Long-awaited research results suggest methane leakage small.
The rise of two particular techniques — horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or fracking — to extract natural gas from layers of shale buried deep beneath the earth has engendered broad concern and debate about the environmental damage fracking can bring. Key among these concerns has been the possibility that fracking causes contamination of surface waters and drinking water.
From the data I have seen, it seems pretty clear that while not always the case, fracking operations have led to water contamination in many instances. (See here, here, here.) What such contamination implies about the safety of fracking remains an open and hotly debated issue. But that’s not the only issue nipping at the heels of fracking enthusiasts.
Another Concern Relates to Climate Change
It has long been argued that natural gas is a good bridge fuel for helping to wean us away from coal while we develop more viable renewable energy sources. The premise for this argument is that methane, the major component of natural gas, is relatively clean; deriving one British Thermal Unit (BTU) of energy from burning natural gas produces about half as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as a BTU from coal. And so, substituting natural gas for coal would seemingly slow the emissions of CO2 and thus slow global warming.
But as Bob Howarth of Cornell University has pointed out, such an accounting may be wrong. While clean as a fuel, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, some 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. If a large amount of natural gas leaks into the atmosphere during fracking and transport, the benefit of using natural gas instead of coal disappears. And with too much leakage (in a paper I co-authored we estimated the threshold to be about 3.2 percent of total gas production), natural gas may actually be worse from a climate perspective than coal.
So How Much Is the Leakage?
The critical question: how much natural gas leaks into the atmosphere during production? Easy to ask, but answering has been difficult because there is so little data. The latest estimate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a leakage rate of less than 1 percent. Other estimates, like Howarth’s, are much larger, perhaps closer to 4 percent.
To try to help settle the debate, a team of scientists funded by a consortium of oil and gas companies and Environmental Defense Fund have undertaken an ambitious program of 16 studies to directly sample natural gas leakage rates from natural gas wells. David Allen of the University of Texas, Austin, led the first study, the results of which were published online yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Full disclosure: I, along with a half dozen other scientists, served on an external science advisory panel as the project plans were developed. I received no compensation, and was not involved in the collection of data or its analysis and interpretation.)
The study involved emission measurements at 190 natural gas sites in four regions of the country where the authors were given access. Of those sites, the authors measured emission from:
150 sites in production with a combined total of 489 wells;
27 well completion flowbacks (period between drilling and production);
nine well unloadings (where excess liquids are removed during production); note that these data, due to high variability between wells and small sample size, not included in the national estimate; and
four well workovers (when a well is re-completed); because this category had so few data points and accounted for such a small percentage of emissions, the data from these events were not included in the analysis.
The bottom line: 0.42 percent of the gross natural gas produced leaks into the atmosphere — a percentage that is slightly below that of the EPA and low enough to suggest that methane leakage from natural gas production is not a major concern when it come to climate change. (Keep in mind, however, that this percentage only pertains to emissions from the production part of the system. According to EPA, less than 40 percent of leakage [pdf] is from field production. Significant leakage can also occur elsewhere in the system, for example, from the pipelines that transport natural gas.)
One surprising find of the study is that more methane leaks from onsite equipment than has been previously accounted for. In particular, pneumatics, which control basic well-site operations, had up to 270 percent higher leak rates than EPA’s estimates, with Gulf Coast pneumatics having the highest rates and Rocky Mountain pneumatics the lowest (the authors hypothesize these are low as a result of regulations to control ozone).
There are caveats to the study, of course. For example, it looked at only a tiny fraction (between a few tenths and a few hundredths percent) of sources of methane emissions at natural gas sites around the country. A fraction so small, one can hardly consider the results to be statistically definitive, especially given the fact that there is a lot of variability in the emission rates the authors measured between individual wells.
Second, it included only nine companies out of the thousands of producers in the United States. As explained on EDF’s website:
“In 2011, the participants accounted for roughly 12% of all U.S. gas wells, 16% of gross gas production and almost half of all new well completions. In 2012, the 150 production sites UT visited include 478 wells, or about 0.1% of the national total of 446,745 gas wells.”
It could be that this subset of companies — the ones willing to have their sites measured — are the ones that are most careful to limit leakage and thus are not representative of the industry.
Third, it is hard to rationalize these results with other recent studies that have used a completely different approach to calculate basin-wide leakage rates. These studies suggest that methane leakage from natural gas production sites is considerably larger: on the order of some four percent larger to as much as 6-12 percent.
