Fracking in Bakken Oilfield Largely Responsible for Global Rise in Ethane
The Bakken shale oilfield is largely responsible for most of a mysterious global rise in atmospheric ethane—a pollutant that can harm human health and heat the atmosphere further—peer-reviewed research published last week reveals.
The Bakken, which stretches from North Dakota and Montana into Canada, has made headlines over the past decade for its sudden drilling boom (and an equally sudden job market bust as oil prices have plunged over the past year).
But while the drilling boom made North Dakota the nation's second largest oil-producing state, the amount of hydrocarbons leaking and being deliberately vented from the oil field may have been enough to alter the composition of the Earth's atmosphere slightly, reversing a long-running decline in ethane levels worldwide.
The Bakken alone is responsible for roughly two percent of the ethane emitted into the atmosphere worldwide, the newly published paper concludes.
“Two percent might not sound like a lot, but the emissions we observed in this single region are 10 to 100 times larger than reported in inventories,” Eric Kort, a University of Michigan assistant Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering and lead author of the study, said in a statement.
“They directly impact air quality across North America,” he said. “And they're sufficient to explain much of the global shift in ethane concentrations.”
Ethane is the second-most common hydrocarbon in the atmosphere and helps form ozone, a gas that at ground-level is usually called smog, the notorious haze that can cause people breathing problems and damage crops.
Smog has long been associated with fracking due to emissions of other pollutants—volatile organic compounds or VOCs—part of the reason that remote areas of Utah have recently suffered from a suffocating blanket of smog at levels higher than those found on summer day in freeway-clogged Los Angeles. But the role of ethane in smog problems is far less widely discussed.
Ethane also contributes to climate change in three ways: as a greenhouse gas itself (though it's extremely short-lived in the atmosphere so these effects are relatively fleeting), by extending the lifespan of the powerful greenhouse gas methane (because it consumes compounds that help break methane down) and because it helps to form smog, which the researchers described as “the third-largest contributor to human-caused global warming after carbon dioxide and methane.”
It turns out that gas from the Bakken is unusually rich in ethane—sometimes representing as much as half of the natural gas produced from the shale, whereas natural gas is commonly made of roughly 90 percent methane, the scientists concluded.
On 12 days in May 2014, the researchers flew a small twin-engine airplane, a kind commonly used by skydivers, over the Bakken oil field, measuring the composition of the atmosphere in the region.
Scientists from the University of Michigan, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Columbia University, Stanford University and Harvard University all contributed to the newly published research, which was funded primarily by NOAA and NASA.
“We were interested in understanding the atmospheric impacts of some of these oil and gas fields in the U.S.—particularly oil and gas fields that had a lot of expansion of activities in the last decade,” Kort told the Washington Post.
The team measured for methane, carbon dioxide, ozone and a variety of other substances.
But it was the ethane findings that took them by surprise. The Bakken oilfield was emitting about 250,000 tons of ethane per year.
“We did not expect a single oil field to affect global levels of this gas,” said co-author Colm Sweeney, a scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and NOAA.
From 1984 to 2009, levels of ethane in the air we all breathe had been dropping and scientists had concluded that was likely because refineries and oil fields were venting less natural gas and had made some progress at plugging leaks. But in 2010, a research station in Europe first noticed that ethane levels had spiked—and since that year, levels have been rising rather than falling.
“These findings not only solve an atmospheric mystery—where that extra ethane was coming from—they also help us understand how regional activities sometimes have global impacts,” Sweeney said, adding that other shale oil fields like the Eagle Ford and Permian basins in Texas might also be contributing to the reversal.
Other scientists confirmed that interpretation of the data. “They’ve basically shown here that a single shale can account for most of the ethane increase that you’ve seen in the past year,” Christian Frankenberg, an environmental science and engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology and a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told The Independent.
While the researchers largely focused on what they called “the disproportionate role played by the Bakken region, which represented only 2 percent of shale gas production in the U.S. in May 2014 and yet emitted 1-3 percent of total global ethane emissions,” they also pointed out that other research had reported higher levels of ethane near other shale gas plays, like the Marcellus Shale in the eastern U.S.
In part, the paper demonstrates some of the unexpected impacts that the fracking rush has had on the atmosphere, raising questions about the ability of regulators to police an industry whose impacts continue to surprise scientists over a decade into the shale rush.
“Much attention has focused on fugitive methane emissions from shale gas,” the researchers concluded. “This work demonstrates that we must also consider the impact of fugitive ethane emissions, [especially in areas like the Bakken].”
For years, environmentalists have called attention to the difficulties of regulating an industry whose impacts are not fully understood.
“The rapid scale of fracking has outpaced the scientific information we have on fracking,” analyst Pallavi Phartiyal of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists said in 2013 “and the regulatory response we have on unconventional oil and gas development.”
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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Plain Naturals is making waves in the CBD space with a new product line for retail customers looking for high potency CBD products at industry-low prices.
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By Zheng Chen and Darren H. S. Tan
As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.