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Friday, May 2, 2014

Canadian panel: go slow on fracking

Shale gas is being developed in three Canadian provinces, and substantial recoverable reserves may exist in several more. But a report requested by the country’s Minister of Environment has concluded that there isn’t enough known about the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, and so, Canada should go slow on fracking.

Like similar studies issued by the European Union, this one reviews the extensive risks and impacts associated with the process. It finds: 
The assessment of environmental impacts is hampered by a lack of information about many key issues, particularly the problem of fluids escaping from incompletely sealed wells. If wells can be sealed, the risk to groundwater is expected to be minimal, although little is known about the mobility and fate of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and wastewater in the subsurface. The pertinent questions are difficult to answer objectively and scientifically, either because the relevant data have not been obtained; because some relevant data are not publicly available; or because existing data are of variable quality, allow for divergent interpretations, or span a wide range of values with different implications…
The technologies used by the shale gas industry have developed incrementally over several decades. This gradual evolution has obscured the full implications of the large-scale deployment of these technologies. Society’s understanding of the potential environmental impacts has not kept pace with development, resulting in gaps in scientific knowledge about these impacts. In most instances, shale gas extraction has proceeded without sufficient environmental baseline data being collected (e.g., nearby groundwater quality, critical wildlife habitat). This makes it difficult to identify and characterize environmental impacts that may be associated with or inappropriately blamed on this development.
The panel highlighted a subject that I’ve spoken about but not read much about – that full disclosure of chemicals is not enough to assess risk: 
Information is also required on potentially hazardous chemicals produced down-hole by chemical interactions under high temperature and pressure. This includes information on concentration, mobility, persistence in groundwater and surface water, and bio-accumulation properties, for each chemical on its own and as a mixture. This represents a major gap in understanding of the potential environmental and human impacts of hydraulic fracturing, and of how to mitigate accidental releases of chemicals or flowback water to the environment.
The panel also found that: 
Appropriate environmental monitoring approaches for the anticipated level
of shale gas development have not yet been identified. 
Finally, the report outlines what is says would be an effective framework for managing the risks posed by shale gas development in Canada: 
  1. Technologies to develop and produce shale gas. Equipment and products must be adequately designed, installed in compliance with specifications, and tested and maintained for reliability.
  2. Management systems to control the risks to the environment and public health. The safety management of equipment and processes associated with the development and operation of shale gas sites must be comprehensive and rigorous.
  3. An effective regulatory system. Rules to govern the development of shale gas must be based on appropriate science-driven, outcome-based regulations with strong performance monitoring, inspection, and enforcement.
  4. Regional planning. To address cumulative impacts, drilling and development plans must reflect local and regional environmental conditions, including existing land uses and environmental risks. Some areas may not be suitable for development with current technology, whereas others may require specific management measures.
  5. Engagement of local citizens and stakeholders. Public engagement is necessary not only to inform local residents of development, but to receive their input on what values need to be protected, to reflect their concerns, and to earn their trust. Environmental data should be transparent and available to all stakeholders.
These elements would need to be supported by environmental monitoring programs to supply credible, science-based information to develop and apply regulations. 
The panel concludes that public trust can only be achieved when additional, independent research provides answers to the questions they identify – before intensive drilling occurs.

How will the Canadian government respond? And can we learn anything from our neighbors? 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Tradeoffs, balance, and ethics in the drive to renewable energy

As we speed ever closer to the climate abyss, it’s clear that avoiding it requires the US to double down on deploying renewable energy.

But renewable energy is not without environmental cost.  Colliding with – or even flying too close to – wind turbines kills birds (though that requires context) and bats. Concentrated solar thermal plants incinerate them, and collisions with solar panels are also a source of mortality. Renewable energy facilities often disturb sensitive habitats. And massive landscape industrialization will accompany a shift to renewable energy.

