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Friday, February 28, 2014

Rush to data, not to judgment

We don’t know enough about the impacts of unconventional natural gas development on public health in order to adequately evaluate its risks, according to researchers from the University of Colorado and the University of Pittsburgh.

The rapid increase in unconventional natural gas (UNG) development in the United States during the past decade has brought wells and related infrastructure closer to population centers. This review evaluates risks to public health from chemical and nonchemical stressors associated with UNG, describes likely exposure pathways and potential health effects, and identifies major uncertainties to address with future research. The most important occupational stressors include mortality, exposure to hazardous materials and increased risk of industrial accidents. For communities near development and production sites the major stressors are air pollutants, ground and surface water contamination, truck traffic and noise pollution, accidents and malfunctions, and psychosocial stress associated with community change. Despite broad public concern, no comprehensive population-based studies of the public health effects of UNG operations exist. Major uncertainties are the unknown frequency and duration of human exposure, future extent of development, potential emission control and mitigation strategies, and a paucity of baseline data to enable substantive before and after comparisons for affected populations and environmental media. Overall, the current literature suggests that research needs to address these uncertainties before we can reasonably quantify the likelihood of occurrence or magnitude of adverse health effects associated with UNG production in workers and communities. 
The data vacuum surrounding unconventional natgas development – from baselines, to ongoing monitoring, to post-development – urgently needs to be filled.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Can we balance energy development and natural systems?

Development of natural gas and wind resources in the six-state Marcellus shale region could damage nearly 1.3 million acres of land, an area bigger than the state of Delaware, according to a paper published this month in the scientific journal PLOS One.

The study looked at energy development in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia.  It predicts that over 106,000 new gas wells will be drilled in the Marcellus region – a conservative estimate, in my view. There are projections of Marcellus drilling that are almost twice that in Pennsylvania alone. It also projects that almost 11,000 new wind turbines will be built in the region.

The study found that each gas well pad and the roads, pipelines, and infrastructure associated with it impacts 50 acres of land, and that each wind turbine impacts 15 acres of land. Almost 85% of the 1.3 million acres damaged by the projected gas and wind development - 1.1 million acres – is forest land. That landscape industrialization will significantly affect habitats, recreation, aesthetics, historical and cultural resources, and – critically - local watersheds.

The study found: 
This increase in surface disturbance and fragmentation will potentially impact the maintenance of biodiversity and the quality of surface water resources for ~22 million people [including New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia & Pittsburgh]. The increase in energy production forecasted by our analysis may be compatible with biodiversity if properly sited, but will still pose a challenge for surface water resources, both because of the strong link between surface water quality and surface disturbance and because of the high value for water production for watersheds in the study area.  
The Marcellus Shale represents one of the fastest growing shale deposits in the world. With both wind and shale gas projected to expand dramatically in coming decades predicting patterns and impacts in the Marcellus could serve as a model for development that is likely to be replicated globally. Already, Argentina, Australia, China, and Colombia have identified large shale gas deposits that are in the planning stages of development. The impacts from individual gas wells/wind turbines or even those of a single wind farm or gas field are likely to be manageable and compatible with broader landscape level conservation goals. Our analysis reveals it will be the cumulative impacts that pose the greatest challenge for landscape level conservation goals. Unfortunately assessment of environmental impacts are (sic) made well by well or gas field by gas field with little or no attempt to assess cumulative impacts. Scenarios and scenario analysis [what I’ve referred to as landscape-level planning] have become popular approaches in pursuit of sustainable development. However, they are little used, at least in any formal way, in environmental impact assessment (EIA). Fostering the use of scenario modeling, like the approach outlined here, can allow regulators to examine the potential consequences of development objectives quickly and inexpensively. We conclude by encouraging EIA practitioners to learn about the promise of scenario-based analysis and implement scenario-based methods so that EIA can become more effective in fostering sustainable development.
Will the states in the Marcellus region be smart enough to avoid, minimize, and mitigate the immense landscape impacts from both natural gas and wind energy development?  Will these states model sustainable development to the world?

The questions are big.  The stakes are high.  And the answers concerning shale gas development especially (with the very notable exception of Maryland) are so far not encouraging at all.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Add a U (and a USA) to CCS

The most direct pathway to bringing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to scale in time to help save us from the worst of global climate disruption is to insert a “U” into the acronym – where “U” stands for “Utilization.”

