2050, the aviation industry aims to halve its CO2 emissions compared with 2005 levels, says Steve Csonka, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, a US public-private partnership.

Falling behind

The group is exploring “biomass-derived synthetic jet fuel”, which includes oils from plants and algae, crop and forest product residues, fermented sugars and municipal solid waste. While this type of fuel can, in principle, be used in jet engines today, Csonka says the most important goal in the near term is to develop alternatives to petroleum-based fuel “at a reasonable price point”. A few airlines are buying alternative fuels at a higher price to encourage the market, Csonka adds, but widespread adoption awaits competitive pricing. Aviation fuel efficiency has been increasing, but it is not keeping pace with the sector’s growth. The ICCT report finds there was no improvement between 2012 and 2013, and that the gap between the most and least efficient airlines widened − with American Airlines burning 27% more fuel than Alaska Airlines for the same level of service. This gap suggests the industry could reduce GHG emissions significantly if the least efficient airlines would emulate the most efficient, says Daniel Rutherford, the ICCT’s programme director for aviation and a co-author of its report. Most of the reductions so far have come from carrying more passengers per flight, replacing old engines and buying new, more efficient planes. Like most businesses, airlines don’t want to replace equipment until it makes economic sense. Nor does the industry want to be pinned to standards like those in the US auto industry, which would force “airplanes to improve to a certain degree every year or x number of years”, Csonka says.

Limited reductions

Such standards “completely overlook the capital ramifications” for the airlines, he adds, and companies’ profitability is a major factor in the pace at which they can replace old equipment. But the ICCT report suggests that airlines that have spent the most on new, efficient planes are also the most profitable. Airplanes are at a disadvantage compared with vehicles and power stations. At present there are no low-carbon or no-carbon technologies − such as solar, fuel cells, nuclear reactors, electricity, or hydrogen combustion − that will work for aviation. Nor are there market-ready radically different airframe or engine designs. Fuels derived from plants such as switchgrass, corn and algae can be used in existing engines, but to provide the same energy they need to be “essentially identical” to petroleum-derived kerosene, Csonka says. And if their hydrocarbon structure is the same, burning them will emit the same GHGs. The advantage of synthetics, Csonka adds, is that “we are pulling recycled carbon out of the biosphere and not out of the ground”, which reduces the net carbon footprint − provided the fuels’ production does not generate too many GHGs itself.

“…the fuel burn for new aircraft can be reduced by as much as 45% in 2030 through pretty aggressive technology and development…”

For the foreseeable future, this is the best that can be expected from alternative fuels. This means there is a limit on how much aviation’s net GHG emissions can be reduced, even with alternative fuels, as long as the commercial airline fleet changes only incrementally and no major technological breakthroughs reach the market. However, there are new engines, materials and aircraft designs now available that can make a big difference, Rutherford says: “We project that the fuel burn for new aircraft can be reduced by as much as 45% in 2030 through pretty aggressive technology and development, better engines, improved aerodynamics and lighter materials.” Campaigners would like to see regulation obliging the industry to increase efficiency by improving faster. Aviation needs a global policy and enforcement structure; all major airlines’ aircraft emit GHGs globally. This problem brought the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to its knees in 2014. The ETS, which came into effect in 2012, charges airlines for their emissions in European Economic Area airspace. When non-EU airlines protested, the European Commission temporarily exempted flights to or from non-EU airports but still charged for emissions within EU airspace. Washington, one of the most energetic lobbyists against the charges, forbade its airlines by law from paying the EU fees. The US also threatened trade sanctions, and China suspended its orders from European airplane manufacturer Airbus. There is now a moratorium on extra-EU carbon charges, pending the results of the next ICAO meeting in 2016.

No hurry

But despite the EU’s surrender to foreign pressure, many observers think the dispute has increased pressure on the ICAO to devise a meaningful emissions reduction programme. The ICAO’s actions are expected to be closely co-ordinated with those of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Within the US, GHGs are regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act, which requires action if an air pollutant is found to endanger the public. The US Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that GHGs are pollutants. Several US environmental NGOs say the EPA is dragging its feet on deciding “whether emissions cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”. It has refused repeated requests for an interview with an expert source and says it does not see the need for an interview. The agency expects to issue any regulations in 2016 − presumably in time for the ICAO meeting. But there is no doubt that the EPA will have to produce an endangerment finding and eventually issue a regulation, says Vera Pardee, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity who worked on the NGOs’ notice to the EPA.

Politics versus science?