But climate disruption is also the biggest threat facing wildlife globally.
The painful dilemma of reconciling the effects of the planetary disease and the application of its cure is brought into view by a new paper, Thinking Globally and Siting Locally: Renewable Energy and Biodiversity in a Rapidly Warming World, published in the journal Climatic Change. It lays out the situation: 
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that a “large fraction” of species around the globe “face increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st Century” particularly when the synergistic effects of climate change with other anthropogenic impacts such as habitat loss and fragmentation and invasive species are taken into account…
According to the IPCC, the risk of extinction owing to climate change is projected to increase regardless of the scenario used to project future climate change, but the fraction of species at risk will be greater as the magnitude of temperature change increases… 
Staying within the U.S. carbon budget [limiting the magnitude of warming to ~2 °C – which some view as “a prescription for disaster”]...will require expansion of land-based wind energy from 60 GW in 2012 to 330–440 GW in 2050, and offshore wind expansion from zero currently to 25–100 GW; estimates for solar energy in 2050 range from 160–260 GW for photovoltaic and 20–80 GW for concentrated solar.
 One of the paper’s principal authors writes here that: 
…concerns over the impacts of wind turbines on the sensitive wildlife populations and habitats could greatly limit the pace and scale of [wind energy] expansion.
Indeed. Consider that a seven-fold (at least) expansion of wind power, combined with the devastation from White Nose Syndrome in 26 US states, could constitute an existential threat to many bat species.

Still, the paper says: 
it will be necessary to accept some, and perhaps substantial uncertainty about the [local, direct] risk to wildlife populations if we are to limit the greater risks of global extinctions from unlimited climate change. 
The paper calls for further research and collaboration between the wind industry and conservation organizations to improve siting and operations to protect wildlife, and applying 
the best available science and innovative technologies to limit wildlife risks together with a willingness to make tough choices in the face of uncertainty about those risks to protect species and ecosystems for the long haul.
Must sacrifices be made? Science and technology are sorely needed to limit renewable energy's risks to wildlife. So, too, is a serious commitment by policymakers to alternatives to the centralized energy generation model.  

The choices we face are tough. They are not only scientific and technical, but also, in my view, ethical. The paper is intended to start a necessary - indeed, vital - conversation about them.  Let’s hope it does.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

We need to double down on renewable energy

The IPCC's new report on climate change mitigation says that the world needs to at least triple - and maybe quadruple - the energy it gets from renewables and other no-carbon sources by 2050 to stave off climate disaster.

And there is hope.  IPCC says:
many [renewable energy] technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions, and a growing number of RE technologies have achieved a level of maturity to enable deployment at significant scale.
Indeed, renewables have more than doubled in the US energy mix from 2005-2012, according to and an analysis by the US Energy Information Administration.
From 2005 to 2012, nonhydropower renewable generation more than doubled, encouraged by policies such as federal tax credits and grants, state renewable portfolio standards (RPS), and a variety of other state and local policies such as rebates, tax incentives, financing assistance, net metering, and interconnection standards...
But EIA says that renewables currently account for about 12% of US energy generation. Under a business-as-usual projection, renewables will rise to a whopping 16% of generation by 2040 – a pace far below where IPCC says we need to be.
In the [business as usual case, without a continuation of the policies mentioned above], renewable electricity generation grows by 69% from 2012 to 2040, including an increase of more than 140% in generation from nonhydropower renewable energy sources. Renewables are collectively the fastest-growing source of electricity generation in the projection, with annual growth rates that exceed the growth rate for natural gas-fired generation. However, because renewables start from a relatively low 12% market share of total generation, their contribution to U.S. total electricity generation is just 16% in 2040…well below the natural gas and coal shares of 35% and 32%, respectively.
EIA explains:
Near-term growth in renewable generation is constrained by a combination of factors...: growth in electricity demand continues at a relatively low annual rate (less than 1% per year in the Reference case) compared with historical levels, and generating capacity required to meet demand and reserve requirements in many regions already exceeds near term requirements at the start of the projection period. As a result, demand for new generating capacity of any type in the first decade of the projection is minimal in most regions. From 2012 to 2025, total generating capacity—including renewables, fossil fuels, and nuclear—increases by only 4%. However, as renewable technologies become more economically competitive, they capture a larger share of the growing market…
Is setting a price on carbon emissions the answer to growing renewable energy rapidly enough to save the planet?

Maybe not.

EIA says:
[P]lacing an explicit or implicit value on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would make the cost of operating fossil-fueled capacity higher, improving the relative economics of renewables…
[E]ven with low rates of electricity demand growth, the presence of a significant and growing fee on CO2 emissions creates enough pressure early in the projection period to spur significant growth of renewable generation in the near term.
EIA’s analysis says that that imposing a fee on CO2 emissions that starts at $25 per metric ton and rises 5% annually would push non-hydro renewables (largely wind and solar) up to 27 percent of the U.S. power mix in 2040.

