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Friday, October 17, 2014

U.S. Dust Bowl Conditions Not Rivaled in 1,000 Years

U.S. Dust Bowl Conditions Not Rivaled in 1,000 Years

Atmospheric conditions and human actions combined to drive the 1930s megadrought 

Dust Bowl

Heavy black clouds of dust rising over the Texas Panhandle, Texas.
Credit: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
Farms failed and livestock starved in the central United States during the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s. The event was not just the region’s worst dry spell in modern memory — it was the worst in North America over the past millennium, researchers report in Geophysical Research Letters.

“Not only did 1934 [the first year of the Dust Bowl] stand out in terms of extent and intensity, but it was the worst by a fair margin,” says Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and a co-author of the study. The drought takes its name from a period in April 1934, when winds blew dust from the US Great Plains as far east as North Carolina and as far south as Florida.

Cook and his colleagues used the North American Drought Atlas, a 2,005-year record derived from tree-ring chronologies that reconstructs drought and precipitation patterns. They found that the 1934 drought covered more than 70% of western North America and was 30% more intense than the second most severe drought in the region, which happened in 1580.

The researchers also looked for causes behind the 1934 drought. An earlier study led by Siegfried Schubert of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, had pegged the Dust Bowl’s origins on sea-surface temperatures, which were marginally cooler in the Pacific and warmer in the Atlantic.

But in the latest analysis, Cook and his colleagues say that this event had a minor role in the drought. They pin the blame instead on a change in atmospheric circulation: a high-pressure ridge centred over the west coast of North America during the autumn and winter of 1933–1934 that blocked wet weather from California and the Northwest.

A similar, but more persistent, atmospheric pattern was at work off the California coast this past winter, and moved storms north. Cook and his colleagues found that similar ridges preceded some of the worst west coast dry spells, including the 1976 California drought — a two-year event marked as the most severe in California’s recorded history.

“Whenever you see drought, there is always a ridge. But last year’s ridge was a record,” says Simon Wang, a climate scientist at Utah State University in Logan. “The question is what’s causing it to amplify?” Wang and his colleagues have found that the atmospheric ridge in California last winter can be traced to human-made warming of the western Pacific Ocean.

Previous studies have also identified a human role in the Dust Bowl. Sparse rainfall and poor land-use practices helped to kick up dust and spread it across the Midwest and eastern United States during the historic drought. In an earlier study, Cook and his colleagues found that airborne dust particles amplified the drought by blocking the Sun’s energy, which reduced evaporation, cloud formation and rainfall over the region.

In the latest analysis, Cook and colleagues “make a strong case that the most famous drought in American history was aggravated by human activity, by testing an old idea with climate models and empirical analysis,” says David Stahle, director of the Tree-Ring Laboratory at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on October 16, 2014.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Kink in the Human Brain-- How Are Humans OK with Destroying the Planet?


Pointless consumption is destroying our planet.

Photo Credit: Leo Blanchette / Shutterstock.com
This is a moment at which anyone with the capacity for reflection should stop and wonder what we are doing.

If the news that in the past 40 years the world has lost over 50% its vertebrate wildlife(mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) fails to tell us that there is something wrong with the way we live, it’s hard to imagine what could. Who believes that a social and economic system which has this effect is a healthy one? Who, contemplating this loss, could call it progress?

In fairness to the modern era, this is an extension of a trend that has lasted some two million years. The loss of much of the African megafauna – sabretooths and false sabretooths, giant hyaenas and amphicyonids (bear dogs), several species of elephant – coincided with the switch towards meat eating by hominims (ancestral humans). It’s hard to see what else could have been responsible for the peculiar pattern of extinction then.

As we spread into other continents, their megafaunas almost immediately collapsed. Perhaps the most reliable way of dating the first arrival of people anywhere is the sudden loss of large animals. The habitats we see as pristine – the Amazon rainforest or coral reefs for example – are in fact almost empty: they have lost most of the great beasts that used to inhabit them, which drove crucial natural processes.

Since then we have worked our way down the foodchain, rubbing out smaller predators, medium-sized herbivores, and now, through both habitat destruction and hunting, wildlife across all classes and positions in the foodweb. There seems to be some kink in the human brain that prevents us from stopping, that drives us to carry on taking and competing and destroying, even when there is no need to do so.

But what we see now is something new: a speed of destruction that exceeds even that of the first settlement of the Americas, 14,000 years ago, when an entire hemisphere’s ecology was transformed through a firestorm of extinction within a few dozen generations, in which the majority of large vertebrate species disappeared.

Many people blame this process on human population growth, and there’s no doubt that it has been a factor. But two other trends have developed even faster and further. The first is the rise in consumption; the second is amplification by technology. Every year, new pesticides, new fishing technologies, new mining methods, new techniques for processing trees are developed. We are waging an increasingly asymmetric war against the living world.

