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Posts Tagged ‘Global Warming’

Even as we struggle with heat waves, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, drought, and rising sea levels are as a result of climate change, the potential to sequester carbon in forests and soils offers hope. Humans have caused climate change by burning fossil fuels and disrupting the balance of nature, but there is an opportunity to restore these natural systems for carbon sequestration. Since we already used the carbon budget to keep global temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius, an action is needed to not only eliminate emissions but to recapture carbon dioxide that has already entered the atmosphere.

By stopping deforestation, and restoring degraded forests and soils we can combat climate change while improving biodiversity, soil productivity, and food security. Implementing better land management practices could be an important strategy to store carbon in the ground and lowering carbon emissions. Thus, curbing the rate of deforestation and improving land management and agricultural techniques should be a priority for policymakers at the federal and state levels in order to slow climate change, which has posed a significant threat to U.S agriculture.

Deforestation:

Forests are one of the largest carbon sinks and are currently absorbing and storing 450 billion tons of carbon. Forests are not only important in storing carbon, but they also play a significant role in preventing floods, supporting wildlife, moderating extreme temperature, presenting cultural values and providing recreation. However, after the industrial revolution, people started cutting down and burning trees for construction, shipbuilding, and energy producing, which resulted in turning a large amount of carbon back into the atmosphere. Human activities are the main reason for releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, including through deforestation.

Between 2001 and 2017, 5.57 gigatons of carbon (Gt) was released into the atmosphere as a result of tree cover loss in the United States. The U.S is cutting trees to make wood chips and wood pellets and export them from ports in the Southeast to Western Europe. Last year, Southern U.S. was identified as the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world as a result of a 70 percent increase in wood pellet exports from Southern. In 2017, the U.S lost 2.3 million hectares (Mha) of forest equivalent to 175 metric tons (Mt) of CO₂ emissions. Continued deforestation will neutralize all climate action efforts and strategies.

Afforestation and Reforestation Opportunities:

Afforestation is the process of planting forests in areas that have never been forested, while reforestation is the recovering of forests in areas where forests were destroyed.  Reforestation and afforestation could make an important contribution to curb climate change and to improve the quality of air if managed appropriately. Thus, afforestation and reforestation are identified as negative emissions options since they are able to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  Afforestation, reforestation, and improving land management and conservation practices as a means of solution for removing CO2 from the atmosphere have several benefits to the society and environment. Planting new trees and recovering forests protects against soil erosion, helps retain soil moisture, increases biodiversity, and controls flooding. Also, these efforts can enhance agricultural productivity and develop resilient food systems. Moreover, planting trees has lower cost and environmental impacts compared to other negative emission technologies such as Bioenergy Carbon Capture & Storage.

Enterprise 50 Year Tree Pledge Surpasses 12 Million Plantings, 100 Reforestation Projects.Photo by Eterprise holdings

Afforestation and Reforestation:

The main problem is that planting forests is not an instant solution, since it takes time for seedling trees to be matured. Also, if afforestation is not properly managed, it can result in a reduction of local biodiversity, the modification of particular biomes, the introduction of non-native and potentially invasive species, and lost revenue from agriculture. Native grasslands that are altered to forests may not contain the same habitat for local species, and ill-managed reforestation efforts may result in the production of a monoculture (the practice of growing a single tree species) that lacks not only plant diversity but reduces the number of available habitat types for forest inhabitants. In addition, the application of nitrogen fertilizers would have several negative impacts on the environment. The production of nitrogen fertilizer releases a group of potent greenhouse gases known as nitrous oxides, along with CO2. Nitrogen pollution is identified as a threat to the biodiversity of species and biodiversity loss is a major environmental challenge

Soil Carbon Sequestration Opportunities:

Soil is a major sink of carbon and can store twice as much CO2 than is in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, farming currently plays a significant role in releasing a large amount of carbon into the atmosphere. As a result of an increase in the global population and the demand for food, commercial planting with the use of nitrogen fertilizer has increased, and frequent harvesting has resulted in reduced carbon levels in the soil. However, there are several land management practices which help promote inappropriate farming techniques. “Soil Carbon Sequestration” is one of the techniques which implements as a tool to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in the ground. Thus, soil as a carbon sink can play a vital role in agricultural strategies to curb climate change and offset greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture, forestry and other land use techniques that store CO2 in the ground offer an opportunity to mitigate climate change. Farmers can help soil hold more CO2 by making sure crop residue and animal manure re-enters the soil. However, the amount of carbon that soil can hold depends on several factors such as types of soil, regional climate, and characteristics of soil microbes. Healthy soils with more organic matter can store carbon while providing agricultural and environmental benefits. Soil carbon storage directly benefits farmers by improving soil fertility, reducing erosion and increasing resilience to droughts and floods.

Conservation practices such as agroforestry, no-till agriculture, planting cover crops, forest farming, and silvopasture all increase the amount of carbon that can be sequestered in the soil.

  • In agroforestry, crops are planted between rows of trees while the trees mature. The system can be designed to produce fruits, vegetables, grains, flowers, herbs, bioenergy feedstocks, and more. Agroforestry helps improve land productivity with several potential benefits for the communities such as reducing soil erosion, increasing plant growth, climate change adaptation, and increasing food security.
  • “Forest farming” also is a way to grow food, herbal, botanical, or decorative crops under a forest canopy that is managed to provide ideal shade levels as well as other products.
  • “Silvopasture” integrates trees with livestock and their forages on one piece of land. The trees provide timber, fruit, or nuts as well as shade and shelter for livestock and their forages, help animals from the hot summer sun, cold winter winds, or a heavy rainfall.

Soil Carbon Sequestration Challenges:

Land Management Techniques: Forest farming & Agroforestry methods to keep CO2 in the ground & improve soil fertilizing

The main problem is that the initiatives are all voluntary and have not been adopted on a large scale. Farmers are experiencing several barriers in the way of implementing smart agriculture. For example, tilling the soil is a traditional practice for controlling weeds, and shifting to no-till technique requires changing farm equipment and using other weed-control methods. Therefore, farmers have to encounter with the high costs of altering farm equipment and the risk of lower yields in the short-term.  Furthermore, the benefits of soil carbon-rich take a long time to be viable and the long-term benefits of healthier crops and resilient communities are spread among societies. Thus, incentives and subsidies play a vital role in encouraging farmers to invest in cultivating healthier soils and split costs of shifting to new techniques since implementing the sustainable land management practices is critical to curb climate change and keep CO2  in the ground.

However, in the Midwest, for instance, around 50% of U.S farmland is operated by renters, and around 80% of agricultural land is owned by a non-farming landlord. Therefore, it would be difficult to encourage investments in soil health because renting tenants face short-term costs but might not receive the long-term benefits. Thus, policy-makers should provide tax incentives and subsidies for renters and non-farming landlords to be able to apply the land management practices. Since enhancing soil carbon by practicing land management techniques can prepare us to be well adapted for the negative impacts of climate change on the agriculture industry, there is an imperative need to invest in this solution and develop more helpful regulations to improve farmland productivity and communities’ resiliency.

Overall, fixing these barriers need providing the greatest financial and technical assistance and improving research and development (R&D) efforts as well as increasing private partnerships and offering incentives for farmers and renters. Improving the land management practices and the climate-smart agriculture is required a coordination and integration between various sectors dealing with climate change, agricultural development, and food security at the national, regional and local level. Local governments can provide tax credits for private companies to invest in different types of research with an emphasis on supporting soil carbon storage and to encourage them to offer useful consultant for farmers.

In Conclusion:

Well-managed natural systems carbon sequestration projects, along with the arrangement of sustainably produced timber, agriculture, and energy will produce numerous benefits including additional income for rural development, improve communities’ resiliency, and promote conservation programs. In order to improve climate change mitigation and sustainable development programs, governments must carry out the resolution of sustainability practices and oversee the implementation of these practices. The success of carbon sequestration projects will depend on the high carbon prices and aggressive emission reduction goals. Also, the political willpower plays an important role in prioritizing forestry activities and land management practices as part of mitigation portfolios. Care should also be taken to avoid unintended environmental and socioeconomic impacts that could threaten the overall value of natural systems carbon sequestration projects.