Even “significant growth” of renewable energy driven by a carbon price is not likely to be sufficient growth to meet the urgency of climate disruption. When it comes to saving the planet as we know it, the current incentives for renewable energy matter. The current advances in technology and steep price declines in technologies like solar matter. But even combined, they may not be enough.

The need for wise public policies like tax credits, renewable energy standards, and carbon pricing could not be clearer. The need for public investment in renewable technology improvement – funded by an elimination of fossil fuel subsidies – could not be clearer.  The need for both could not be more urgent.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Is farming the solution to climate disruption?

Back in my days at DCNR, I had the privilege of visiting and learning about the work of Pennsylvania’s Rodale Institute, which studies the link between healthy soil, healthy food, and healthy people. Rodale has been a pioneer in organic agriculture – a statement that does not do their work justice.

I learned about Rodale’s development and refinement of what they call regenerative organic agriculture – inexpensive (yet marginally used) organic practices that restore and build soil quality while storing carbon in the soil. The practices include cover crops, residue mulching, composting, crop rotation, and conservation tillage. Rodale’s work was extremely compelling to me.  It suggested the potential for organic agriculture to be an immensely important tool in the fight against global climate disruption.

How important?

Rodale has released an important white paper Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate ChangeIt makes the provocative statement:
If management of all current cropland shifted to reflect the regenerative model…we could potentially sequester more than 40% of annual emissions (an estimated 21 GtCO2 each year). If, at the same time, all global pasture was managed to a regenerative model, an additional 71% (~37 GtCO2) might be sequestered, bringing us into an annual negative emissions scenario rapidly.
Is Rodale offering the world a silver bullet to slay the climate disruption beast? It's never that easy. But at a minimum, regenerative organic agriculture may be cheaper than other technological and regulatory fixes. It can be widely adopted immediately. It may be able to scale globally.  It may buy us time to get to a renewable energy future, and pay dividends in the long run. 

Rodale’s work must be vetted, peer-reviewed, and globally tested - as Rodale suggests. Are there limits to the benefits of regenerative organic agriculture – especially given our current trajectory of CO2 emissions? After all, China, for example, is on pace to build three new coal plants every month between now and 2020. Is a soil carbon saturation point reached?  Do these practices work everywhere? 

What are the barriers to implementation? Can the benefits of regenerative organic agriculture be incentivized though carbon offset/carbon trading regimes? Can the amount of carbon stored be quantified accurately, remotely and affordably, enhancing both its credit-worthiness and the efficiency of embracing it as a carbon stabilization tool? Can farmers benefit financially by adopting these practices? 

There are doubtless many more questions. Including, of course, political ones. The adoption of these practices means taking on a set of immensely powerful interests - the giant global corporations that manufacture pesticides and fertilizers, the need for which would at least be vastly reduced with the adoption of organic practices.   

Is an agricultural revolution the most readily implementable, globally-scalable, and effective climate stabilization solution? That is a question that the world needs to ask – and answer.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Baker Hughes leads on chemical disclosure

Trade secret claims used by the oil and gas industry to withhold disclosure of the chemicals it uses in hydraulic fracturing are widely viewed as hurting the industry. The demonstrated shortcoming of limited, voluntary chemical disclosure raises public alarm about the safety of hydraulic fracturing and damages the industry’s social license to operate. And the most widely used disclosure vehicle – FracFocus, has failed as a compliance tool. Last month, a a task force of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board recommended full chemical disclosure in FracFocus reports.

Now, in a break with its industry peers, Baker Hughes, a major provider of hydraulic fracturing services, plans to begin disclosing all the chemicals it uses in fracking fluid, without exceptions for trade secrets.
Baker Hughes believes it is possible to disclose 100% of the chemical ingredients we use in hydraulic fracturing fluids without compromising our formulations – a balance that increases public trust while encouraging commercial innovation. Where accepted by our customers and relevant governmental authorities, Baker Hughes is implementing a new format that achieves this goal, providing complete lists of the products and chemical ingredients used.
It’s unclear whether other companies will follow Baker Hughes’ lead. Or how the company’s customers will respond - “Where accepted by customers” may be the key phrase in Baker Hughes’ statement. Other industry players and trade groups have defended the current level of protection for trade secrets.  
Will oil and gas companies accept full disclosure?  Will regulators and the public accept nothing less?