But why are we at war? In the rich nations, which commission much of this destruction through imports, most of our consumption has nothing to do with meeting human needs.

This is what hits me harder than anything: the disproportion between what we lose and what we gain. Economic growth in a country whose primary and secondary needs have already been met means developing ever more useless stuff to meet ever fainter desires.

For example, a vague desire to amuse friends and colleagues (especially through the Secret Santa nonsense) commissions the consumption of thousands of tonnes of metal and plastic, often confected into complex electronic novelties: toys for adults. They might provoke a snigger or two, then they are dumped in a cupboard. After a few weeks, scarcely used, they find their way into landfill.

In a society bombarded by advertising and driven by the growth imperative, pleasure is reduced to hedonism and hedonism is reduced to consumption. We use consumption as a cure for boredom, to fill the void that an affectless, grasping, atomised culture creates, to brighten the grey world we have created.
We care ever less for the possessions we buy, and dispose of them ever more quickly. Yet the extraction of the raw materials required to produce them, the pollution commissioned in their manufacturing, the infrastructure and noise and burning of fuel needed to transport them are trashing a natural world infinitely more fascinating and intricate than the stuff we produce. The loss of wildlife is a loss of wonder and enchantment, of the magic with which the living world infects our lives.

Perhaps it is misleading to suggest that “we” are doing all this. It’s being done not only by us but to us. One of the remarkable characteristics of recent growth in the rich world is how few people benefit. Almost all the gains go to a tiny number of people: one study suggests that the richest 1% in the United States capture 93% of the increase in incomes that growth delivers. Even with growth rates of 2 or 3% or more, working conditions for most people continue to deteriorate, as we find ourselves on short contracts, without full employment rights, without the security or the choice or the pensions our parents enjoyed.
Working hours rise, wages stagnate or fall, tasks become duller, more stressful and harder to fulfill, emails and texts and endless demands clatter inside our heads, shutting down the ability to think, corners are cut, conditions deteriorate, housing becomes almost impossible to afford, there’s ever less money for essential public services. What and whom is this growth for?

It’s for the people who run or own the banks, the hedge funds, the mining companies, the advertising firms, the lobbying companies, the weapons manufacturers, the buy-to-let portfolios, the office blocks, the country estates, the offshore accounts. The rest of us are induced to regard it as necessary and desirable through a system of marketing and framing so intensive and all-pervasive that it amounts to brainwashing.

A system that makes us less happy, less secure, that narrows and impoverishes our lives, is presented as the only possible answer to our problems. There is no alternative – we must keep marching over the cliff. Anyone who challenges it is either ignored or excoriated.

And the beneficiaries? Well they are also the biggest consumers, using their spectacular wealth to exert impacts thousands of times greater than most people achieve. Much of the natural world is destroyed so that the very rich can fit their yachts with mahogany, eat bluefin tuna sushi, scatter ground rhino horn over their food, land their private jets on airfields carved from rare grasslands, burn in one day as much fossil fuel as the average global citizen uses in a year.
Thus the Great Global Polishing proceeds, wearing down the knap of the Earth, rubbing out all that is distinctive and peculiar, in human culture as well as nature, reducing us to replaceable automata within a homogenous global workforce, inexorably transforming the riches of the natural world into a featureless monoculture.

Is this not the point at which we shout stop? At which we use the extraordinary learning and expertise we have developed to change the way we organise ourselves, to contest and reverse the trends that have governed our relationship with the living planet for the past two million years, and that are now destroying its remaining features at astonishing speed? Is this not the point at which we challenge the inevitability of endless growth on a finite planet? If not now, when?
George Monbiot is the author Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. Read more of his writings at Monbiot.com. This article originally appeared in the Guardian.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Solar dimming caused by air pollution increases river-flows


Solar dimming caused by air pollution increases river-flows

10 hours ago
Image: USGS

A study published in Nature Geoscience shows that air pollution has had a significant impact on the amount of water flowing through many rivers in the northern hemisphere.

The paper shows how such pollution, known as aerosols, can have an impact on the natural environment and highlights the importance of considering these factors in assessments of future climate change.

The research resulted from a collaboration between scientists at the Met Office, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, University of Reading, Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique in France, and the University of Exeter.

Nicola Gedney, from the Met Office and lead author of the paper, said: "We detect the impact of solar dimming on enhanced river flows over regions in the heavily industrialised northern extra-tropics. We estimate that, in the most polluted central Europe , this effect led to an increase in river flow of up to 25% when the aerosol levels were at their peak, around 1980. With water shortages likely to be one of the biggest impacts of climate change in the future, these findings are important in making projections for the future."

