A Cornell study released last year, lead by Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology Robert Howarth, was the first of its kind to study the global warming impact of natural gas extraction from shale deposits. The conclusion was that fracking releases up to 8 percent of the extracted methane directly into the atmosphere, and reports that all methane will contribute to 44 percent of global warming. Photo Andrew Michler
In recent days, news reports and blog posts have highlighted the problem of fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production—leakage of a potent greenhouse gas with the potential to undermine the carbon advantage that natural gas, when combusted, holds over other fossil fuels. These news accounts, based on studies in the Denver-Julesburg Basin of Colorado and the Uinta Basin of Utah by scientists affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado at Boulder, have reported leakage rates of 4 percent and 9 percent of total production, respectively—higher than the current U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) leakage estimate of 2.3 percent.
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. Drawing conclusions from such results would be like trying to draw an elephant after touching two small sections of the animal’s skin: the picture is unlikely to be accurate. In the coming months, ongoing work by the NOAA/UC team, as well as by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and other academic and industry partners, will provide a far more systematic view that will greatly increase our understanding of the fugitive methane issue, though additional studies will still be needed to fully resolve the picture. What follows is a briefing on the fugitive methane issue, including the range of measurements currently underway and the need for rigorous data collection along the entire natural gas supply chain.
Why methane leakage matters. Natural gas, which is mostly methane, burns with fewer carbon dioxide emissions than other fossil fuels. However, when uncombusted methane leaks into the atmosphere from wells, pipelines and storage facilities, it acts as a powerful greenhouse gas with enormous implications for global climate change due to its short-term potency: Over a 20-year time frame, each pound of methane is 72 times more powerful at increasing the retention of heat in the atmosphere than a pound of carbon dioxide. Based on EPA’s projections, if we could drastically reduce global emissions of short-term climate forcers such as methane and fluorinated gases over the next 20 years, we could slow the increase in net radiative forcing (heating of the atmosphere) by one third or more.
Fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production, transportation and distribution are the single largest U.S. source of short-term climate forcing gases. The EPA estimates that 2.3 percent of total natural gas production is lost to leakage, but this estimate, based on early 1990’s data, is sorely in need of updating. The industry claims a leakage rate of about 1.6 percent. Cornell University professor Robert Howarth has estimated that total fugitive emissions of 3.6 to 7.9 percent over the lifetime of a well.
To determine the true parameters of the problem, EDF is working with diverse academic partners including the University of Texas at Austin, NOAA/UC scientists and dozens of industry partners on direct measurements of fugitive emissions from the U.S. natural gas supply chain. The initiative is comprised of a series of more than ten studies that will analyze emissions from the production, gathering, processing, long-distance transmission and local distribution of natural gas, and will gather data on the use of natural gas in the transportation sector. In addition to analyzing industry data, the participants are collecting field measurements at facilities across the country. The researchers leading these studies expect to submit the first of these studies for publication in February 2012, with the others to be submitted over the course of the year.
The systemic leakage rate will determine whether or not natural gas provides a net climate benefit, with implications for assessing the relative environmental benefits of fuel switching from coal or diesel to natural gas.
Note: EDF’s model disaggregates the leak rate of 2.8 percent as follows: 2.0 percent is leakage from well to city gate (this applies to power plants); 2.3 percent is leakage from well-to-end user (applies to homes and industrial users); the additional 0.5 percent accounts for leakage from natural gas vehicle refueling and use.
As this chart illustrates, lowering the methane leakage and venting rate to 1 percent of total production would double the climate benefit derived from coal-to-natural gas fuel switching over the next 20 years—producing as much climate benefit in that time as closing one-third of the nation’s coal plants. (This assumes that 1 percent is the amount of natural gas produced at well sites lost to the atmosphere, in comparison to a baseline of 2.8 percent, and that the retired coal-fired generation is replaced with equal parts high efficiency natural gas fired generation and zero-emissions electric generation, such as renewables.)
Preliminary studies. Recently, a series of studies has emerged, each providing a snapshot of leakage from a specific region and a specific segment of the natural gas system at a specific point in time:
- 2010; Fort-Worth, TX: Analysis of reported routine emissions from more than 250 well sites with no compressor engines in Barnett Shale gas well sites in the City of Fort Worth revealed a highly-skewed distribution of emissions, with 10 percent of well sites accounting for nearly 70 percent of total emissions. Natural gas leak rates calculated based on operator-reported, daily gas production data at these well sites ranged from 0 percent to 5 percent, with 6 sites out of 203 showing leak rates of 2.6 percent or greater due to routine emissions alone.
- February 2012; Denver-Julesburg, CO: Tower study by NOAA/UC scientists suggested that up to 4 percent of the methane produced at a field near Denver was escaping into the atmosphere.
- December 2012: At an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, the NOAA/UC team described the unpublished results of a study in the Uinta Basin, Utah, suggesting even higher rates of methane leakage, 9 percent of total production.
- Forthcoming studies include: March 2013 (est.) reporting by University of Texas at Austin (in collaboration with nine corporate partners and EDF) of a study about emissions from gas production; subsequent 2013/early 2014 studies will address gathering, processing, long-distance transmission and local distribution.
Some of these studies have revealed or are likely to reveal relatively high levels of fugitive methane emissions, while others are likely to reveal lower levels. None of them, taken alone or in tandem, can yet provide an accurate picture of system-wide leakage. As a news story in the journal Nature concluded, “Whether the high leakage rates claimed in Colorado and Utah are typical across the U.S. natural-gas industry remains unclear. The NOAA data represent a 'small snapshot' of a much larger picture that the broader scientific community is now assembling.”
Great care should be taken to avoid drawing conclusions based on the partial data these studies provide. This will be a particular challenge given that advocates for natural gas production are likely to call attention to the low-leakage results, while opponents of natural gas production are likely to call attention to the high-leakage results, with each side claiming that the latest study “proves” its argument. Neither claim will be reliably accurate.
In other words, anyone who wants to get this important story right will need to be patient and wait for the more comprehensive results to come in later this year. Until then, no accurate conclusion can be drawn about the full scope of this critical issue. Please proceed with caution.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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A federal judge in Montana ordered William Perry Pendley, the head of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to quit immediately after finding that the Trump administration official had served in the post unlawfully for 14 months, according to CNN.
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'Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution': New Paper Outlines Vision for Climate Action
By Andrea Germanos
A white paper out Friday declares that "there is hope right beneath our feet" to address the climate crisis as it touts regenerative agriculture as a "win-win-win" solution to tackling runaway carbon emissions.
Graph from Rodale Institute's new white paper "Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution."<p>The claim made in the new paper is bold: "Data from farming and grazing studies show the power of exemplary regenerative systems that, if achieved globally, would drawdown more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions.</p><p>"Regenerative agriculture, as the researchers describe, represents "a system of farming principles that rehabilitates the entire ecosystem and enhances natural resources, rather than depleting them."</p><p>In contrast to industrial practices dependent upon monocultures, extensive tillage, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers, a regenerative approach uses, at minimum, seven practices which aim to boost biodiversity both above and underground and make possible carbon sequestration in soil.</p><ul><li>Diversifying crop rotations</li><li>Planting cover crops, green manures, and perennials</li><li>Retaining crop residues</li><li>Using natural sources of fertilizer, such as compost</li><li>Employing highly managed grazing and/or integrating crops and livestock</li><li>Reducing tillage frequency and depth</li><li>Eliminating synthetic chemicals</li></ul>