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Greenwashing Fracking's Devastating Climate Impact



By Sharon Kelly

Several years ago, Utah public health officials realized they had a big problem on their hands—one with national implications as other states were racing to increase oil and gas drilling. Smog levels in the state’s rural Uintah basin were rivaling those found in Los Angeles or Houston on their worst days.

Smog lines the valley in Salt Lake County, UT, on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. Photo credit: Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News.

The culprit, an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report concluded earlier this year: oil and gas operations. The industry was responsible for roughly 99 percent of the volatile organic compounds found in the basin, which mixed under sunlight with nitrogen oxides—at least 57 percent of which also came from oil and gas development—to form the choking smog, so thick that the nearby Salt Lake City airport was forced to divert flights when the smog was at its worst.

But the haze over the Uintah isn’t the most dangerous air pollutant coming from the oil and gas fields in the valley.

A string of studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show that the core ingredient in natural gas, methane, is leaking at rates far higher than previously suspected. This methane has climate change impacts that, on a pound-for-pound basis, will be far more powerful over the next two decades than the carbon dioxide emissions that have been the focus of most climate change discussions.

The smog problem is especially pronounced in Utah. But a growing body of research nationwide suggests that methane is leaking from the natural gas industry at levels far higher than previously known.

In Washington D.C., pressure is mounting to ignore these methane leaks. The oil and gas industry says there is no time to waste. We must proceed immediately with the "all-of-the-above" national energy strategy they say, code for "drill baby drill". This pressure is coming not only from the natural gas industry itself, but also from a surprising ally: the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which has supported natural gas development as a “bridge” from coal to renewables.

This position has drawn renewed accusations that the EDF is “greenwashing” for the natural gas industry.

“On balance, we think substituting natural gas for coal can provide net environmental value, including a lower greenhouse gas footprint,” wrote EDF’s Mark Brownstein last year.

The methane leaks that researchers from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and from NOAA recorded ranged from 6 to 12 percent of annual production—worrisome because many researchers, including those from the EDF, say that if natural gas leaks at more than 3.2 percent overall, any climate change benefit from switching away from coal for electricity generation and burning natural gas instead will be lost.

This point bears restating: the federal officials who did actual site testing found leaks of methane at least double the rate that most experts say nullify natural gas' climate benefits over coal.

Earlier this year, the EPA released a report lowering its official estimate for methane leaks nationwide to 1.5 percent, but that estimate has been criticized for relying too heavily on “industry guesses.”

Unlike the EPA's estimate, the NOAA report is an on-the-ground measurement of leaks on one day in the Uintah, which produces 1 percent of the country’s natural gas supply.

One coauthor of the study, Colm Sweeney, from CIRES at the University of Colorado Boulder, said he was surprised by what he termed the “huge amount” of methane emissions. “We’re estimating that 9 percent of that is just leaking right out, never getting to the end of the pipeline ... to the actual user point,” he told Climate Central.

The NOAA research represents one of the first major independent initiatives to take real world cumulative measurements of methane emissions from gas leaks. The researchers had to develop new methods of assessing how much of the gas had leaked, which they say can now be used by both the federal government and industry to assess leaks elsewhere.

“We used a mass balance technique, which means we follow an air mass as it moves into the region and then flows out,” said Mr. Sweeney. “We look at the difference in methane between those two to determine an actual emissions rate for the region.”

There has been a dearth of data about methane leaks, especially those associated with the shale gas boom. Earlier this year, the EPA’s own internal watchdog, the Inspector General, called for more data on air emissions from the natural gas industry, including methane leaks. But the EPA has resisted some of the steps the Inspector’s office recommended, the Inspector General wrote in its Feb. 20 report.

A few non-EPA studies this year have also provided data points on methane leaks.

Robert Jackson, a scientist at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, and Boston University's Nathan Phillips measured leaks from natural gas distribution systems in Boston and Washington D.C., but have yet to calculate leakage rates based on their measurements.

Earlier this year, another NOAA study used aircraft and ground measurement and found roughly 17 percent of the natural gas produced in the LA region was leaking. The LA measurements represented the region’s total leaks throughout the lifecycle of natural gas production and distribution since all of the elements involved, including drilling and fracking, distribution pipelines and end-users of the natural gas, are present in the Los Angeles basin.

