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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Carbon emissions reductions will pay for themselves

Cutting carbon dioxide emissions will not only save us from the worst impacts of global climate disruption, but also simultaneously reduces toxic air pollution. That will save thousands of lives annually, as well as reduce rates of asthma, heart attacks, hospitalization and autism – here and around the world.  It will also save an immense amount of money. One 2010 study put the cost of the adverse public health impacts from coal combustion alone at $100 billion per year.

The idea of measuring the co-benefits of carbon reduction is part of the calculation of the social cost of carbon. While these estimation techniques are still emerging, it’s obvious that the benefits, when monetized, are huge - and must be included in how we as a society evaluate the real, all-in costs of cutting carbon. 

A new study from MIT researchers has looked at the health benefits of cleaner air in comparison to the costs of reducing carbon emissions in the US and found that the savings are big, and vary depending on the policies adopted.

A systems approach to evaluating the air quality co-benefits of US carbon policies was published in Nature Climate Change. According to a university press release, the study is the most detailed assessment to date of the interwoven effects of climate policy on the economy, air pollution, and the cost of health problems related to air pollution. It:
compared the health benefits to the economic costs of three climate policies: a clean-energy standard, a transportation policy, and a cap-and-trade program…
The researchers found that savings from avoided health problems could recoup 26 percent of the cost to implement a transportation policy, but up to to 10.5 times the cost of implementing a cap-and-trade program. The difference depended largely on the costs of the policies, as the savings — in the form of avoided medical care and saved sick days — remained roughly constant: Policies aimed at specific sources of air pollution, such as power plants and vehicles, did not lead to substantially larger benefits than cheaper policies, such as a cap-and-trade approach.
Savings from health benefits dwarf the estimated $14 billion cost of a cap-and-trade program. At the other end of the spectrum, a transportation policy with rigid fuel-economy requirements is the most expensive policy, costing more than $1 trillion in 2006 dollars, with health benefits recouping only a quarter of those costs. The price tag of a clean energy standard fell between the costs of the two other policies, with associated health benefits just edging out costs, at $247 billion versus $208 billion.
But it’s not necessarily that simple, as we've mucked up the atmosphere so much in history's largest uncontrolled chemistry experiment that:
“To manage climate change, we’ll have to make carbon cuts that go beyond the initial reductions that lead to the largest air-pollution benefits.”
Still, the study is further evidence that climate protection is a cheap investment.

Friday, August 22, 2014

EDF's Methane Detector Challenge

There's been lots of troubling research that points to unacceptably high methane emissions from oil and natural gas production.  The need for tougher regulations and ubiquitous monitoring is apparent, as readers of this blog know.

Colorado has blazed the regulation trail at the state level, and institutions like MIT have encouraged the development of new methane-sensing technologies.  But one organization has worked to propel the essential development of deployable methane monitoring technologies sooner, rather than later. 

The Environmental Defense Fund and seven oil and natural gas companies created the Methane Detectors Challenge "aimed at identifying next-generation technologies that will help better monitor methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations, with the intent to ultimately promote meaningful reductions of these gases."

The participating companies in the Challenge are Shell, Anadarko, Apache Corporation, BG Group, Hess Corporation, Noble Energy and Southwestern Energy.

Yesterday, EDF announced five finalists in the Challenge.

EDF continues to do great work on several fronts in grappling with this critical issue. They - and their partners - are demonstrating the power of collaboration. While no substitute for strong regulation and enforcement, the development of new monitoring technologies is the piece that's been missing in accurately assessing and coming to grips with the fundamental issue of fugitive methane from oil and gas production.  


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Maryland releases fracking health impacts assesment

A report by the University of Maryland School of Public Health - part of Governor Martin O’Malley’s Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative - has assessed the potential public health effects of allowing unconventional natural gas development in western Maryland.