It is already established that increased burning of sulphurous coal up to the late 1970s led to additional aerosols in the atmosphere. These are reflective and therefore reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface, an effect known as 'solar dimming'.

This dimming then started to reverse in Europe and North America with the introduction of clean air legislation and a widespread switch to cleaner fuels.
In the new study, researchers found that solar dimming increased river flows relative to that expected from surface meteorology, as the reduced amount of sunlight affected the rate of evaporation from the Earth's surface. When the dimming began to reverse, reductions in river-flows were observed.

Chris Huntingford, one of the paper co-authors based at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: "This study involved using detection and attribution techniques which were able to show a link between aerosols and changes in river flows.

"These studies normally involve looking at how different factors affect temperature, but here we've been able to attribute this man-made influence to an environmental impact."

The study also tested for the effects of deforestation and carbon dioxide increases on .

"In addition we find a further indication that increases in carbon dioxide may have increased river-flows by reducing water loss from plants", said co-author Peter Cox from the University of Exeter.

Explore further: New scientific review investigates potential influences on recent UK winter floods

More information: Nature Geoscience, dx.doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2263

Journal reference: Nature Geoscience search and more info website

Provided by University of Exeter search and more info website

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Humans have poisoned the planet


Lifting the toxic curse


Humans haven't just poisoned the planet with potentially dangerous chemicals, we've also poisoned ourselves. So why is no one talking about it, asks Julian Cribb.

Image: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock
Something more sinister than climate change stalks the human future – and it is high time we gave it the same attention. Few people have any idea of the universal chemical deluge to which we are now subject, daily, and of the growing peril which we—and all our descendants—face.
Humanity currently produces more than 140,000 different chemicals, around a third of which are known or suspected of causing cancer, mutations and birth defects or are toxic in some way. Global output of industrial chemicals is around 30 million tonnes a year, which the UN Environment Program (UNEP) thinks could triple by the mid-century.
But industrial chemicals are just the tip of the iceberg. Each year humanity also release 130 million tonnes of nitrogen and phosphorus (mainly from food production or poor waste disposal), 400 million tonnes of hazardous wastes, 13 billion tonnes of fossil fuels, 30 billion tonnes of mineral wastes, 35 billion tonnes of carbon, and 75 billion tonnes of topsoil. This is, by far, our biggest impact on the planet and all life on it, including ourselves. Yet most citizens and governments seem unaware of its true scale.
Scientific evidence shows these substances are now moving relentlessly round the Earth in water, air, soil, animals, fish, food, trade, in people and in our very genes. Researchers have found toxic man-made chemicals from the stratosphere to the deep oceans, from the peak of Mt Everest (where fresh snow is too polluted to drink, by Australian standards) to remote Pacific atolls, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Toxic chemicals are now being routinely found by researchers in birds, fish, mammals and other life-forms which have never had contact with humans. They occur throughout our food chains.
Tests reveal that the modern citizen is a walking contaminated site. The US Centers for Disease Control’s regular survey find industrial ‘chemicals of concern’ in the blood of 90-100 per cent of Americans.  The Environmental Working Group, a US NGO, in independent tests reported finding 414 industrial toxins in 186 people ranging in age from newborns to grandparents. 
EWG also found 212 chemicals of concern, including dioxins, flame retardants and known carcinogens in the blood of new-born babies, who were contaminated while still in the womb. Tests from China, America and Europe have revealed pesticides in the breast milk of nursing mothers – and most loving parents now immerse their children in petrochemicals of known and unknown toxicity – toys, clothing, furnishings, bottles, tableware, food, the home itself, the car, scents and cleansers. Australian research has found that even when dead and buried, people re-release some toxins back into groundwater. Groundwater beneath many of the world’s big cities is now so polluted from this and from industrial emissions as to be undrinkable.
Complex mixtures of chemicals now reach us in the air we breathe, the food and drink we consume, and the things we touch every day. We are passing their effects on to our children and grandchildren in our genes, ensuring they lead less healthy lives. This has all happened in just a few decades, and especially in the last 25 years.  No previous generations of humans were so exposed, or so polluted.
UNEP estimates about 5 million people die and 86 million are disabled yearly by chemicals directly, making it one of the world’s leading causes of death – yet this does not include millions more cases where chemicals are implicated in common diseases like cancers, heart disease, obesity, autism, depression and other life-threatening mental disorders. 
These chemicals – intentional and unintentional – interact with the tens of thousands of others in our environment and daily intake to create billions of potentially toxic mixtures. The eminent Harvard medical Professor Philippe Grandjean, in recent article in The Lancet, called on all countries to ‘transform their chemical-risk assessment procedures in order to protect children from everyday toxins that may be causing a global ‘silent epidemic’ of brain development disorders’.
Every year up to 1000 new chemicals are released onto markets worldwide, mostly without proper health, safety or environmental testing. Regulation has so far banned just eighteen out of 143,000 known industrial chemicals in a handful of countries. At such rates of progress it will take us another 50,000 years to assess and ban all the substances that may be harmful, country by country – so national regulation holds few answers. 
Furthermore, the globalised chemical industry is rapidly moving out of the developed world (where it is generally well-regulated and ethical) and into developing countries, mainly in Asia, where it is largely beyond the reach of the law. Its toxic emissions are already returning to citizens well-regulated countries in wind, water, food, wildlife, consumer goods and people – and there is little done to stop this.
Doctors report the emergence of ‘new’ conditions, like ADHD and certain childhood cancers in young children, as well as unexplained increases in once-uncommon  diseases like Alzheimers, Parkinsons, depression, autism and other mental disorders, obesity, diabetes and cancers, whose modern upsurge is now linked in thousands of medical research papers to humanity’s multiple chemical exposure. 
The issue to consider is that most, if not all, of these conditions are preventable. Nobody has to suffer or die from chemical exposure.
The world has been aware of chemical pollution since Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring’ haslf a century ago - but has regarded it as local issue, restricted to specific sites, chemicals or end uses.  This is no longer true: chemotoxicity is now universal and represents a challenge at the species level. An Australian-led scientific effort to assess the full extent of our risk is now under way – the Global Contamination Initiative (GCI).
Chemicals and minerals are valuable and extremely useful.  They do great good, save many lives and much money. Nobody is saying they should all be banned. But something must be done about the current uncontrolled, unmonitored, unregulated and unconscionable mass release and planetary saturation.
If governments cannot stem the toxic flood, the task must fall to millions of individual citizens, acting in their own best interests and those of their grandchildren. In a globalised world only we, the people, are powerful enough, as consumers, to send the market signals to industry to cease poisonous emissions – and to reward it for producing clean, safe, healthy products or services. For the first time in human history, the means exist to share a universal understanding of a common threat and what we can each do to mitigate it – through the internet and social media. This will be an expression of people power and global democracy like none before.
Finally, as I argue in the book Poisoned Planet, we need a new human right: a right not to be poisoned. Without such a right, and its universal observance, there will probably never again be another day in our history when we are not.
Editor's Note: Julian Cribb is an Australian science writer and founder of ScienceAlert, with more than 30 awards for journalism. He has written nine books, including Poisoned Planet: How constant exposure to man-made chemicals is putting your life at risk, Allen & Unwin, 2014Buy the Kindle version for international audiences.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Fracking Outpaces Science on Its Impact