Ironically, producing more hydrocarbons in the short term - and begging the question of how to get off oil - is what’s needed now to mitigate the accumulated effects of past hydrocarbon combustion. As I’ve written, utilizing captured carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery and enhanced gas recovery will offset some of the initial high costs of the technology, and - just as important - propel capture technologies down their cost curves and enable wider application to power plants and industrial sources of CO2 emissions.

Plus, the production of more oil (and eventually gas) would sock away a lot of carbon in the process.  How much?

According to this presentation by respected authority Vello Kuuskraa of Advanced Resources International (with whom I’ve had the pleasure of serving as a co-panelist on several occasions) – a huge amount.

Currently in the US, 117 EOR projects produce 282,000 barrels of oil per day. Over 80% of the CO2 used to get that oil comes from naturally-occurring sources, and less than 20% from anthropogenic sources like factories or power plants. 

EOR production is projected to grow to 650,000 barrels per day by 2020, and demand for CO2 is projected to more than double.  Where we get the CO2 for that production – and to achieve the full potential of EOR – will make all the difference.

Current US coal-fired power capacity is about 300 GW. ARI says that if the US went all-in on utilizing CO2 for on-shore EOR in the lower 48 states, nearly a billion metric tons of CO2 could be stored by 2030. That’s roughly equivalent to capturing 90% of the CO2 emitted from five 1GW coal-fired power plants for 30 years.

In the longer term, using next-generation EOR technology, and expanding EOR to Alaska and off-shore oil plays, ARI finds that demand for CO2 – and storage – could equate to the emissions of 231 1GW coal-fired power plants - 77% of all US coal-fired emissions.

This is an oversimplification, obviously, but it illustrates the opportunity. The potential demand for CO2 for EOR is immense.  Solutions like the Pennsylvania model of CCUS networks will be essential to link power plants and factories to CO2 users in the most economical and efficient way.  And it's clear that we should leave the natural CO2 in the ground and move as rapidly as possible to replace them with solely anthropogenic sources of CO2 – factories and power plants.

The climate, environmental, and public health gains would be even bigger if those CCS-equipped power plants switched from coal to natural gas.  

ARI’s analysis shows that this vision of putting the "U" in CCUS could also put a "Made in the USA" stamp on it as well.  Leading the world in the development of CCUS technology and creating the jobs that will come with it in a global market is economically viable. What's lacking is political will.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Location, location, location

Where are the best places in the US to install solar energy?  Sunny California?  Arid Arizona?  How about wind power?  The wind-swept Great Plains from North Dakota to Texas?

Not necessarily.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 16, 2013, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University concluded that the biggest bang for the energy buck should be measured by not only energy generation but also where the most people would benefit from the most reductions in air pollution, public health impacts, and environmental degradation. That, they found, depends on what the renewable energy is displacing. Think coal. Think Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

When wind or solar energy displace (sic) conventional generation, the reduction in emissions varies dramatically across the United States. Although the Southwest has the greatest solar resource, a solar panel in New Jersey displaces significantly more sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter than a panel in Arizona, resulting in 15 times more health and environmental benefits. A wind turbine in West Virginia displaces twice as much carbon dioxide as the same turbine in California. Depending on location, we estimate that the combined health, environmental, and climate benefits from wind or solar range from $10/MWh to $100/MWh, and the sites with the highest energy output do not yield the greatest social benefits in many cases. We estimate that the social benefits from existing wind farms are roughly 60% higher than the cost of the Production Tax Credit, an important federal subsidy for wind energy. However, that same investment could achieve greater health, environmental, and climate benefits if it were differentiated by region.
put a price tag on the social benefits of emission reductions and found, for example, that a wind turbine in West Virginia would avoid $230 in health and environmental damages per kilowatt-hour per year, displacing twice as much carbon dioxide and seven times as much health damage as the same turbine in California. Solar and wind energy sources emit less carbon dioxide and air pollution than burning fossil fuels for electricity.
The researchers suggested that Congress take regional variations into account when structuring tax benefits for clean energy. They argued that the incentives should be available at least until costs are competitive with conventional energy generation. 
For solar power, that day is fast approaching.

Pennsylvania passed its alternative energy portfolio law almost ten years ago.  (I led the legislative work on that bill for PennFuture, where I worked at the time).  It was last updated five years ago. When it was passed, the law was one of the strongest of its kind in the nation.  Not so any more. It’s past time to update it and make the renewable energy targets much more aggressive, taking advantage of Pennsylvania's preeminence in natural gas production.  Coupled with targeted Federal tax policy, smart state actions would drive more renewable energy deployment and “achieve greater health, environmental, and climate benefits.”