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Friday, February 14, 2014

New study finds methane emissions worse than estimated, but fixable

U.S. emissions of methane are considerably higher than official estimates but are fixable, according to a new study by a team of researchers from seven universities, several national laboratories and federal government bodies, and other organizations.

"Methane Leakage from North American Natural Gas Systems," published in the Feb. 14 issue of the journal Science, synthesizes findings from more than 200 studies conducted over the last 20 years. It finds that: 
“Actual measurements consistently indicate that methane emission levels are about 50 percent higher than what our national accounts suggest,” says MIT Energy Initiative Director of Research Francis O’Sullivan, who was among the team of authors on the study. (M)any studies have tested gas industry components to determine whether the EPA's emission rates are accurate, and a majority of these have found the EPA's rates too low. 
The study found that part of the problem with EPA’s estimates was “self-selection bias.” Estimating industry-wide leakage rates from voluntary participants – arguably the best-performers – will understate the problem. The alternative is atmospheric studies, of which the study finds: 
Several other studies have used airplanes and towers to measure actual methane in the air, so as to test total estimated emissions. The new analysis found these atmospheric studies covering very large areas consistently indicate total U.S. methane emissions of about 25 to 75 percent higher than the EPA estimate.
However, the analysis also finds that some recent studies showing very high methane emissions in regions with considerable natural gas infrastructure are not representative of the entire gas system. 
Leaking transmission infrastructure is a significant component of the problem and must be fixed. The gas industry, too, must clean up its act, and the study finds that “a few leaks in the gas [processing] system probably account for much of the problem and could be repaired.

While the study affirms the climate benefits of a switch from coal- to natgas-fired electricity,  it finds that:
powering trucks and buses with natural gas instead of diesel fuel probably makes the globe warmer, because diesel engines are relatively clean. For natural gas to beat diesel, the gas industry would have to be less leaky than the EPA's current estimate, which the new analysis also finds quite improbable.
More on this subject here.

The bottom line - methane leaks are economically wasteful, hurt companies' bottom lines, and - most importantly - threaten the planet.  Leaks across the entire value chain, from drilling, to processing, to transmissions, to distribution - must be comprehensively addressed, minimized to the greatest extent possible, more stringently regulated, and thoroughly monitored. Not some day. Now.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Early CCS projects face high electricity costs; networks, EOR vital

The wholesale cost of electricity produced by the first US coal-burning power plants that employ carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will be 70 to 80 percent higher than plants without CCS, an Energy Department official has said, demonstrating the obvious reason why Federal government assistance is needed to support early deployment of CCS and bring the essential technology to scale.

Julio Friedmann, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Clean Coal, Office of Fossil Energy at the US Department of Energy – a friend and an energy expert whom I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with during my days in Pennsylvania state service and afterward - testified at a Congressional hearing that as the technology advances and scale of deployment increases, costs to install the equipment can be cut in half. 

A substantial portion of incremental costs of the technology can also be recovered, Friedmann said, by selling the captured carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery. The first CCS-equipped US power plant, in Kemper, Mississippi, is scheduled to come on-line later this year.  The Kemper plant received $270 million in Federal support. It's expected to capture about 3.5 million tons of CO2 annually - about 65% of its carbon emissions - and will sell it to oil companies for EOR.

The challenge of obtaining economies of scale and dealing with the costs for transmission of captured CO2 either for EOR or storage can be at least partially solved by adopting the Pennsylvania model of CCS networks.  And the opportunity to increase oil production - and gas production - makes a business case, as I’ve suggested, for oil and gas companies to champion CCS development in a world that must inevitably (but not soon enough) be carbon-constrained.

Networks and EOR are the wedges that are needed to drive early CCS development and deployment.  CCS for natgas electricity generation offers a path for near-zero carbon electricity while – if we’re smartbuilding a short bridge to a renewable energy future.

Will the US - and the rest of the world - get CCS right, in time?



Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pinchot’s bust

The earth and its resources belong of right to its people.

Conservation is a foresighted utilization, preservation and/or renewal of forest, waters, lands and minerals, for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.

- Gifford Pinchot


During my too-brief tenure as DCNR Secretary, I helped resurrect a bronze bust of Gifford Pinchot – the former Governor of Pennsylvania and “father of conservation” – that had been callously relegated to gathering dust in a state government storage room.  I had the bust retrieved and placed in the reception area outside my office in the Rachel Carson Office Building in downtown Harrisburg - mounted on a wood pedestal just outside my office door. 

Pinchot’s bust stood next to the 2009 award that recognized Pennsylvania’s state park system as the best managed park system in the nation. (I’ve been edited out of the video; that was inevitable, since I left the agency in January, 2011. Such is life.)

Pinchot’s bust served as a reminder to every visitor to the DCNR executive suite of the vision that inspired our work, and the legacy that we had the privilege of stewarding.

In December of my first year as Secretary, I hosted the annual Christmas open house for agency staff. The members of my executive staff and I provided coffee and refreshments as a small thanks to our agency colleagues – at least those who worked in the central office – for everything they did, every day, to conserve Pennsylvania’s irreplaceable natural resources and serve the citizens of the state. It was always a special time - punctuated with song and diminished by some inadequate words from the Secretary - sharing the holiday spirit with the finest public servants I’ve ever worked with.

On that December morning, as colleagues began to gather in the reception area outside my office, I jokingly placed a Santa Claus hat atop Pinchot’s bust. A trusted member of my executive team saw me doing it and – frowning - walked over, took the hat off the bust, and handed it to me, gently saying, “No.”

I’ll never forget that moment, or the lesson that it taught me – one of many that I learned in that golden interval when I was fortunate enough to lead DCNR. The conservation ethic - and reverence for it - runs deep in DCNR. It’s intensely personal and meaningful, and inspires what the women and men of the agency do every day to conserve Pennsylvania’s natural heritage - the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come.

I think about that teaching moment - where I was the student - beside Pinchot’s bust. And I lament the ineducable reigning ideology that would put Pinchot’s bust back into storage, if not sell it for scrap

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Shareholder activism database and inspiration

The Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN), which I’ve blogged about before, does great work to encourage companies to reduce and eliminate toxic chemicals in their products, including in shale gas production. IEHN is also a great source of information on how investors are trying to improve corporate performance, transparency, and accountability. They host a database of shareholder actions that contains the complete texts of shareholder resolutions on toxic chemicals filed by investors, the companies targeted, the filers, and the outcomes of the actions.

There are many paths to engagement in improving corporate sustainability, and other groups like Ceres are also doing essential and powerful work. Regulations, monitoring, and oversight are in my view fundamental and irreplaceable. But shareholders and investors have the power – and the money – to drive sustainability from within corporate boardrooms. They are building a growing movement that should be applauded, joined, and emulated.