In 2013 the ICAO committed to what the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions calls “an aspirational mid-term goal of zero carbon emissions growth for the aviation industry beginning in 2020”. In addition, Csonka says, the aviation industry has accepted the notion of “a market-based mechanism to offset if we miss that goal in an international environment. Our industry will have carbon monetised from 2020 onward to some degree.” Yet time is vital, and there is a risk that action taken by governments and industry may be politically feasible but scientifically ineffectual. There is no guarantee that the 2016 ICAO meeting will result in binding obligations. In the meantime, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently aims at a 40%-70% drop in total global GHG emissions by 2050 to avoid a greater than 2˚C rise in global temperature. In January 2013, climate scientist Thomas Stocker warned in the journal Science that delayed action results in the “fast and irreversible shrinking, and eventual disappearance, of the mitigation options with every year of increasing greenhouse gas emissions”. But the next two years are likely to see a firming up of the aviation industry’s commitment to GHG reductions and some sort of international mechanism to charge for emissions. There are signs that industry experts and green advocates are cautiously optimistic. “I see the EPA’s domestic regulation of the airlines as a real catalyst for global action,” says Pardee. “If the EPA acts, the rest of the world will have to follow”. And Csonka adds: “The future is somewhat bright.” – Climate News Network

Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, US, is a freelance science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists. http://www.vjane-arts.com/vjane-arts/writing.html; Twitter: @sacagawea

Emissions from planes are a major clause of climate change, yet they remain unregulated. Can they be curbed in time to protect the planet? OREGON, 1 January, 2015 − If commercial aviation were a country, it would rank seventh in global greenhouse gas emissions according to a recent report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). The aviation industry is growing so quickly that its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are expected on present trends to triple globally by 2050. The industry itself is committed to reducing its emissions, but technological and political constraints are hindering rapid progress. Technologically, the fate of aviation GHGs depends on how much more fuel-efficient airplanes can become, and how soon lower-carbon fuels can be made available at a palatable cost. Politically, it depends on whether the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) can establish agreement among member states on a regulatory mechanism, which in turn may depend largely on whether – and when – the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chooses to regulate aviation emissions. A final unknown is whether the sector’s efforts can produce results in time to  avoid climate catastrophe. By 2050, the aviation industry aims to halve its CO2 emissions compared with 2005 levels, says Steve Csonka, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, a US public-private partnership.

Falling behind

The group is exploring “biomass-derived synthetic jet fuel”, which includes oils from plants and algae, crop and forest product residues, fermented sugars and municipal solid waste. While this type of fuel can, in principle, be used in jet engines today, Csonka says the most important goal in the near term is to develop alternatives to petroleum-based fuel “at a reasonable price point”. A few airlines are buying alternative fuels at a higher price to encourage the market, Csonka adds, but widespread adoption awaits competitive pricing. Aviation fuel efficiency has been increasing, but it is not keeping pace with the sector’s growth. The ICCT report finds there was no improvement between 2012 and 2013, and that the gap between the most and least efficient airlines widened − with American Airlines burning 27% more fuel than Alaska Airlines for the same level of service. This gap suggests the industry could reduce GHG emissions significantly if the least efficient airlines would emulate the most efficient, says Daniel Rutherford, the ICCT’s programme director for aviation and a co-author of its report. Most of the reductions so far have come from carrying more passengers per flight, replacing old engines and buying new, more efficient planes. Like most businesses, airlines don’t want to replace equipment until it makes economic sense. Nor does the industry want to be pinned to standards like those in the US auto industry, which would force “airplanes to improve to a certain degree every year or x number of years”, Csonka says.

Limited reductions

Such standards “completely overlook the capital ramifications” for the airlines, he adds, and companies’ profitability is a major factor in the pace at which they can replace old equipment. But the ICCT report suggests that airlines that have spent the most on new, efficient planes are also the most profitable. Airplanes are at a disadvantage compared with vehicles and power stations. At present there are no low-carbon or no-carbon technologies − such as solar, fuel cells, nuclear reactors, electricity, or hydrogen combustion − that will work for aviation. Nor are there market-ready radically different airframe or engine designs. Fuels derived from plants such as switchgrass, corn and algae can be used in existing engines, but to provide the same energy they need to be “essentially identical” to petroleum-derived kerosene, Csonka says. And if their hydrocarbon structure is the same, burning them will emit the same GHGs. The advantage of synthetics, Csonka adds, is that “we are pulling recycled carbon out of the biosphere and not out of the ground”, which reduces the net carbon footprint − provided the fuels’ production does not generate too many GHGs itself.