Still, as the most comprehensive study on leakage from active sites to date, this study has to be taken seriously.
Slings and Arrows
Anything that has to do with fracking is bound to engender hot debate and the Allen et al. paper is no exception. There are those out there who are questioning the work by questioning the links between the sponsors of the study and the industry it is studying. I am uncomfortable when arguments are made to question funding sources as a way to question a study’s validity because it ultimately questions the scientists’ integrity. Let’s stick to the substance of the work and leave the other stuff out.
A criticism I find somewhat more plausible is that the results are not reliable because the oil and gas companies chose the sites to be studied. Isn’t it possible that the companies chose “model sites” in order to make things look a lot better than the actual are? This issue is addressed to some extent at the UT-Austin website where it is stated that the team got to choose the sites from a list and got to choose the time:
“[T]he UT-led study team selected times and general locations for sampling activities, and companies provided access to completions that occurred during those periods. Production sites near the completions were selected by the study team for sampling based on lists of available sites in the region provided by the participating companies.”
Here’s my two cents: all this debate about statistical representativeness, small datasets, only a handful of companies, and sites being chosen by the gas companies misses a key result — perhaps the most important one. What the Allen et al. study clearly demonstrates is that there are sites out there with very low leakage rates; in other words, the oil and gas industry is capable of running a fracking operation with very low amounts of natural gas leakage. Maybe this is typical of most wells and maybe not. Regardless, it can inform the way wells are operated in the future: Let’s find out what the wells with low leakage rates are doing, translate those procedures into best practices, and require all wells to operate that way, and provide for stiff fines if they screw up. And while we’re at it, let’s require that they install monitors to track methane leakage in real time at their wells.
Maybe, just maybe, we’ve made a little bit of progress.
Think back to Teddy Roosevelt’s initiatives to promote nature and encourage land conservation in the 1920s — we are at that same point in time with regard to the oceans. As in, the first inning. No, make that top of the first inning. It is an exciting field to study but one that resembles the wild, Wild West. I hope to shed some light on what important new and existing preservation projects mean to the public, the fish, the coral reefs, and our future. We are past the point of prevention but rather, we must undo some of the damage we have done — caused mainly by ocean acidification, overfishing, and bottom trawling. There are many new and vague terms that leave the average swimmer, diver, and/or surfer, palms up. This will serve as an introduction to the vernacular being used to describe these projects.
Let’s start with ocean acidification. Basically, this refers to the increased carbon dioxide that is now in our atmosphere. Thus there is more carbon, and less oxygen, directly contacting the oceans at sea level than in the past. This is negatively affecting the health of coral reefs and other flora and fauna underwater.
Now about overfishing. Think about this in a different way: On terra firma, vehicles are generally limited to paved roads. And we have a huge infrastructure of local, state and federal police who patrol our roadways. Now think of the skies, which are carefully supervised by the FAA, designated airspace, and a large network of control towers in major cities throughout the globe. Both on land and in the air, penalties for not following the rules of the road can be quite punitive. Simple enough.
Currently, without a network of satellite monitoring AND collection of significant fines in place, there is essentially no punitive way to stop overfishing and other detrimental activities. (Photo, wikimedia)
Now, think about the oceans. Water covers more than 71 percent of the earth’s surface. Yet we have no international ocean police, no “ocean FAA” if you will… only a relatively infinitesimal handful of Coast Guard and related non-military vessels, worldwide, to guard the seas. So what’s a mother to do about less-than-trustworthy fishing boats — mostly carrying the flags of European and Asian nations — that are overfishing, bottom trawling, shark fin hunting and other extremely damaging activities?
Water covers more than 71 percent of the earth’s surface, yet we have no international ocean police. (Photo, Kevin M. Gill, flickr)
For this answer, I sought out a few of the world’s leading experts, including none other than Sir Richard Branson. He is a member of a group called the OceanElders, which consists of 14 dignitaries who are committed to protecting and preserving the world’s oceans and the wildlife therein. Other members include Queen Noor, Ted Turner, Neil Young, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jackson Browne, and Dr. Sylvia Earle, among other luminaries. Anyway, I asked Branson if by using technology, is there any way to successfully monitor the oceans for commercial fishing vessels, polluters and other maritime villains? His comments:
“Remote sensing of shipping from satellites is already a reality. Vessels that carry the required transponders can be tracked and identified in real time. The flaws in the present systems are that vessels can turn off the transponders and that they are not mandatory for all vessels. International agreements and treaties can fix that. The UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the best agency to organize and execute an improved ship location program.”
