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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

USGS continues important work on PA landscape industrialization from natgas development

The  U.S.  Geological Survey continues to roll out its excellent analyses of early landscape disturbance resulting for natural gas development in Pennsylvania.

The study found that in Somerset County, 23 natural gas extraction sites resulted in more than 111 acres of disturbance, including 3 miles of new roads and 1 mile of new pipelines.  In Westmoreland County, 1,658 natural gas extraction sites resulted in more than 2,651 acres of disturbance, including over 278 miles of new roads and 17  miles  of new pipelines.

A spider web of natural gas infrastructure is being spun across Pennsylvania.  Biodiversity is being impacted. How the face of Penn’s Woods will change and how the habitats of its inhabitants – human and non-human - will fare in the coming decades is being played out before our eyes.  Will industry and regulators ensure that our natural heritage will be safely passed to future generations of Pennsylvanians?

Autism tied to air pollution. Can shale gas help?

Researchers from Harvard University’s School of Public Health have found that pregnant women exposed to high levels of diesel particulate or mercury pollution were twice as likely to have an autistic child compared with peers in low-pollution areas. The findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Now consider that emissions of mercury from burning natural gas for electricity generation are negligible. Particulate emissions from natgas vehicles are up to 90% lower than particulate emissions from diesel-fueled vehicles; however, natural gas may generate more ultra fine particles than diesel.  Tighter vehicle emissions and fuel standards, and the right emissions reduction technologies in the transport  sector - and, of course, the extent of conversion from diesel - are key to maximizing the public health benefits of natgas as a transport fuel, but those benefits appear to be considerable. Natgas production, too, must avoid air pollution if we are to achieve the biggest benefits.

Can natgas be a tool to reduce incidence of autism?  The answer to this question could present another inconvenient truth to opponents of shale gas development. 

The public health benefits of responsibly-produced, natgas-derived energy versus coal and diesel must be considered in any reasoned discussion about the place of shale gas in our energy mix, and our energy future.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Study cites threats to biodiversity from natgas development

A paper published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences says, not surprisingly, that natural gas development presents multiple threats to biodiversity.

Risks to biodiversity from hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales by Dr. Erik Kiviat, of the Hudsonia ecology group says that those threats include pollution by toxic synthetic chemicals, salt, and radionuclides; landscape fragmentation from wellpads, pipelines, and roads; alteration of stream and wetland hydrology; and increased truck traffic.

The study says:

Despite concerns about human health, there has been little study of the impacts on habitats and biota. Taxa and guilds potentially sensitive to HVHHF [high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing] impacts include freshwater organisms (e.g., brook trout, freshwater mussels), fragmentation-sensitive biota (e.g., forest-interior breeding birds, forest orchids), and species with restricted geographic ranges (e.g., Wehrle's salamander, tongue-tied minnow). Impacts are potentially serious due to the rapid development of HVHHF over a large region.
Shale gas has engendered a great deal of controversy, largely because of its impact on human health, but effects on biological diversity and resources have scarcely been addressed in the public debate. This study indicated a wide range of potential impacts, some of which could be severe, including salinization of soils and surface waters and fragmentation of forests. The degree of industrialization of shale gas landscapes, and the 285,000 km² extent of the Marcellus and Utica shale gas region alone, should require great caution regarding impacts on biodiversity.
As I wrote here, the scale of this industry - and its impacts -will dwarf all of the previous waves of energy development that punctuate Pennsylvania's history - combined. Will industry embrace and regulators require tough regulations, smart planning and constantly improving best practices to avoid, minimize, and mitigate these impacts? Will great caution be taken in the shale gas era with our shared natural inheritance?

Poll: Voters support conserving public lands over drilling them

A poll of voters living in nine states in the mountain west region conducted for the Center for American Progress shows strong support for achieving balance between energy development on public lands and conservation of those precious lands. 

This is particularly important, because, in my view, these states are generally accustomed and relatively friendly to resource extraction on public lands.

The poll by Hart Research Associates found that: 
  • 65 percent of voters (across party lines) say that permanently protecting and conserving public lands for future generations is very important to them;
  • 63 percent of voters are concerned with preserving access to recreation opportunities on public lands;
  • 49 percent of voters want the government to focus more on conserving public lands;
  • Only 30 percent of voters say that making sure that oil and gas resources on public lands are available for development is an important priority; and
  • Only 29 percent of voters want the government to focus on more opportunities for oil and gas drilling.

Hart highlighted these findings from the poll: 

  • Parks, communities, and water sources rise to the top of places that should be off limits: nearly half of voters say drilling should not be allowed on national parks (48%), public lands near where people live (47%), and water sources (46%). Only 10% do not choose any type of public lands to be off limits.
  • Voters reject the idea that there must be a single-minded, “either/or” approach to public lands. When explicitly given the opportunity to choose a third option, a majority (55%) instead say the government should put conservation on equal ground with drilling for oil and gas.
  • A large majority (78%) of voters strongly favor using some of the money collected from oil and natural gas drilling on public lands to repair damage caused by drilling to land, fish, and wildlife habitat. I’ve proposed something similar for Pennsylvania.

Western states voters are not alone in their collective wisdom and common sense.  A September, 2011 poll found that a whopping 72 percent of Pennsylvania voters oppose opening up more of our state forestland for gas drilling.

It’s clear that American voters support balanced management and conservation of their public lands - balance that is an essential part of the industry's increasingly fragile social license to operate. Do our elected representatives, regulators, and the industry know and respect our views?

That is up to all of us.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ominously rising: seas, floodwaters, losses, and costs

A study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency finds that rising seas and increasingly severe weather due to climate disruption may increase areas in the U.S. that are prone to flooding by up 45 percent by the end of the century. Thirty percent of that increase is due to population growth – but 70 percent is due to climate disruption. 

The Impact of Climate Change and Population Growth on the National Flood Insurance Program through 2100 says that these ominous changes could double the number of flood-prone properties covered by the National Flood Insurance Program – from 5.6 million properties to 11.2 million  - and drastically increase the costs of floods, as well as the costs of operating the program. 

Having to insure twice as many properties would be a big deal for the NFIP. It generally works like any other insurance program, using the premiums that policy holders pay in each year to cover losses when they occur. But the program has been walloped by major storms in the past decade. The NFIP went $16 billion in debt on Hurricane Katrina and after Sandy will be $25 billion in the hole, a debt it may be unable repay. The report projects that the average loss on each insured property could increase as much as 90 percent by 2100. If future storm victims aren't forced to eat their losses, taxpayers may have to cover the difference.

The FEMA study is based on the assumption that sea levels will go up by four feet in the next 86 years. But a report released last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted that sea level rise could be more than six feet. Whether it's four feet or six feet, rising seas cause shoreline erosion and recession, and create greater surge risk in the event of major storms. The FEMA report also notes that flooding around rivers will likely become worse in a warming world, due to changes in precipitation frequency and intensity. Population growth, which causes increases in paved areas and changes in runoff patterns and drainage systems, will affect the amount of flooding from rivers, the FEMA report notes.

Climate change will likely make flood insurance much more expensive for the federal government, but also for individual policyholders. The average price of policies would need to increase by as much as 70 percent to offset projected losses. 

Along with urgently and drastically cutting our emissions, we need to begin dealing with the reality - and the shared costs - of the climate-related threats we have already locked in. Investing in resiliency now to avoid future losses must become an urgent national priority.  Do we as a nation have the capacity to prepare for the consequences our past energy choices and place ourselves firmly on a cleaner, safer, and more sustainable path for the future?