“…the fuel burn for new aircraft can be reduced by as much as 45% in 2030 through pretty aggressive technology and development…”

For the foreseeable future, this is the best that can be expected from alternative fuels. This means there is a limit on how much aviation’s net GHG emissions can be reduced, even with alternative fuels, as long as the commercial airline fleet changes only incrementally and no major technological breakthroughs reach the market. However, there are new engines, materials and aircraft designs now available that can make a big difference, Rutherford says: “We project that the fuel burn for new aircraft can be reduced by as much as 45% in 2030 through pretty aggressive technology and development, better engines, improved aerodynamics and lighter materials.” Campaigners would like to see regulation obliging the industry to increase efficiency by improving faster. Aviation needs a global policy and enforcement structure; all major airlines’ aircraft emit GHGs globally. This problem brought the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to its knees in 2014. The ETS, which came into effect in 2012, charges airlines for their emissions in European Economic Area airspace. When non-EU airlines protested, the European Commission temporarily exempted flights to or from non-EU airports but still charged for emissions within EU airspace. Washington, one of the most energetic lobbyists against the charges, forbade its airlines by law from paying the EU fees. The US also threatened trade sanctions, and China suspended its orders from European airplane manufacturer Airbus. There is now a moratorium on extra-EU carbon charges, pending the results of the next ICAO meeting in 2016.

No hurry

But despite the EU’s surrender to foreign pressure, many observers think the dispute has increased pressure on the ICAO to devise a meaningful emissions reduction programme. The ICAO’s actions are expected to be closely co-ordinated with those of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Within the US, GHGs are regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act, which requires action if an air pollutant is found to endanger the public. The US Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that GHGs are pollutants. Several US environmental NGOs say the EPA is dragging its feet on deciding “whether emissions cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”. It has refused repeated requests for an interview with an expert source and says it does not see the need for an interview. The agency expects to issue any regulations in 2016 − presumably in time for the ICAO meeting. But there is no doubt that the EPA will have to produce an endangerment finding and eventually issue a regulation, says Vera Pardee, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity who worked on the NGOs’ notice to the EPA.

Politics versus science?

In 2013 the ICAO committed to what the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions calls “an aspirational mid-term goal of zero carbon emissions growth for the aviation industry beginning in 2020”. In addition, Csonka says, the aviation industry has accepted the notion of “a market-based mechanism to offset if we miss that goal in an international environment. Our industry will have carbon monetised from 2020 onward to some degree.” Yet time is vital, and there is a risk that action taken by governments and industry may be politically feasible but scientifically ineffectual. There is no guarantee that the 2016 ICAO meeting will result in binding obligations. In the meantime, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently aims at a 40%-70% drop in total global GHG emissions by 2050 to avoid a greater than 2˚C rise in global temperature. In January 2013, climate scientist Thomas Stocker warned in the journal Science that delayed action results in the “fast and irreversible shrinking, and eventual disappearance, of the mitigation options with every year of increasing greenhouse gas emissions”. But the next two years are likely to see a firming up of the aviation industry’s commitment to GHG reductions and some sort of international mechanism to charge for emissions. There are signs that industry experts and green advocates are cautiously optimistic. “I see the EPA’s domestic regulation of the airlines as a real catalyst for global action,” says Pardee. “If the EPA acts, the rest of the world will have to follow”. And Csonka adds: “The future is somewhat bright.” – Climate News Network

Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, US, is a freelance science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists. http://www.vjane-arts.com/vjane-arts/writing.html; Twitter: @sacagawea

Oil boom prompts US to push for crude exports

America’s expanding oil production threatens the pristine Pacific Northwest region of the country with a rash of new oil terminals along the coast. OREGON, 21 October, 2014 − Oil and coal producers in the US are planning to use mile-long tanker trains to transport vast quantities of fossil fuels to the coast through areas that environmental groups believe should be protected. The change in world fossil fuel production, consumption and costs caused by tar sands exploitation in Canada and the fracking boom in the US is causing what Bill McKibben − author, environmental activist and co-founder of the international climate campaign group 350.org − calls a “chokepoint” in the unspoiled Northwest of the country. Coal is already being exported in ever-larger amounts from the US because it cannot compete with cheaper gas from fracking. Now campaigners fear that the oil industry also wants to export cheap oil to Asia − although so far the companies deny it, saying it will be sent by sea to other parts of the US. The largest of the 11 proposals to build new or expand existing crude-by-rail terminals is that of Tesoro-Savage at the Port of Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland. The company wants the capacity to transfer crude oil from the North American interior to seagoing tankers and barges. Four “unit trains”, each a mile long and comprising up to 100 tanker cars, would arrive at the terminal daily, delivering 360,000 barrels of oil. This would be the largest such terminal in the region.