OceanElders, a group of 14 dignitaries who are committed to protecting and preserving the world’s oceans and the wildlife therein. (Photo, oneworldocean)
Out of the UN’s 193 member states, 170 are currently members of the IMO — including both large and small players alike, such as China, Japan, the U.S., UK, Thailand, Madagascar, and Mozambique. “This means that once an action is approved by the [IMO], that action has force of domestic law in the member states. So a more vigorous ship tracking program can have teeth,” Branson explained. But what about enforcement?
“One option that is technically feasible today is unmanned vehicles (AUVs) that are constantly on patrol and prepared to call for assistance when needed. Another enforcement idea that really appeals to me is to develop a global directory of fishing vessels which habitually fish in distant waters from their home ports. As trespassers are identified, they go into the database and are flagged. A similar scheme is used by many of the major maritime nations to identify problem vessels. Those in the database that have poor safety and/or operating records can be denied entrance to seaports or will not be allowed to depart unless certain remedial steps are taken.”
Branson provides a realistic and honest appraisal here of where we are on this pressing issue. And clearly, we are indeed in the first inning. What happens when a less-than-honest fishing vessel enters a protected zone and dredges the area for sharks, killing everything else in the net’s wake and disturbing the coral to boot? If the ship’s transponder is turned off before committing the crime… nothing. And currently, without a network of satellite monitoring AND collection of significant fines in place, there is essentially no punitive way to stop this activity. Which is why 100 million sharks are killed every year — mostly for their fins, as in shark fin soup. Unconscionable.
So are there any parts of the ocean that are being protected? There are a number of marine protected areas (MPA) throughout the world. One small but significant example lies in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, called PIPA for (Phoenix Island Protected Area). PIPA is located in the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-BAS), an ocean nation in the central Pacific approximately midway between Australia and Hawaii. PIPA constitutes 11.34 percent of Kiribati’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and with a size of over 150,000 square miles, it is one of the largest marine protected areas (MPA) in the Pacific Ocean. (For more info on PIPA, listen to this TEDTalk.)
Conservation International’s Senior Vice President and Chief Scientist, Gregory Stone, was the driving force in conception and creation of PIPA. Kiribati has declared that three percent of this EEZ is a “no catch zone” and fishing is strictly prohibited. Three percent may not sound like much, but this is still a large area — 4,500 square miles — and it is the choicest and most bountiful sector for tuna fishing in all of PIPA. There is a sensitivity here because poor countries such as Kiribati derive significant income from taxing the fishing vessels. Thus they must be compensated from other sources to make up for the lost revenue in return for their cooperation.
Covering over 150,000 square miles, PIPA is one of the largest marine protected areas (MPA) in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo, Conservation International)
I had an opportunity to catch up with Dr. Stone on how Conservation International (CI) is trying to craft a way to monitor the PIPA area, among other protected waters. “We are talking to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) about how we can use satellites to monitor the waters. Extremely sophisticated aerial cameras are available, and these could be used for ocean surveillance and enforcement. If we can create a way to document the presence of a vessel and, through licensing and electronic observation, obtain the name and home base of the boat, we would then be able to track and ultimately enforce severe fines and other penalties,” he explained.
Map of Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) in the Galapagos.
Indeed, enforcement is easier when there is a government that has rights to the water space in question. What happens when this is not the case, for example, in the Sargasso Sea? The Sargasso Sea is the earth’s only sea or ocean without a land boundary. This extraordinary open-ocean ecosystem is bounded by currents circulating around the North Atlantic sub-tropical gyre. The Sargasso Sea provides habitats, spawning areas, migration pathways and feeding grounds to a diverse ecosystem, including a number of endangered yet commercially important species. Dr. Earle has called it “the golden rainforest of the ocean.”
I consulted Sargasso Sea expert David Shaw, a respected business and social entrepreneur who is also a National Park Trustee. Shaw put into proper perspective the challenges the environmental world faces when trying to educate the public on the threats to ocean health. “A big issue is trying to create a consciousness about the world’s largest habitat. Unlike the terrestrial world, ocean health is often not part of our daily thoughts in the same way that unhealthy air, rivers or land may be. We need to understand that world oceans are not infinitely forgiving… we cannot see all the damage. And we are best served if debate about ocean health and other environmental issues is based on fact-based science versus emotional arguments,” Shaw explained.