This public health study draws upon several methods of a rapid Health Impact Assessment (HIA) including: scoping, assessment of baseline health and potential health impacts of shale gas development, and this final report with recommendations for public health responses. The scoping process sought input from a wide range of stakeholders through public meetings and publication of a draft detailed scoping document. Comments on the scoping document were used to make modifications to the scope and are reflected in this final report…
Although global climate change is a major concern and some stakeholders wanted it included, it remains beyond the scope of this study. Our focus is on public health impacts that would be concentrated in and unique to the Garrett and Allegany County populations living and working near the sites of shale gas development…
Our assessments of potential health impacts are not predictions that these effects will necessarily occur in Maryland, where regulation is likely to be stricter than in some states where UNGDP [unconventional natural gas drilling and production] is already underway. Rather, we provide assessments of the impacts that could occur and that need to be addressed by preventive public health measures if and when drilling is allowed. Thus, the focus of our recommendations is on answering this question: Given the baseline population health, vulnerabilities, and potential impacts of UNGDP, how can Maryland best protect public health if and when UNGDP goes forward? 
the study foresees a "high likelihood" of gas development causing air pollution that could harm nearby residents as well as drilling crews. It also warns of strains on the health care system in Garrett and Allegany counties and increases in crime, drug abuse, traffic accidents and other social problems from the influx of gas industry workers.
The study further predicts "moderately high" likelihood of problems with water, soil and noise pollution from fracking.
[It] calls for restricting injection of wastewater into the ground and proposes more study of how far drilling should be from homes. 
The report contains 52 recommendations for addressing the potential risks to public health.  Many of them match the recommendations in the interim final best practices report that Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources released on July 11, 2014. Others are new. 
A university press release says that the recommendations include: 
…health surveillance to verify the effectiveness of preventive measures, disclosure of all chemicals used in [unconventional natural gas drilling and production], and legislation and regulations to empower surface owners and impacted communities to control their local environment. 
Maryland has so far undertaken a prudent, cautious, transparent - and, in my view, exemplary - approach to considering allowing unconventional natural gas development in a very sensitive area of the state.  (Full disclosure: I consulted to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources as part of their participation in the Safe Drilling Initiative.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Some implications of refracking in PA

I blogged recently about what has been a sleeper issue - in Pennsylvania, at least: refracking unconventional oil and gas wells.

The issue is a sleeper no more.  This excellent piece by Anya Litvak in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Power Source section describes the stirrings of what will almost undoubtedly be a tsunami of refracking in Pennsylvania.

But as the story notes, unless state requirements change, the growth of refracking will be hard to track:
Operators in the state aren’t required to get a permit to refrack a well, but they must notify the Department of Environmental Protection at least 24 hours before the process begins. After the refrack is done, the company must submit a well completion report.
There is no easy way to find out how many companies have refracked wells or how many are planning to...
This is a big issue for Pennsylvania. Here are just a few implications of the rise of refracking:
  • Widespread refracking will keep open indefinitely the wounds gouged on the landscape by unconventional oil and gas development. Site reclamation will be "temporary" for a very long time, and permanent site restoration measures like well pad and infrastructure removal and tree planting could be put off for years - or decades.  This will have unknown, and likely profound, impacts on habitats and forest integrity, especially.
What's to be done? 

First, you can't manage what you don't measure.  As noted by the P-G, amazingly, refracking does not require a permit in Pennsylvania.  It should - and it must. It's a repeat of an intensive industrial activity that originally required a permit.  

Second, this activity - and all of the industry's water use, waste production, treatment, and disposal must be monitored, reported on, and tracked along the entire life cycle of shale gas extraction.  

Third, the state's regulations and oversight must be updated and enhanced to deal with refracking.  What additional tests or controls should be required to insure the integrity of refracked wells?  What other measures are necessary? Is there capacity to dispose of some multiple of the waste water volume from fracking?  There are many more questions.

The stirring of this sleeper issue must be a wake-up call for Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Can we manage CO2 in time?

If we're to decarbonize the economy and avoid catastrophic climate disruption, CO2 must - at least - be managed. What does that mean? 

In simplest terms, until we can make the shift to renewable energy,  CO2 must be dealt with - as a waste product, as a resource, or as an asset.  Or most likely, as all three. 

I've blogged previously on adding the U to CCS.  The development of CO2 as a resource is one key to the future of carbon capture technology.  Turning captured CO2 into an asset by making stuff with it (besides more oil and gas) and thereby creating revenue streams and profit potential will help to drive the technologies, costs savings, and economies of scale that are so necessary to capturing CO2 affordably and preventing it from entering the atmosphere and adding to history's largest uncontrolled chemistry experiment.

This blog post on carbon utilization by NRDC's George Peridas is a must-read.  Peridas explains succinctly the concepts - and the hazards - involved in advancing carbon utilization and recycling technologies and businesses, and how those technologies must be evaluated.  

Peridas also notes this report by Prize Capital, LLC on CO2 industry creation and commercialization.  Many carbon utilization technologies are in some stage of development - see this excellent 2013 report from the California Institute for Energy and Environment. More are coming.  But Peridas rightly points out that governments, companies, researchers, and investors should not lose focus on more "conventional" CCS, i.e. capturing carbon emissions and storing them permanently underground.  As a practical matter, the immense amount of global carbon emissions can't all find a use, and inevitably most will have to be safely stored underground.

Can CO2 be commercialized? Can new industries be created that use CO2 as an asset? And can we make all of that happen - while storing the vast bulk of CO2 emissions - in time to save life as we know it?