environment Yale

Fracking Outpaces Science on Its Impact

© Balazs Justin
Just a decade ago, only the smallest sliver of the U.S. population had even heard of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Today, it’s one of the most incendiary environmental topics going. In recent years, wells built for this form of natural gas extraction have spread by the thousands through various parts of the country, an expansion many argue outpaces the science done to understand its potential impacts. Whether fracking can continue spreading without major harm to the environment or public health, and whether it promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, are questions researchers are still working to answer.
Fracking is a process for extracting natural gas from shale layers typically thousands of feet deep. These targeted shales aren’t especially permeable, meaning most of the gas is trapped. So drillers blast the rock layers with highly pressurized water containing chemicals that reduce friction between water and rock. The chemicals make up only a small fraction of the fluid. A few, such as ethylene glycol, are toxic, and some constituents of fluid mixes are protected as trade secrets. Sand in the mix helps to prop open the cracks that will release the natural gas.

Fracking has dramatically increased the amount of natural gas accessible to drillers in the United States. Indeed, after natural gas imports peaked in 2007, the country has seen a boom in domestic production and in construction of natural gas power plants. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that by 2035 electricity production using natural gas will roughly double to meet about half the country’s electricity needs.

Key natural gas sources, like the Marcellus-Utica shale beds beneath parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, are typically situated beneath rural regions. Some people living in such areas and benefiting from jobs or sales of drilling rights welcome the expansion. But many other residents have grown increasingly fearful that natural gas extraction using fracking might unintentionally foul their water supplies and other environmental resources.

As fracking and associated issues have gained increasing attention, interest in the topic has spread far beyond those living in the shale regions. “People have widely varying opinions,” says James Saiers, professor of hydrology at F&ES. “But my experience suggests that these opinions are often not very informed.” He and others at Yale are taking part in a panel discussion on September 18 on a topic that is literally reshaping many parts of the country.
In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.
— EPA administrator Lisa Jackson
Perhaps the greatest fear tied to fracking is that the process and associated activities will contaminate drinking water sources. The Independent Petroleum Association of America, a natural-gas industry representative, maintained in a recent press release that there have been “… no proven cases of hydraulic fracturing impacting groundwater.” EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has similarly, though more equivocally, said, “In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” But there are several routes by which fracking could at least potentially cause problems.