Ecosystem lifeblood

The Columbia River is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem, and was once home to what were claimed to be the world’s largest salmon runs. It is already stressed by 14 hydroelectric dams and barge traffic hauling grain and other products from the interior, as well as radiation leaking from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington. The oil and coal trains must pass through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, a protected section of the river and its environs where hundreds of waterfalls create micro-habitats for species of plants found nowhere else on Earth. Rail tracks run along very narrow routes on both sides of the river, sometimes on causeways on the river’s edge. They have already seen traffic increases. According to a report in the Oregonian newspaper, there was a 250% increase in the number of tankers passing through Oregon between 2006 and 2013.

Locations of the Pacific Northwest refineries and terminals under discussion
Locations of the Pacific Northwest refineries and terminals under discussion

Since the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, the US government has banned the export of crude oil. This means that, for the time being, crude oil from North Dakota will go to refineries in Washington state and California, replacing the declining supply from Alaska. In addition, the Vancouver terminal “would have the capacity to displace 30% of the crude oil currently imported to West Coast refineries from foreign countries”, according to an email written by Elizabeth Watters, a spokesperson for Tesoro. She added that this would “increase US energy security in an uncertain world”. Watters also said Tesoro-Savage has no plans to export oil. Claims that oil interests aren’t planning to export is “all bovine scatology, smoke and mirrors”, says Eric de Place, policy director for the Washington-based Sightline Institute, a not-for-profit sustainability thinktank.

 “it’s pretty clear that they have their sights set on a robust export market”

“I think it’s likely that in the near term they might transport some of the fuel to west coast refineries in Washington or California, but it’s pretty clear that they have their sights set on a robust export market.” In addition, De Place says, the terminals “could be receiving Canadian tar sands oil on day one” and exporting it immediately, because tar sands oil from Canada isn’t under US export jurisdiction. Coal can already be exported. In fact, US coal exports have nearly doubled since 2007, and three coal terminals are currently under consideration in Oregon and Washington. If all were built, about 100 million tonnes of coal would depart from the Pacific Northwest annually. There is remarkable resistance among disparate political and economic interests to expansion of the fossil fuel industry in the region. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union objects to the Tesoro-Savage terminal on worker safety grounds because Bakken crude is far more flammable than other oil types, and there is opposition from a local real estate developer because he fears that the terminal would make his riverfront office/restaurant project untenable.

Potential spills

The city of Vancouver has passed a resolution against the terminal because of concerns about potential spills or explosions and traffic congestion. The state of Oregon rejected Australian corporation Ambre Energy’s coal terminal proposal at the Port of Morrow, and the Port of Portland has declined to consider adding oil-by-rail and coal terminals for the time being. Governors of both Columbia River states have expressed concerns about climate impacts from the expansion of fossil fuel transportation in the region.

The Pacific Northwest region. Image: Google Maps
The Pacific Northwest region. Image: Google Maps

In a recent election debate, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber said: “It makes no sense to me to subsidise the burning of fossil fuels in Asia while we adopt state and federal policies that do just the opposite.” Washington governor Jay Inslee is the sole person who will decide the Tesoro-Savage project’s fate. According to Inslee’s spokesperson, Jaime Smith, the governor believes that if “we are trying to wean ourselves off carbon-based fuels and use more clean energy technologies − if that is our intended goal as a state, as a nation − shouldn’t we be taking a look at that?” But none of the political entities involved in deciding whether Tesoro-Savage can move ahead is obligated to consider climate impacts, leaving objections to the fossil fuels mostly to environmental campaigners. However, the states do have to consider issues of rail safety and the impact of possible spills. If oil traveling to the Vancouver terminal is not exported, it wouldn’t necessarily add to the CO2 emissions already occurring in the US because it would just “top up” the domestic supply − provided that US consumption doesn’t rise. But fossil fuels exported from the Pacific Northwest to Asia would certainly add to those emissions as Asia’s economies grow. Moreover, it would hoist the west coast by its own petard by increasing the hydrocarbon air pollution that already travels eastward across the Pacific from oil and coal burned in Asia. Watters, asked whether Tesoro is concerned about climate change, wrote: “Tesoro recognises that climate change is an important global issue, and we are committed to reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions from our refineries to below 1990 levels.” She did not comment on the global warming potential of the fossil fuels Tesoro-Savage would be transporting.