CASE STUDIES: (more…)

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As global temperatures continue to rise along with CO2 emissions, leaders in need of solutions should be cautious when considering the potential of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).  While the wholesale success of these technologies was assumed in many of the climate models used in developing the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

In the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the world agreed on implementing greenhouse gas mitigation plans which focus on producing negative carbon dioxide emissions to help curb climate change.

Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage Project. Capture CO2 from ADM’s Decatur corn processing facility and store it underground.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) facilities generate electricity by burning trees and crops that have taken CO2 from the atmosphere throughout their lifetime. When the biomass is burned, BECCS facilities capture the CO2 emissions and store them or, more often, use CO2 in order to enhance oil recovery (EOR). BECCS is one of the technologies the potential to achieve negative emissions if easy-to-grow feedstocks, such as switchgrass, are grown with sustainable practices and the captured CO2 is sequestered. However, these conditions don’t currently exist at commercial facilities.

BECCS Case Study: Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage Project

In April 2017, the U.S Department of Energy (DOE) announced that the Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage (ICCS) project at Archer Daniels Midland Company’s (ADM) Decatur corn ethanol facility had begun operations by injecting carbon dioxide into a large saline reservoir. The ICCS project stores more than 1 million tons of CO2 a year. The project captures CO2 from ADM’s Decatur corn processing facility, and stores it almost a mile and a half underground. The total project cost is $207.9 million and it has received a cost-share agreement of $141 million investment from the Department Of Energy. The project team members include ADM, Schlumberger Carbon Services, Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS), University of Illinois, and Richland Community College (RCC). The technology demonstrated for this project aimed to help the development of the regional CCS industry (i.e., enhanced oil recovery in the depleted oilfields in the Illinois Basin).

Although the main purpose of BECCS technology is to reduce greenhouse gases and help combat with climate change, practically, CO2 has been captured in order to enhance oil recovery, which will result in more CO2 in the atmosphere. As the world’s focus is on keeping global temperature below 2 degree Celsius, using carbon capture storage (CCS) and BECCS in this way will perpetuate the use of fossil fuels. Also, emissions from the transportation of feedstock and the use of nitrogen fertilizer for growing crops could be a big challenge and accelerate the trend of global warming especially associated with ozone destruction.

The Illinois Basin Decatur facility and the EBCCS plant as a whole emit more CO2 than the BECCS plant has been designed to capture. The graphics info provided by Carbon Brief shows that the total CO2 emissions have been emitted by Decatur facility over 2.5 years of the operation was 12,693,283 tons of CO2. However, the EBCCS plant only absorbed 2,095,400 tons of CO2 which means that Decatur facility as a whole has emitted 10,597,883 tons of CO2 even with BECCS capacity. Thus, this project failed to fulfill the purpose of reducing carbon and curbing climate change.

The Illinois Basin Decatur Project. By Rosamund Pearce for Carbon Brief.

Caption: The Illinois Basin Decatur Project.  By Rosamund Pearce for Carbon Brief.

Challenges and Concerns of BECCS Projects:

  • High Cost of Capturing and Storing Carbon: It costs $100 to capture a ton of CO2 for a biomass plant. Whereas, fossil fuel plants are capturing carbon for about $60 a ton. This difference is based on varying bioenergy feedstock prices; energy production process; and capture technology. Also, transporting large amounts of biomass long distances to the storage site would significantly add to the cost of BECCS, since biomass tends to have a lot of weight relative to its energy.
  • Transporting CO2 to the reservoirs via pipelines or trucks: The transportation networks are costly and also turn more CO2 back into the atmosphere. More infrastructure – such as pipelines – would need to be built, which increases the cost of BECCS and indirectly results in more emissions through the construction process. Also, CO2 leakage from pipelines or storage sites could endanger people, harm marine ecosystems, and threaten freshwater ecosystem. Navigating the property rights of local communities can also be a challenge.
  • Effects of increased fertilizer use, such as nitrogen: Nitrogen fertilizers can be leached into the groundwater and washed into waterways, resulting in serious health, environmental, and economic damage. Nitrogen fertilizers applied in agriculture can add more nitrous oxide to the atmosphere than any other human activity. Nitrous oxide also moves into the stratosphere and destroys ozone which could result in increasing global heat. Nitrogen pollution is identified as a cause of decline in native species and is a threat to biodiversity for vertebrate, invertebrate and plant species. A study found 78 federally listed species identified as affected by nitrogen pollution. Use of fertilizer nitrogen for crop production also influences soil health, by reducing organic matter content and microbial life, and increasing acidity of the soil.
  • Water concerns: Agriculture and power generation are highly water intensive. In order to produce 1 ton of ethanol, 3.5 t of CO2 and 5 t of H2O is needed, which means that more than 21,000 t of CO2 and 300,000 t of water vapor are consumed each year. However, more than 3 billion people are already affected by water scarcity so it is a critical challenge in utilizing BECCS technology.
  • Food Scarcity: food prices would increase as a result of changes in land use. Also, since climate change has already threatened the crop yields harvest, sudden changes in the weather could result in food shortage or even famine in some regions. Altering lands to a specific crop yield would affect the land quality and may result in regional resource shortages.
  • Geological storage sites for CO2: In the fertile Midwest of the U.S., croplands are too far from geologic storage to be a viable location for BECCS in the near-term. There are relatively few pipelines in place for transporting CO2 and the long-distance transportation of large volumes of captured CO2 is expensive, particularly if many small pipelines have to be built. Biomass could be transported to sites where CO2 storage is available, but that would significantly add to the cost of a BECCS project.
  • Land Use challenges: Could displace or expose small farmers to the volatility of world markets. Also, as a result of changing land applications, soil erosion, and degradation could happen and soil would lose its fertility. Poor management of bioenergy crop production can result in soil carbon loss from direct and indirect land use changes and significantly affect the net amount of CO2 removed by BECCS. In addition, land rights of farmers & ranchers should be considered as important challenges as well.
  • Cost of Ethanol Production: Depending on a cost of a barrel of oil and production cost of gasoline refining, ethanol can either increase or slightly decrease the cost of a gallon of gasoline.

Overall, even though the U.S has a large potential for geological storage sites, there is still a need for transportation systems for either biomass or CO2 for the large-scale deployment of BECCS. Also, concerns associated with the land, water, and fertilizer use that would be required at the large-scale deployment of BECCS make the long-term economic viability of this technology uncertain. Tax incentives such as 45Q might cover some parts of the related costs, however, the health, environmental, and economic impacts of this project on the society is still unclear as well.

Overly optimistic assumptions about quickly achieving negative emissions on a large scale are dangerous. The world carbon budget is running out for 2 degree Celsius and we have already used the 1.5 degree’s carbon budget. While investments in BECCS are needed, these technologies do not give us a license to postpone eliminating emissions from other sources. And BECCS is only a solution if sustainable agriculture practices are employed, CO2 emissions are permanently sequestered and not used for oil recovery, and project sites are carefully selected to reduce emissions from transportation.
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Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture facility sucks CO2 directly from the atmospheric air. – Carbon Engineering

To maintain climate, we need to cut greenhouse gas – especially carbon – emissions down to zero. The more greenhouse gases that are released, the hotter our planet will be. If we are seeking to keep the global temperature below 1.5-2 degree Celsius, we need to find a way to reduce CO2 emissions. Direct Air Capture (DAC) is a technology which sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere by using large fans that move air through a filter to generate a pure CO2 stream. Depending on the application of the captured CO2, DAC can be either a “carbon recycling” or “carbon removal” technology. Carbon recycling refers to the process of using CO2 produced by DAC as fuel, or in other ways which will release CO2 back into the atmosphere, such as to carbonated beverages. Carbon removal requires CO2 to be stored underground or used in materials that do not allow CO2 to be released into the atmosphere, such as in cement or plastics.