Despite the high pressures involved with fracking, researchers such as Saiers say it’s unlikely that the fracking itself, which might occur a mile or more below the surface, could actually blast a path to drinking water sources, which are typically just a few hundred feet down. “That’s a reasonable assumption,” says Saiers, based on definitive microseismic studies conducted during fracking operations. “A lot of qualified hydrologists would believe that.”

Supporting Research and Affected Communities

Philip JohnsonWhen Phil Johnson first left Yale to become a senior officer with The Heinz Endowments’ environment program, hydraulic fracturing was the last thing he thought he’d be working on. Though he grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., situated above part of the Marcellus-Utica Shale, he, like most people at that time in 2009, barely knew what fracking was.

But the topic was beginning to raise concerns in Pennsylvania, where the organization focuses its work. So Heinz asked Johnson, who has both public health and environmental science master’s degrees from Yale and will receive his FES Ph.D. shortly, to explore how the organization could best support fracking research and community activities. “New extraction activity was emerging before our eyes,” says Johnson. “We wanted to get up to speed quickly to determine what, if any, kind of grant-making we could do to address it.”

As Johnson and program director Caren Glotfelty dug into the topic, one of the first priorities they identified was establishing baseline health and environmental data to better discern potential problems. The realization of this need came, in part, after studying the experiences of people in areas such as Wyoming, where such baseline information was severely lacking. This was, for instance, making it very difficult for families and communities to tie air- and water-quality issues to fracking and related activities they felt were to blame.

“If you don’t have baseline knowledge, it’s hard to do decision-making,” says Johnson. “It’s hard to understand what the future scenarios might be and respond to them.”

With Heinz support, research groups around Pennsylvania have been able to develop monitoring techniques and datasets. Johnson points out that such work is just a start, as comprehensive monitoring would ultimately require support from a number of other sources—support that researchers are now better equipped to seek.

Heinz has made a concerted effort to support community groups gathering health and other information in the region and training others to do so. They have also supported the establishment of key information sources for residents, such as the website fracktracker.org. “The idea is that the more groups there are engaging in a coordinated fashion across a large geography, the more we’ll be able to collectively understand whether or not there are impacts—positive or negative—and at what scale.”
A related hypothesis is that cracks resulting from fracking make connections with existing cracks, allowing fluids and gases to migrate higher up than expected. Some modeling suggests it’s possible. Seismic tests can reveal where cracks run, but typically not to a degree that can determine whether there are continuous paths. Saiers says that systematic tests haven’t been done to fully prove this issue, leading to assumptions on both sides of the debate.

But there are other points of concern. If wells aren’t properly installed, specifically if there are problems with the concrete used to seal the space between the main well pipe and the surrounding earth, then fracking fluid or methane could find its way toward the surface via the improperly sealed space. Over time well pipes themselves can also corrode and leak, creating other pathways.

A related issue is that in some fracking regions, oil and natural gas drilling has been going on for decades or even a century, leaving a legacy of over 150,000 abandoned wells scattered about Pennsylvania alone. The old pipes or deteriorated concrete casings could be conduits between the upper and lower reaches. Initial investigation of a recent geyser of methane and water near fracking operations in Union Township, Penn., suggested that a 70-year-old abandoned and unmapped well might have been the methane pathway that caused the problem.

And, of course, while most attention focuses on the fracking itself, that process is only one component of an overall drilling operation. Various stages of fracking that have to do with handling fluids, for instance, offer at least the potential for spills or leaks that could affect water sources.

There have been some high-profile cases in Pavilion, Wyo., and Dimock, Penn, where government or other analyses have found elevated levels of volatile organic compounds, such as benzene and methane, in wells close to natural gas operations but without making definitive connections. And the documentary Gasland drew attention to cases of families plagued by well-water contamination issues they believe came about only after drilling began in their areas.

Natural gas companies have settled some legal claims with such homeowners, but without admission of guilt. Some researchers have raised questions about the accuracy of some of the material in Gasland, but Saiers says one thing about the film not in question is how it depicts the angst of families struggling with major water problems. “When it shows how people feel about it, that’s legitimate,” says Saiers. “And it’s important.”

In most cases, fracking operations are in less affluent rural areas where citizens often rely on private wells and have fewer resources to address water supply problems or to fight against companies they feel may be responsible. But Saiers says socioeconomic disparities don’t seem to be a key driver in where drilling spreads. The richest shale just tends to be in rural areas, and urban areas with far fewer open spaces are harder to tap anyway. “My impression is that these companies follow the gas,” he says.

