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New U.S. Oil and Gas Emissions Could Nearly Erase Environmental Gains From Decline in Coal

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New U.S. Oil and Gas Emissions Could Nearly Erase Environmental Gains From Decline in Coal
A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery on Aug. 21, 2019 in Norco, Louisiana. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

One of the more positive environmental developments in the U.S. in recent years has been the shutdown of deadly, high-emitting coal-fired plants. But now, a study has found that new oil and gas infrastructure could counteract much of that progress.


The report, released by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) Wednesday, found that the oil and gas industry is building or expanding 157 plants over the next five years and increasing drilling operations. Together, these projects could release the greenhouse gases of 50 new coal-fired plants by 2025.

"The US is already struggling to meet climate commitments and transition to a low-carbon future," EIP Research Director Courtney Bernhardt said in a press release. "This analysis shows that we're heading in the wrong direction and really need to slow emissions growth from the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries."

The findings cast doubt on the argument that natural gas could be a "transition fuel" from dirtier energy sources to renewable energy, Courthouse News Service pointed out. While the fracking boom, and the cheap natural gas that followed, has encouraged utilities to move away from coal, the continued growth of the sector threatens to undo the good it has enabled. While greenhouse gas emissions at U.S. power plants decreased by around 322 million tons between 2012 and 2017, new infrastructure and production is set to increase emissions by 227 million tons by 2025. That would mean a 30 percent increase over the industry's 2018 emissions, the report found.

"So that pretty much erases a lot of the progress since 2012," Bernhardt told Courthouse News Service.

This is backed up by other researchers. A study released Tuesday by the Rhodium Group found that U.S. emissions fell less in 2019 than they would have if it weren't for the oil and gas sector: While coal plant emissions fell 18 percent, almost half of this was offset by rising oil and gas emissions, Climate Liability News reported.

The EIP based its data on projected oil and gas field outputs from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and on the greenhouse gas limits included in Clean Air Act permits granted to the 157 large projects it considered. The sector's total emissions by 2025 will likely be higher than the EIP figure because that figure does not include smaller oil and gas projects that did not require permits.

All this new infrastructure has consequences beyond contributing further to the climate crisis. The non-carbon pollutants the 157 large projects would emit include

  • 119,000 tons of volatile organic compounds, which contribute to smog.
  • 47,200 tons of nitrogen oxides, which help create "dead zones" in water that kill fish.
  • 11,100 tons of deadly particulate matter air pollution.
  • 8,800 tons of sulfur dioxide, which can harm the lungs.

The new oil and gas facilities would also increase the pollution burden in places that already struggle with public health.

Around half of the new projects will be built in Texas and Louisiana, Climate Liability News reported. This includes a new Formosa Plastics facility in St. James, Louisiana, a majority black community that already has one of the highest cancer rates in the U.S. The facility could release more greenhouse gases than any of the other 156 projects EIP considered.

"This is a slow death. I think this is genocide — you're intentionally killing people," Sharon Lavigne, the founder and president of grassroots, anti-fossil-fuel group RISE St. James, told Climate Liability News. "We are not about to give up."

EIP made four recommendations for countering the rise in greenhouse gases and other pollutants from oil and gas facilities.

  1. Issuing permits that included measures for limiting emissions.
  2. More funding for state and federal environmental agencies so they could monitor more effectively.
  3. More accurate methods for assessing emissions and pollutants from tanks, equipment and flares.
  4. Permits that required "fenceline monitoring" to make sure concentrations of gases were discovered before they left a plant and entered a community.

"We need to get on top of the runaway growth in greenhouse gas emissions from oil, gas, and petrochemicals and get standards in place to restrain that growth before it's too late," EIP Executive Director Eric Schaeffer told Grist.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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