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Thursday, August 9, 2012

PA is #3 in exposure to air toxic pollution from power plants, thanks to coal

An important new analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council (full disclosure: I have consulted to NRDC in the past) reveals that the Keystone State is the third worst state in the nation when it comes to exposure of citizens to toxic air pollution from power plants.

The new report: Toxic Power: How Power Plants Contaminate Our Air and States is an appalling indictment of the well-understood public health effects of burning coal to produce electricity.

But there is some good news in the report.
The analysis found that overall toxic pollution declined by 19 percent compared to 2009 levels, including a 4 percent decrease in mercury emissions. According to NRDC, the EPA estimates that these reductions will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths; 130,000 asthma attacks; 5,700 hospital visits; 4,700 heart attacks; and 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis annually. The public health improvements will save between $37 billion and $90 billion in health costs, and prevent up to 540,000 missed work or "sick" days each year.
In part, the reduction in pollution - and the saving of lives - is due to the switch from coal to natural gas as fuel for power plants. The trend is likely to continue, thanks to natural gas and renewable energy dominating the new generation market. 
As we continue to grapple with the complexities of getting shale gas right, the public health (and climate) benefits of replacing coal with gas must be borne in mind.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Underground wastewater injection and earthquakes linked (again) by new study

It is no surprise that injecting fluids deep underground can trigger earthquakes.  A U.S. Geological Survey report released earlier this year found a connection between small temblors in the Midwest and the injection of drilling wastewater in deep disposal wells. In March, an Ohio state agency concluded that a wastewater injection well was responsible for a dozen earthquakes in the Youngstown area in 2011.  And in June, the National Academy of Science released a report concluding that while there is a low risk of earthquakes from hydraulic fracturing, underground wastewater injection wells pose a higher risk of inducing seismic activity.

A new, two-year study by a seismologist at the University of Texas at Austin echoes this previous work and takes it a step further.  UTA seismologist Cliff Frohlich has found that injection wells used to dispose of wastewater from oil and gas drilling cause relatively minor temblors – and more frequently than commonly thought.

Frohlich analyzed seismic activity in the Barnett Shale of Texas between November 2009 and September 2011.  He identified the epicenters for 67 earthquakes — more than eight times as many as reported by the National Earthquake Information Center — with magnitudes of 3.0 or less. Most were located within a few miles of one or more injection wells. All of the wells nearest the epicenters reported high rates of injection exceeding 150,000 barrels (17.6 million liters) of water per month. He also found more than 100 wells with similar injection rates that experienced no nearby earthquakes during the time of the study. He suggests that fluid injection may trigger earthquakes only if fluids reach and reduce friction on a nearby fault.

The implications of all of this are clear.  The risks of induced seismicity from wastewater injection wells are real, but manageable.  More geological and geophysical study should be required of wastewater well developers before the wells are sited and approved; and operating wells should be strictly monitored.  Ohio officials, for example, responded to the Youngstown quakes by imposing new permitting requirements on disposal well drillers. (In Pennsylvania, there are only 5 operating injection wells; but 3 more are in the planning stages.)

Perhaps the only surprise related to this new report has to do with the way it was reported.  Despite plain language used to describe the study as related specifically to wastewater injection, published reports say the study links earthquakes to fracking.  It does not.

Regulators, injection well operators, and reporters all need to do a better job.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Modeling study adds fuel to fire on needed Marcellus science and data

A new modeling study by researchers at Stony Brook University finds that the disposal of contaminated wastewater from hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region poses substantial potential risks of water pollution and calls for additional regulation to reduce the potential of drinking water contamination.

In “Water Pollution Risk Associated with Natural Gas Extraction from the Marcellus Shale,” which appears in the August 2012 issue of the journal Risk Analysis, published by the Society for Risk  Analysis, the researchers found that disposal of fracking wastewater presents risks from salts and radioactive materials; from spills and leaks; and from well casing failures.  It relied on an analytical approach called “probability bounds analysis” that the authors say is suitable “when data are sparse and parameters highly uncertain.”  

The fact hat the study was hypothetical as opposed to incident-based drew swift industry dismissal of the study.  Judge for yourself.

One thing is certain.  Data are indeed sparse, at least publicly.  Prior to 2011, Pennsylvania significantly strengthened its drilling regulations.  And in 2011, Pennsylvania’s DEP asked municipal treatment plants to stop accepting drilling wastewater for treatment.  That request has yet to be turned into a regulatory requirement.  Some claim that more than 90 percent of drilling wastewater is now being recycled. Recycling is inarguably a good thing, but are we really at 90 percent?  While state law requires well operators and wastewater haulers to keep detailed records for 5 years, this information must only be made available to DEP upon request, and to be submitted to DEP by drillers only biannually. There’s not enough transparency and disclosure around the issue to verify the claims - or to put legitimate concerns to rest. 

The Stony Brook authors support more research on wastewater disposal and “specifically on the efficacy of contaminant removal by industrial and municipal wastewater treatment facilities,” and suggest that “regulators should explore the option of mandating alternative fracking technologies that would substantially reduce the amount of wastewater generated.

More research, more data, and more disclosure are essential to defining what is – and isn’t - a problem in Pennsylvania’s natural gas drilling boom, in addressing public concerns, and directing needed regulatory improvements

Monday, August 6, 2012

IEA Deputy Director: Global warming may lead to ‘Miami Beach in Boston’ without urgent action

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Deputy Executive Director, Ambassador Richard H. Jones has warned that if energy policies do not adapt, enough carbon dioxide will be being emitted to reach 1,000 parts per million in the atmosphere. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that equates to a 6 degrees Celsius – 11 degrees Fahrenheit - increase in temperature by the end of this century.

The IEA’s Deputy Executive Director stressed that there is no single solution that will combat climate disruption and address all of today’s other energy challenges, but that energy efficiency is Job One.  Jones said that over half of all possible reductions in carbon dioxide emissions can be achieved through energy efficiency savings when today’s technologies are applied.

Climate change is happening now, and it’s worse than we thought. Staying the present energy course is not only unsustainable, it is suicidal.