Probing Insurance Industry’s Concern Over Fracking

Matthew JokajtysAfter completing a joint law and environmental management degree at F&ES and Pace in 2011, Matthew Jokajtys went to work for a global insurance company and was struck by a growing concern within the industry about fracking. As an extracurricular project, he dug into the topic, and the results of his inquiry will be published in an upcoming issue of the American Bar Association’s journal, Natural Resources and Environment Magazine.

In July Nationwide, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, announced it wouldn’t cover any personal or commercial claims for damages, such as drinking water contamination, potentially tied to fracking. Their argument is that this is not a new policy but simply a clarification of existing policy. And though Nationwide’s position has yet to be challenged in court, it’s a good indicator of fear and uncertainty in the industry.

“Based on what I’ve seen, it seems like the controversy surrounding insurance policies doesn’t necessarily stem directly from the act of fracking,” says Jokajtys, who now works at a boutique environmental law firm in Manhattan. “It stems partially from the controversy surrounding it.” In particular, the fierce stances some citizens are taking on fracking have insurance companies wary of what’s to come.

But with so much fracking activity, it’s clear that businesses will need the insurance issues settled, perhaps through companies offering new insurance products that directly cover fracking hazards claims.

Alternatively, some fear fracking could become uninsurable. Jokajtys says that would mean costs for related injuries, property damage or environmental declines would fall to individual companies, taxpayers or even the victims of any problems that might arise. Another option, he says, would be for states to set up funds to cover damages as they have for problems with leaking underground storage tanks.

“Insurance is all about pricing risk, and if the insurance industry doesn’t have enough information to accurately price that risk,” says Jokajtys, “they’re not going to want to develop and sell the products.”
There are, however, rich shales in the watershed that supplies New York City. That rural watershed remains untapped because the state of New York has a temporary moratorium on fracking as debate continues over the best permanent policy.

Flammable taps resulting from excessive methane are a dramatic display of problems potentially tied to fracking. Methane can make its way into drinking water through a variety of paths apart from fracking, such as from abandoned wells, because it exists throughout various subsurface layers. Saiers says peer-reviewed studies have found methane in drinking water aquifers prior to shale gas development.

A Duke University study of water wells in New York and Pennsylvania released last year in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that methane levels were significantly higher in wells closer to fracking operations. As important, the researchers found that, at least in some cases, this methane had a chemical signature closer to that of methane from the deep shale than from shallower subsurface layers.

“Not surprisingly the industry wasn’t overjoyed with our conclusions about methane,” says lead author Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke. But some environmentalists were upset too, he says, because the study also concluded there were no signs of fracking fluids in the wells, and some detractors felt they hadn’t done enough to test for this possibility. Then there were the people that called him up in tears because they were so thankful that someone was even looking closely at the issue.

Some also criticized Jackson’s team for not comparing their methane measurements against baseline measurements taken before fracking began, but that’s because the data simply don’t exist. For a variety of reasons, baseline water-quality measurements and studies have been sparse, though newer regulations in Pennsylvania do require water quality testing prior to new drilling.

Jackson believes the simplest explanation for his group’s findings is that the methane is coming up through or around abandoned oil or natural gas wells or new wells that were inadequately cased. He says that some of the water wells his group has tested were so saturated with methane that the water bubbled like champagne. So while it’s true that methane can contaminate wells without any help from fracking, he says even without baseline data, if a person begins seeing such an obvious sign of contamination as bubbling after fracking begins, it can be a reliable indicator or a connection. Too much methane in water can cause an explosion, but Jackson says it’s not clear what, if any, health threats that low concentrations of methane pose.

Technological advances have enabled companies to drill horizontally and reach shale miles away from the well head. This reduces the surface footprint of operations, but the thousands upon thousands of these rigs still arrive with consequences.

In Pennsylvania, access roads for fracked wells must often be cut through some of the region’s most pristine remaining forests. Roadways also typically have to cross streams and, depending on how they are constructed, can block water flow needed by plants and animals downstream. But a more widespread concern is the ecological effects of companies tapping waterways to get the millions of gallons needed for fracking wells.

Studying Fracking’s Demand on Water

Tara MobergOne key environmental concern associated with fracking is how much water the process consumes. Fracking a single well can take millions of gallons—a third of that amount makes its way back up the well as “flowback,” and has to be collected and processed or recycled.

Since completing her master’s in environmental science at F&ES in 2008, Tara Moberg has spent much of her time thinking about the ecological implications of removing billions of gallons of water from waterways in the Marcellus-Utica shale region, whether for fracking or other industrial uses.