Fuel prices

What lifting the crude oil export ban would do to international and domestic crude oil and fuel prices is unclear. Brookings Institution analysts calculate that doing so would lower the price of gasoline by about $0.09 per gallon if the ban were lifted in 2015, and that US exports would not affect the behaviour of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). But De Place says: “The prevailing view among industry analysts is that that would raise the price of oil domestically.” He also warns that “the history of energy analysts predicting what the price of oil will do is the history of people going to the casino”. The planning and permitting process for all the proposed Columbia River facilities will take several years. Tesoro-Savage must submit a detailed environmental impact statement (EIS) to the Washington Department of Ecology, and a release of the draft EIS is expected in the spring of 2015, at which time public comment will be solicited. The Washington energy facility siting agency will then make a recommendation to Governor Inslee, after which he will make his decision. Other Pacific Northwest proposals are also in various stages of the process. Until the oil and coal proposals are approved or rejected, it is still an open question whether the Pacific Northwest chokepoint will close to fossil fuels or be opened wider. – Climate News Network

Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, US, is a freelance science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists. Website: http://www.vjane-arts.com/vjane-arts/writing.html  Twitter link: @sacagawea

America’s expanding oil production threatens the pristine Pacific Northwest region of the country with a rash of new oil terminals along the coast. OREGON, 21 October, 2014 − Oil and coal producers in the US are planning to use mile-long tanker trains to transport vast quantities of fossil fuels to the coast through areas that environmental groups believe should be protected. The change in world fossil fuel production, consumption and costs caused by tar sands exploitation in Canada and the fracking boom in the US is causing what Bill McKibben − author, environmental activist and co-founder of the international climate campaign group 350.org − calls a “chokepoint” in the unspoiled Northwest of the country. Coal is already being exported in ever-larger amounts from the US because it cannot compete with cheaper gas from fracking. Now campaigners fear that the oil industry also wants to export cheap oil to Asia − although so far the companies deny it, saying it will be sent by sea to other parts of the US. The largest of the 11 proposals to build new or expand existing crude-by-rail terminals is that of Tesoro-Savage at the Port of Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland. The company wants the capacity to transfer crude oil from the North American interior to seagoing tankers and barges. Four “unit trains”, each a mile long and comprising up to 100 tanker cars, would arrive at the terminal daily, delivering 360,000 barrels of oil. This would be the largest such terminal in the region.

Ecosystem lifeblood

The Columbia River is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem, and was once home to what were claimed to be the world’s largest salmon runs. It is already stressed by 14 hydroelectric dams and barge traffic hauling grain and other products from the interior, as well as radiation leaking from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington. The oil and coal trains must pass through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, a protected section of the river and its environs where hundreds of waterfalls create micro-habitats for species of plants found nowhere else on Earth. Rail tracks run along very narrow routes on both sides of the river, sometimes on causeways on the river’s edge. They have already seen traffic increases. According to a report in the Oregonian newspaper, there was a 250% increase in the number of tankers passing through Oregon between 2006 and 2013.

Locations of the Pacific Northwest refineries and terminals under discussion
Locations of the Pacific Northwest refineries and terminals under discussion

Since the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, the US government has banned the export of crude oil. This means that, for the time being, crude oil from North Dakota will go to refineries in Washington state and California, replacing the declining supply from Alaska. In addition, the Vancouver terminal “would have the capacity to displace 30% of the crude oil currently imported to West Coast refineries from foreign countries”, according to an email written by Elizabeth Watters, a spokesperson for Tesoro. She added that this would “increase US energy security in an uncertain world”. Watters also said Tesoro-Savage has no plans to export oil. Claims that oil interests aren’t planning to export is “all bovine scatology, smoke and mirrors”, says Eric de Place, policy director for the Washington-based Sightline Institute, a not-for-profit sustainability thinktank.

 “it’s pretty clear that they have their sights set on a robust export market”

“I think it’s likely that in the near term they might transport some of the fuel to west coast refineries in Washington or California, but it’s pretty clear that they have their sights set on a robust export market.” In addition, De Place says, the terminals “could be receiving Canadian tar sands oil on day one” and exporting it immediately, because tar sands oil from Canada isn’t under US export jurisdiction. Coal can already be exported. In fact, US coal exports have nearly doubled since 2007, and three coal terminals are currently under consideration in Oregon and Washington. If all were built, about 100 million tonnes of coal would depart from the Pacific Northwest annually. There is remarkable resistance among disparate political and economic interests to expansion of the fossil fuel industry in the region. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union objects to the Tesoro-Savage terminal on worker safety grounds because Bakken crude is far more flammable than other oil types, and there is opposition from a local real estate developer because he fears that the terminal would make his riverfront office/restaurant project untenable.

Potential spills

The city of Vancouver has passed a resolution against the terminal because of concerns about potential spills or explosions and traffic congestion. The state of Oregon rejected Australian corporation Ambre Energy’s coal terminal proposal at the Port of Morrow, and the Port of Portland has declined to consider adding oil-by-rail and coal terminals for the time being. Governors of both Columbia River states have expressed concerns about climate impacts from the expansion of fossil fuel transportation in the region.