Dr. Sylvia Earle has called the Saragasso Sea “the golden rainforest of the ocean.” (Photo, sylviaearlealliance.org)
Shaw is founding chair of an alliance formed to study the ecology of the Sargasso Sea and to create a range of stewardship measures to conserve its health. The Sargasso Sea Alliance is led by the government of Bermuda, working with other nations as well as NGOs. So far, among other results, the Alliance has developed a robust “Summary Science and Evidence Case for the Conservation of the Sargasso Sea” with over 74 collaborators. Under Executive Director Dr. David Freestone, the Alliance is planning to bring the governments of the countries around the Sargasso Sea – including the US, Dominican Republic and Portugal — together with the European Union Commission to Bermuda in 2014. They hope to sign an international declaration on Collaboration for the Conservation of the Sargasso Sea and to establish a permanent Sargasso Sea Commission to oversee the health of this unique high seas ecosystem.
The urgency to protect ocean wildlife is not strictly the fantasy of environmentalists and watermen. We are talking about a far more serious question: How will we feed the world 20 years from now? Indeed, if we do not stop the systematic destruction of our ocean resources, we could have a serious seafood shortfall; this is on a collision course with simultaneous population growth. It would seem the key is to create a way to monitor overfishing, and soon. The concepts that Branson and Stone talk of, using GPS and related technology for this purpose, would seem to be our best chance for monitoring the oceans successfully. Question is, who will organize the nations of the world in this effort, and how do we effectively police two thirds of the earth’s surface? If we don’t collectively address and solve this pressing issue, the phrase “plenty of fish in the sea” may turn into a deadly falsehood.
Read more from Jennifer Schwab on her Inner Green.
A new study shows that a gene mutation could explain why some people are more susceptible to developing this itchy, unsightly sores on and around their lips. The findings are published in the journal PLoS Pathogens.
Most people — 90 percent in the world, in fact — are infected with the cold sore-causing virus, yet only about one in five people actually develop sores.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh found that a mutation on the IL28b gene makes it so the body’s immune system is not able to prevent the herpes simplex virus type 1 — which triggers cold sores — from becoming active, thereby causing the cold sore to develop.
This isn’t the first time genes have been linked with cold sores. A 2011 study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases tied two variations of the gene C21orf91 with protection against the reactivation of the cold sore-causing herpes virus. Meanwhile, two other variations of the same gene were linked with having more cold sore outbreaks.
The virus that causes cold sores is related to the one that causes genital herpes (herpes simplex virus 2). There’s no cure for cold sores, and they can recur randomly (typically in the face of stress or a weakened immune system), according to the Mayo Clinic.
I have always been looking for answers. Thankfully, I have finally found the answer I was looking for, which is that there really aren’t any, just more questions. My husband gets annoyed at me when he asks me something and I respond with another question. I always want some more information before I make a decision, even when it is a simple yes or no question. This is partly a habit that lingers as I recover from people pleasing and perfectionism. I don’t want to answer until I’m sure that I am correct, or that the person asking me won’t be mad or disappointed. It is still hard for me to give my opinion outright, especially if I am concerned that it will be unpopular.
My voice is growing stronger as I become less afraid to fail. The more I know that I am a valuable person, no matter what I do or say, the more I am able to tolerate and enjoy the ups and downs of life. There is so much of what happens in our lives that is outside of our control, yet we run endless circles inside our minds trying to predict and bargain our way through the highs and lows that inevitably come. I am trying to extract myself from this constant race, trying to see my life unfolding, celebrating the joys, and inhabiting the painful times. It is really hard. Brené Brown calls this being vulnerable. There are many ways to say it, but we all know what it feels like. When we are totally present, sometimes feeling like we’ve been punched in the chest with terrible news, or like we might float away we’re so excited and happy. I’m trying to pull myself into more and more moments, even the most mundane. The ups and downs are everywhere, and the more I live inside them, the more genuine and treasured my life becomes.
How do I want to spend it?
Photo credit: Caitlin Fisch
For more by Caitlin Fisch, click here.
For more on happiness, click here.
So brace yourself; what follows is a collection of some of the best good, clean fun from across the web — enjoy!
So brace yourself; what follows is a collection of some of the best good, clean fun from across the web — enjoy!
#alkalinity #alkalinitymovement #7.2 #sevenpointtwo