As a freshwater scientist with The Nature Conservancy, she’s helping to complete a study commissioned by Pennsylvania state agencies analyzing the minimum flow needs for waterways in the region, with the goal of informing policy decisions on water removal.

The long-term study first focused on the massive Susquehanna, whose basin runs from New York through Pennsylvania to Maryland and includes everything from small tributaries to the deep, wide waters of the main river farther south.

Moberg and her colleagues begin a basin study by first examining the different types of ecosystems found there. They identify the species found in each, and the processes, such as stream velocity, that affect them. Then they set up workshops with regional experts and review available data on key species to figure out how their water needs change throughout the year.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission used The Nature Conservancy’s Susquehanna report as the basis for a new draft policy on water withdrawals and minimum waterway levels. Thousands of comments on the policy, particularly from industry, have poured in, and the final policy hasn’t yet been announced.
One potential positive for natural gas is that it burns relatively cleanly. In simplest terms, burning natural gas produces substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil. Based on this, some have pointed to a potential role for expanded natural gas use—made possible thanks to fracking—as a transition to renewable energy. Natural gas also burns much cleaner than coal without releasing pollutants such as mercury and sulfur dioxide.

But reality rarely plays out in simplest terms. At each step along the natural-gas production line—from drilling, to transport, to use—there are opportunities for leakage. A key phase comes when drilling and fracking operations are completed and operators must connect the new well to a production pipeline. Methane coming from the new well can be lost during this switchover and either burned off or flared, converting it to carbon dioxide, or vented straight to the atmosphere.

Because methane, which is the main constituent of natural gas, is a much more efficient heat trapper than carbon dioxide, venting and flaring it can eliminate some of the benefits of lower greenhouse gas emissions provided by natural gas. These losses, along with other leakage, could be pumping a substantial amount of methane into the atmosphere, but just how much isn’t clear.

“The bottom line is, there have to be more measurements in many more places to really constrain these leakage rates,” says Saiers. And transporting huge amounts of water used in fracking, and the resulting waste, can also lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

Regardless, at least some of the losses might be controlled. Earlier this year the EPA put in place new regulations to improve poor air quality associated with drilling. Companies will now be required to use equipment that prevents the leakage of methane and other gases during drilling—techniques known as “green completions”—though flaring methane into the atmosphere will still be legal during a transition phase that ends in 2015.
Without a policy—and the United States isn’t good with energy policy—there’s a real possibility that natural gas would delay development of renewables.
— James Saiers, F&ES hydrology professor
There’s also a less obvious concern about natural gas’ potential role in climate change. The issue is price. For now, sustainable power sources, such as wind and solar, remain much more expensive per unit of energy than fossil fuels. As oil prices have risen in recent years, oil has become nearly as expensive as renewables, making pursuit of sustainable options more economically feasible.

But the United States’ massive shale natural gas reserves and frenzied expansion of drilling have pushed natural gas prices down. It’s now so cheap that many power companies have shifted toward greatly expanded natural gas use. With such a cheap, domestic energy source dominating the U.S. energy landscape, it could dramatically slow any movement toward more expensive renewables.

Besides green completions rules, there have been other recent regulatory changes to address some fracking concerns. Pennsylvania beefed up rules for concrete casings for wells and now requires baseline water sampling around new drilling sites, for instance.

But many still wonder how safely fracking can be done on a larger scale. Researchers say that too many open questions remain. “As big as the issue is, there is not a tremendous amount of new science on the environmental impacts of fracking,” says Saiers.
The question isn’t ‘can hydraulic fracturing be done safely?’ It’s ‘will it be done safely?’
— Robert Jackson, Duke University environmental scientist
Duke’s Jackson says that even with the uncertainties, the current debate is far more divisive than it needs to be. “The hydraulic fracturing debate is like our political debate—it’s just unnecessarily polarized. There are many people out there, I believe, who just want there to be a problem,” he says. “On the other hand, my frustration with industry is their unwillingness to acknowledge any problems whatsoever.” That unwillingness, he suggests, complicates research efforts by preventing the release of some data and makes it look like industry is hiding something.

There have been problems, but Jackson says it’s also important to remember that numerous wells have been drilled and used without causing any known problems. “The question isn’t ‘can hydraulic fracturing be done safely?’ It’s ‘will it be done safely?’.”

U.S. Acid Rain Regulations: Did They Work?


U.S. Acid Rain Regulations: Did They Work?

by Bill Chameides | May 10th, 2012 
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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U.S. acid rain regulations have worked. What’s more, they didn’t seem to get in the way of the country’s longest economic expansion.
Environmental regulations are none too popular these days. According to some, they’re plain ineffective; for others, they’re job killers; and for still others they’re downright un-American , subversive even. The answer for these anti-regulation hawks: roll back regulations, and rein in or even do away with the Environmental Protection Agency.
That stuff may play well to a polarized electorate, but it’s not a sound idea. Why? A healthy, vibrant people and environment are what makes living in the United States so great, and we can thank EPA and, more broadly, environmental regulations for a good deal of that vibrancy.