The Pacific Northwest region. Image: Google Maps
The Pacific Northwest region. Image: Google Maps

In a recent election debate, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber said: “It makes no sense to me to subsidise the burning of fossil fuels in Asia while we adopt state and federal policies that do just the opposite.” Washington governor Jay Inslee is the sole person who will decide the Tesoro-Savage project’s fate. According to Inslee’s spokesperson, Jaime Smith, the governor believes that if “we are trying to wean ourselves off carbon-based fuels and use more clean energy technologies − if that is our intended goal as a state, as a nation − shouldn’t we be taking a look at that?” But none of the political entities involved in deciding whether Tesoro-Savage can move ahead is obligated to consider climate impacts, leaving objections to the fossil fuels mostly to environmental campaigners. However, the states do have to consider issues of rail safety and the impact of possible spills. If oil traveling to the Vancouver terminal is not exported, it wouldn’t necessarily add to the CO2 emissions already occurring in the US because it would just “top up” the domestic supply − provided that US consumption doesn’t rise. But fossil fuels exported from the Pacific Northwest to Asia would certainly add to those emissions as Asia’s economies grow. Moreover, it would hoist the west coast by its own petard by increasing the hydrocarbon air pollution that already travels eastward across the Pacific from oil and coal burned in Asia. Watters, asked whether Tesoro is concerned about climate change, wrote: “Tesoro recognises that climate change is an important global issue, and we are committed to reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions from our refineries to below 1990 levels.” She did not comment on the global warming potential of the fossil fuels Tesoro-Savage would be transporting.

Fuel prices

What lifting the crude oil export ban would do to international and domestic crude oil and fuel prices is unclear. Brookings Institution analysts calculate that doing so would lower the price of gasoline by about $0.09 per gallon if the ban were lifted in 2015, and that US exports would not affect the behaviour of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). But De Place says: “The prevailing view among industry analysts is that that would raise the price of oil domestically.” He also warns that “the history of energy analysts predicting what the price of oil will do is the history of people going to the casino”. The planning and permitting process for all the proposed Columbia River facilities will take several years. Tesoro-Savage must submit a detailed environmental impact statement (EIS) to the Washington Department of Ecology, and a release of the draft EIS is expected in the spring of 2015, at which time public comment will be solicited. The Washington energy facility siting agency will then make a recommendation to Governor Inslee, after which he will make his decision. Other Pacific Northwest proposals are also in various stages of the process. Until the oil and coal proposals are approved or rejected, it is still an open question whether the Pacific Northwest chokepoint will close to fossil fuels or be opened wider. – Climate News Network

Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, US, is a freelance science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists. Website: http://www.vjane-arts.com/vjane-arts/writing.html  Twitter link: @sacagawea

Fracking boom threatens US water supplies

Campaigners in the US warn that fracking for oil or gas, which has transformed the country’s energy market, is seriously depleting or contaminating supplies of the most vital asset − water OREGON, 18 June − Since the onset of the fracking boom almost a decade ago, every state in the US has been examining its geological resources in the hope of finding oil or gas it can access through this extraction method. Almost half the states are now producing at least some shale gas, with a few – Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, North Dakota – sitting on massive deposits. Nearly half a million wells in the US were producing shale gas in 2012. But while many countries now seek to bolster their economies by following the American lead in exploiting this controversial new source of fossil fuels, campaigners in the US are warning of serious collateral damage to the environment: the depletion and contamination of vital water supplies. The process of fracking, short for “hydraulic fracturing”, involves injecting water, sand and chemicals down vertical wells and along horizontal shafts − which can be several miles long − to open up small pores in the rock. This releases the methane for capture. Fracking a well just once uses upwards of five million gallons of water, and each well can be fracked 18 times or more. Texas alone used an estimated 25 billion gallons of water for fracking in 2012, according to a recent report by Ceres, a not-for-profit group advising investors on climate change.