Into this fray has stepped the Environmental Defense Fund. The EDF is undertaking a multi-part study of methane emissions from oil and gas drilling, studying leaks at each stage, including the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel.

In Feb. 2012, EDF published a paper that found that as long as rate of emissions from a typical well is less than 3.2 percent of lifetime production, natural gas is better than coal for electrical production. That 3.2 percent is an important number, according to EDF’s report—it’s the threshold at which natural gas no longer makes climate sense as a transition fuel as a replacement for coal for the nation’s electricity.

EDF supports some regulation to curb methane leaks, but if the levels found in Utah, Boston and LA are indicative of leaks nationwide, it may be extremely difficult—and expensive—for the natural gas industry to achieve the extreme reductions necessary to fall below that threshold.

EDF has been aggressively touting its upcoming research as the definitive study on methane leaks, yet results from the first phase of the study have been long delayed.

Some in the research community fear that EDF is positioning itself to undermine independent research by portraying its series as the only definitive science on methane leaks.

“There are only two possible outcomes to this EDF study, after it’s been peer reviewed: one outcome is that the policy currently in place involves acceptable risk, the other is that it involves unacceptable risk,” said Professor Tony Ingraffea, one of the foremost experts on methane and climate change, and the co-author of a seminal paper that first called into question the claimed climate benefits of natural gas.

“It’s not that policy decisions have to be made, they’d have to be unmade,” if the study finds that leaks are higher than 3.2 percent, he added, citing EDF’s stated support for natural gas over coal.

Since at least December 2012, EDF has said that its University of Texas-led study is due out “in coming weeks.” The delays have caused speculation that either the paper ran into resistance during the peer-review process or that the methane levels found were not what the authors had anticipated.

In the meantime, EDF representatives have been giving statements to media outlets that undermine other research.

“While the Colorado and Utah studies offer valuable snapshots of a specific place on a specific day, neither is a systematic measurement across geographies and extended time periods and that is what’s necessary to accurately scope the dimensions of the fugitive methane problem. For this reason, conclusions should not be drawn about total leakage based on these preliminary, localized reports [emphasis in original],” the EDF website says in regards to the NOAA study. This post was seized on by the shale industry’s public relations arm, Energy in Depth, who used it to downplay the federal findings.

The EDF’s methane emissions study is heavily industry funded. Those backing the University of Texas study include Anadarko, BG Group, Chevron, Encana, Pioneer Natural Resources, Shell, Southwestern Energy, Talisman Energy and XTO Energy, an ExxonMobil subsidiary.

EDF itself says that it takes "no money from corporate partners" to preserve its independence.

But according to Sourcewatch, “this is extremely misleading, since EDF does aggressively seek funding from employees, board members and investors in corporations including (and probably especially) its formal corporate partners. EDF also considers on a case by case basis whether to accept major donations from foundations set up by corporations.”

The financial backing for the EDF's University of Texas study is public information and has been disclosed, meaning that their industry backing is at least transparent. What EDF has not disclosed is who sits on the review panel that will help to prepare the study for publication. Those individuals may help shape the conclusions that EDF draws from the methane leaks it records.

Even more importantly, researchers have been calling on the EDF to release the measurements it records as part of the study so that independent assessments of the data can be conducted. So far, EDF has been silent on whether it will release this data and essentially subject itself to the sort of peer review that Cornell Professor Ingraffea and Duke Professor Jackson did when they published their findings.

In terms of the long-run prospects for natural gas drilling in the U.S.—indeed for the very real chance that the energy industry is in the process of tethering our climate fate to more fossil fuel extraction for decades to come—there is no question more important than this one about methane leakages. How much of the gas is actually escaping to the environment? Are those levels as bad as coal or worse for climate change? How is all this tied to the state of renewable energy growth in America?

For now, the only thing that seems clear is that, much as Utah has a growing smog problem, clouds seem to be gathering over EDF's research.

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE and FRACKING pages for more related news on this topic.


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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

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"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."


The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."


Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.