Case in Point: The U.S. Acid Rain Program

Acid rain, according to data I came across last week from the University of Delaware, dropped remarkably in Lewes, Delaware, between 1990 and 2010, a decline attributed to emission cuts enforced through the acid rain program. How did that happen? Funny you should ask.
The program to address the growing acidity in rain falling in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s was established in the Clean Air Act amendments signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. The relevant section, Title IV, required large cuts in the emissions of sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides from power plants “to reduce the adverse effects of acid deposition.” These emissions cuts would have the added benefit of reducing fine particle pollution and ozone, which can lead to aggravated heart and lung problems, including asthma, irregular heartbeats, and nonfatal heart attacks. The cuts would also reduce haze, which limits visibility in places where visibility is important — our national parks, for example.
Quite controversial at the time, Title IV prescribed a cap-and-trade mechanism for reaching a nationwide target for sulfur dioxide emissions — controversial for acid rain then, controversial for climate change now. Another source of controversy was the program’s supposed costs: industry projected them to go as high as $1,000-$1,500 per ton of sulfur dioxide reduced, while forecasting a hike from all the Clean Air Act amendments on many states’ electricity prices of up to 10 percent [pdf]. Other early projections, from sources ranging from industry to government, estimated that the annual cost of compliance for the sulfur dioxide portion of the program would be between $2.4 billion and $5 billion [pdf] for 1995-1999.
Bottom line, said many, especially those in industry: too expensive.

So What Happened With Our Acid Rain Problems?

Fortunately we are in a position to answer that question, at least in part, because the government had the foresight to establish the National Acid Deposition Program (NADP), which among other things maintains a national network of sites monitoring air quality and the composition of precipitation throughout the country.
In the case of the acidity of rain, the results are striking. Over a period of 16 years, from 1994 to 2010, we have seen a decrease in the concentration of acid-forming compounds in rain falling on the Northeast, where ecological impacts of acid rain were most severe, and in the Southeast. Other NADP data indicate that lakes and streams in some affected areas have begun to recover. That sounds like success, but there is a caveat. The emission reductions accomplished thus far do not look to be sufficient to have restored some of our waterways to complete health. For example, while “sulfate deposited by rain in New England” has declined by about 40 percent, according to NADP data, EPA says“more time and more emissions reductions are needed before the lakes and rivers in New England will fully recover from the effects of acid rain.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the acid rain program with its use of cap and trade was very effective in reducing emissions of acid rain-causing pollutants. Emissions of sulfur dioxide in 2009 were about one third of what they were in 1990.

These maps demonstrate the change in acid precipitation from 1994 to 2010. Hydrogen ion is a measure of the acidity of precipitation, and wet deposition means that the acidity is incorporated into precipitation considered “wet,’ such as rain, snow, fog and mist. (Source: National Atmospheric Deposition Program)

OK, but What About the Economics?

Was the acid rain program an economic downer for the United States? Consider three measures.
  1. Costs – Projected vs. Actual: Remember those early cost estimates of up to $5 billion annually to run the sulfur dioxide program between 1995 and 1999?The U.S. Energy Information Administration, the agency tasked with providing Congress with objective, nonpartisan data and analyses related to energy, has calculated that the annual costs were only $836 million. The actual cost range per ton of sulfur dioxide [pdf]during this period was between $100 and $200. EPA’s initial 1990 estimate, which had projected that annual costs for the sulfur dioxide program from 2000 on would rise to about $6 billion annually [pdf], was also off: the actual annual costs for the whole program since 2000 have been about half that [pdf].
    And the health benefits from Title IV to us Americans in the form of improved air quality are estimated to be in the range of hundreds of billions of dollars annually [pdf]. Not bad.
  2. Electricity bills: Did the regulations foisted upon the power industry lead to a huge jump in our electricity prices? You won’t find any evidence for that from the EIA.As illustrated below, U.S. electricity prices at first rose modestly before falling through the 1990s as the program was implemented. Prices have risen in the 2000s. The group’s latest reportprojects modestly falling prices in 2013 due to the low cost of natural gas.

    Chart calculated from these EIA data [pdf] and the data [xls] found in Figure 24 of this EIA report from May 2012.
  3. Economic expansion. And finally it is perhaps relevant to note that the acid rain program took off in the 1990s at the same time the nation’s longest economic expansion, with its almost 21 million jobs added to the economy, took off.
The environment and the economy. At least in the case of the acid rain program, looks like you can have your cake and eat it to.
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