Demand accelerating

Where surface water is lacking, as in Texas, underground aquifers are being emptied at record rates. And while fracking’s water use still trails behind personal and agricultural uses, demand is accelerating even while much of the US is suffering extreme drought, which is probably caused or worsened by climate change exacerbated, ironically, by burning fossil fuels. There is no overarching policy regulating how the industry uses water. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, a provision known as the “Halliburton loophole” exempts oil and gas operations from almost all federal air and water regulations, leaving protection of these basic life necessities to the states. Texas does not require operators to report groundwater use, but new regulations in California require operators to state where they will get their water and how they will dispose of their wastewater. Even in the face of a drought emergency, the state’s well operators still plan to take most of their water from surface sources, says Kyle Ferrar, California state co-ordinator of the Fractracker Alliance, a not-for-profit data analysis group. Disposing of the water when fracking is complete is also challenging. The wastewater is a mixture of the injected freshwater, fracking chemicals, and deep formation water, which is usually briny and often mildly radioactive. It can’t be recycled for typical water uses, as few public drinking water or sewage treatment plants are equipped to remove fracking contaminants. In fact, some of these contaminants react with chlorine compounds to form trihalomethanes, which can cause liver and kidney damage. The most reasonable wastewater solution appears to be re-using it in subsequent fracking operations − a practice that is growing in popularity among American well operators because it can reduce the amount of new water required. Waste can also be injected into spent oil and gas wells, much as CO2 is sequestered. The US Environmental Protection Agency operates an underground injection control programme, which it administers directly in some states and allows state government to run in others. But many operators still pump the waste into large surface ponds lined with plastic, allowing the water to evaporate and carry some contaminants into the atmosphere. Storm runoff can also transmit wastewater from ponds and landfills to surface and groundwater systems. Pennsylvania is struggling to balance its resources in the face of the fracking boom. In 2011, the Department of Environmental Protection asked the state’s gas well operators to stop discharging waste into surface waters. Because Pennsylvania’s geology is not conducive to stable injection wells, operators now ship much of their wastewater next door to Ohio, which encourages the practice as an income source.

Shady practices

In 2011, at least half the wastewater stored in Ohio came from out of state, according to the Environment Ohio Research & Policy Center. Many Ohio environmentalists object to taking other states’ waste − partly because the fracking boom has resulted in some shady practices. “Dumping seems to be a really ongoing problem,” explains Julie Weatherington-Rice, senior scientist at Bennett & Williams Environmental Consultants in Ohio. “We’re seeing dumping down old mineshafts and dumping on roads where the spigot at the end of the tank is [allowed] to dribble all the way to the [disposal] well.” In March, a Youngstown company admitted it had dumped thousands of gallons of waste into a stormwater sewer feeding into a river system. Testing revealed that the waste contained benzene, which is a known carcinogen, and toluene, a nervous system toxicant. If concrete wellbores or seals at the wellhead are misaligned or corroded, methane and chemicals can migrate into potable water aquifers − something that the small town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, learned the hard way in 2009. Most Dimock residents have individual water wells. Shortly after Cabot Oil and Gas began fracking in the area, a resident’s backyard water well exploded. After it was determined that Cabot’s operations were the source of the methane contamination, a consent agreement with the state required Cabot to supply Dimock’s drinking water. But the state allowed Cabot to stop supplying water in 2011, without testing residents’ well water, according to a report by StateImpact, a project of National Public Radio stations.

Potable water

Because many residents still don’t have potable water as a result of the contamination, volunteers from around the state are holding local events to raise money to supply water to Dimock, says Karen Feridun, an activist with Berks Gas Truth, an anti-fracking group. The situation remains unresolved for the long term. Although Pennsylvania and Texas have been hit especially hard by the effects of shale gas extraction, no part of the US is exempt. Even the Pacific Northwest,long insulated from fossil fuel extraction and burning by virtue of its massive hydropower projects and deep layers of flood basalt covering any oil or gas-bearing formations, is now vulnerable. The region faces the prospect of liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipelines and a massive increase in trains carrying oil and coal through the scenic Columbia River Gorge to west coast ports for shipment to China. LNG terminals are also being planned for gas shipment from the US east coast to Europe. At some point, campaigners warn, all Americans may have to choose between energy and clean water. “Make sure [fracking’s] not taking your drinking water or your irrigation or the water that your herds need to survive,” says Weatherington-Rice. “When this happens, you’ve lost that water forever.” – Climate News Network

Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, USA, is a science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists. In 2009, she received the Society of Environmental Journalists award for Outstanding Explanatory Reporting in Print for her article Environment Becomes Heredity for the Miler-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy’s Pacific Standard journal. 

Campaigners in the US warn that fracking for oil or gas, which has transformed the country’s energy market, is seriously depleting or contaminating supplies of the most vital asset − water OREGON, 18 June − Since the onset of the fracking boom almost a decade ago, every state in the US has been examining its geological resources in the hope of finding oil or gas it can access through this extraction method. Almost half the states are now producing at least some shale gas, with a few – Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, North Dakota – sitting on massive deposits. Nearly half a million wells in the US were producing shale gas in 2012. But while many countries now seek to bolster their economies by following the American lead in exploiting this controversial new source of fossil fuels, campaigners in the US are warning of serious collateral damage to the environment: the depletion and contamination of vital water supplies. The process of fracking, short for “hydraulic fracturing”, involves injecting water, sand and chemicals down vertical wells and along horizontal shafts − which can be several miles long − to open up small pores in the rock. This releases the methane for capture. Fracking a well just once uses upwards of five million gallons of water, and each well can be fracked 18 times or more. Texas alone used an estimated 25 billion gallons of water for fracking in 2012, according to a recent report by Ceres, a not-for-profit group advising investors on climate change.

