In Wake of Superstorm Sandy Ocean Advocates Decry Proposed Seismic Airgun Testing in Atlantic
Today, 22 organizations—from fishermen to ocean advocates and marine scientists, including Clean Ocean Action, Oceana and Surfrider Foundation—sent a letter to Secretary Salazar at the Department of the Interior (DOI) requesting that proposed seismic airgun testing in the Atlantic Ocean be cancelled in wake of superstorm Sandy.
On March 30, the DOI announced that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) had prepared a Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) to evaluate potential environmental effects of a decade-long seismic and geophysical survey program for the Mid- and South Atlantic Outer-Continental Shelf (OCS) planning areas.
A decision is expected soon from DOI as to which “alternative” will be chosen as preferred. At public hearings held in a few towns and cities this past summer, community, environmental, fishing, faith-based and public interest organizations and businesses called for a “no-action alternative” which would close the door to Atlantic Ocean oil and gas surveys.
From Florida to Maine, the Atlantic coast is in a state of emergency as communities and economies dig out from under the debris generated by Hurricane Sandy. Along many parts of the Atlantic coast, recovery is just getting underway and rebuilding is only distantly on the horizon. Cumulatively, Hurricanes Sandy, Lee, Irene and others, along with nor’easters and other recent extreme weather events have battered the most densely populated parts of the U.S. coastline. The industries and economies upon which many of these coastal states rely are facing a long road of recovery ahead.
“With declared fisheries disasters in New York and New Jersey, entire townships and clean coastal economies in tatters, and uncounted homeless families, it is unthinkable that the federal government would further burden our marine environment with proposed Atlantic Ocean oil and gas activities,” said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. “Big Oil had no place in the Atlantic Ocean before this disaster, and the impacts from seismic testing would add unthinkable insult to injury,” Zipf continued.
“Seismic airguns could injure 138,500 whales and dolphins, according to government estimates, and that’s unacceptable,” said Jacqueline Savitz, deputy vice president for U.S. campaigns at Oceana. “The true impacts are likely much higher due to faulty assumptions in the government’s study. Seismic airguns must be stopped to save marine life, and at the very least, the flawed science used to assess these impacts must be revised prior to deciding on next steps."
“Our coastal communities depend on a healthy ocean for industries such as tourism, recreation, and fishing,” said Pete Stauffer, ocean program manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “Allowing seismic exploration off our coast would cause major impacts to the marine ecosystem, and produce more economic hardship at a time we can least afford it.”
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Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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