Demand accelerating

Where surface water is lacking, as in Texas, underground aquifers are being emptied at record rates. And while fracking’s water use still trails behind personal and agricultural uses, demand is accelerating even while much of the US is suffering extreme drought, which is probably caused or worsened by climate change exacerbated, ironically, by burning fossil fuels. There is no overarching policy regulating how the industry uses water. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, a provision known as the “Halliburton loophole” exempts oil and gas operations from almost all federal air and water regulations, leaving protection of these basic life necessities to the states. Texas does not require operators to report groundwater use, but new regulations in California require operators to state where they will get their water and how they will dispose of their wastewater. Even in the face of a drought emergency, the state’s well operators still plan to take most of their water from surface sources, says Kyle Ferrar, California state co-ordinator of the Fractracker Alliance, a not-for-profit data analysis group. Disposing of the water when fracking is complete is also challenging. The wastewater is a mixture of the injected freshwater, fracking chemicals, and deep formation water, which is usually briny and often mildly radioactive. It can’t be recycled for typical water uses, as few public drinking water or sewage treatment plants are equipped to remove fracking contaminants. In fact, some of these contaminants react with chlorine compounds to form trihalomethanes, which can cause liver and kidney damage. The most reasonable wastewater solution appears to be re-using it in subsequent fracking operations − a practice that is growing in popularity among American well operators because it can reduce the amount of new water required. Waste can also be injected into spent oil and gas wells, much as CO2 is sequestered. The US Environmental Protection Agency operates an underground injection control programme, which it administers directly in some states and allows state government to run in others. But many operators still pump the waste into large surface ponds lined with plastic, allowing the water to evaporate and carry some contaminants into the atmosphere. Storm runoff can also transmit wastewater from ponds and landfills to surface and groundwater systems. Pennsylvania is struggling to balance its resources in the face of the fracking boom. In 2011, the Department of Environmental Protection asked the state’s gas well operators to stop discharging waste into surface waters. Because Pennsylvania’s geology is not conducive to stable injection wells, operators now ship much of their wastewater next door to Ohio, which encourages the practice as an income source.

Shady practices

In 2011, at least half the wastewater stored in Ohio came from out of state, according to the Environment Ohio Research & Policy Center. Many Ohio environmentalists object to taking other states’ waste − partly because the fracking boom has resulted in some shady practices. “Dumping seems to be a really ongoing problem,” explains Julie Weatherington-Rice, senior scientist at Bennett & Williams Environmental Consultants in Ohio. “We’re seeing dumping down old mineshafts and dumping on roads where the spigot at the end of the tank is [allowed] to dribble all the way to the [disposal] well.” In March, a Youngstown company admitted it had dumped thousands of gallons of waste into a stormwater sewer feeding into a river system. Testing revealed that the waste contained benzene, which is a known carcinogen, and toluene, a nervous system toxicant. If concrete wellbores or seals at the wellhead are misaligned or corroded, methane and chemicals can migrate into potable water aquifers − something that the small town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, learned the hard way in 2009. Most Dimock residents have individual water wells. Shortly after Cabot Oil and Gas began fracking in the area, a resident’s backyard water well exploded. After it was determined that Cabot’s operations were the source of the methane contamination, a consent agreement with the state required Cabot to supply Dimock’s drinking water. But the state allowed Cabot to stop supplying water in 2011, without testing residents’ well water, according to a report by StateImpact, a project of National Public Radio stations.

Potable water

Because many residents still don’t have potable water as a result of the contamination, volunteers from around the state are holding local events to raise money to supply water to Dimock, says Karen Feridun, an activist with Berks Gas Truth, an anti-fracking group. The situation remains unresolved for the long term. Although Pennsylvania and Texas have been hit especially hard by the effects of shale gas extraction, no part of the US is exempt. Even the Pacific Northwest,long insulated from fossil fuel extraction and burning by virtue of its massive hydropower projects and deep layers of flood basalt covering any oil or gas-bearing formations, is now vulnerable. The region faces the prospect of liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipelines and a massive increase in trains carrying oil and coal through the scenic Columbia River Gorge to west coast ports for shipment to China. LNG terminals are also being planned for gas shipment from the US east coast to Europe. At some point, campaigners warn, all Americans may have to choose between energy and clean water. “Make sure [fracking’s] not taking your drinking water or your irrigation or the water that your herds need to survive,” says Weatherington-Rice. “When this happens, you’ve lost that water forever.” – Climate News Network

Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, USA, is a science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists. In 2009, she received the Society of Environmental Journalists award for Outstanding Explanatory Reporting in Print for her article Environment Becomes Heredity for the Miler-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy’s Pacific Standard journal.