DAC Carbon Recycling Case Study: Carbon Engineering

Recently, “Carbon Engineering,” a Canadian-based company leading the commercialization of direct air capture technology, have been working on Air to Fuels project, which uses renewable electricity to generate hydrogen from water, and then combines it with CO₂ captured from the atmosphere to use it as an input to produce synthetic fuels that can substitute for diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel. DAC’s cost at a commercial scale is not exactly determined yet. However, the latest estimate cost announced by Carbon Engineering is a range cost from $94 to $232 per ton for capturing CO2 and they hope to produce fuels from the Air2fuel project for less than $1.00 per litter, once it scaled up.

DAC Carbon Removal Case Study: Climeworks

Direct air capture unit along with the cooling towers of the geothermal power plant in Hellisheidi, Iceland. (Climeworks/Zev Starr-Tambor)

Swiss firm Climeworks recently launched the world’s first “commercial” direct CO2 capture plant at Hinwil, Zurich. Climeworks has been working on CO2 for carbonated drinks and renewable fuels project through the partnership with CarbFix which working on the project of dissolving CO2 into drinking water. Also, the Gebrüder Maier fruit and vegetable company uses the captured CO2 to boost the growth of cucumbers, tomatoes, and aubergines in its large greenhouses. However, the most interesting project which is designed to be a carbon removal project is happening right now! Climeworks recently launched a pilot project in Iceland which is a geothermal power plant with direct air capture technology. The facility is capturing 50 metric tons CO2 from the air each year, which is equivalent to a single U.S household or 10 Indian households. The CO2 captured in order to convert the emissions into stone. Thus, they’re making sure that CO2 doesn’t escape back into the atmosphere for the next millions of years.

Climeworks / Julia Dunlop Carbon capture from ambient air goes commercial

Pros of DAC:

  • Full-scale operations are able to absorb significant amounts of carbon, is equivalent to the annual emissions of 250,000 average cars
  • DAC system can be sited anywhere which reduce the cost of transporting CO2 to the sequestration sites
  • DAC can be scaled easily and has a relatively small land footprint in comparison to other carbon removal technologies such as Bioenergy Carbon Capture Storage (BECCS)
  • DAC system produces fuels with 100x less land use footprint and less water use than biofuels.

Cons of DAC:

  • Energy Intensive: Direct air capture is a fairly energy intensive process because the concentration of CO2 in ambient air is relatively low. Separating CO2 from the air is challenging since it takes a significant amount of energy and air to separate and concentrate CO2 in the atmosphere. Thus, large volumes of air must be processed in order to collect meaningful amounts of CO2
  • Very Expensive: Currently, it is not a financially viable option because it is very expensive. The cost of CO2 captured from the atmosphere ranges between $94 and $232 per ton according to Carbon Engineering estimate
  • Water consumption concern: One study estimates for removing 3.3 gigatons of carbon per year, DAC could expect to use around 7.925e+13 gallons of water per year (assuming current amine technology, which is what Climeworks uses). This is equivalent to 4% of the water used for crop cultivation each year. Carbon Engineering using sodium hydroxide that would use far less, but this, in turn, is a highly caustic and dangerous substance
  • Revenue Opportunities: Revenue opportunities for DAC carbon removal systems depend on carbon markets and regulations. Without high enough carbon prices, DAC systems are likely to find the largest revenue opportunities by providing CO2 for manufacturing fuels, enhanced oil recovery, greenhouses and carbonated beverages, as DAC systems can be sited anywhere.

Climeworks direct air capture plant founders Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher onsite. Climeworks / Julia Dunlop

Policy Approach:

There have been some policies that provided a shift toward greater development and deployment of carbon dioxide removal and recycling. In February 2018, the U.S budget bill passed by Congress which extends and reforms the federal Section 45Q tax credit. 45Q provides credits for businesses that use CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and for CO2 injection into underground geologic formations. Mostly, the 45Q tax credits benefits fossil fuels industry. Based on the bill, any new fossil-fuel power plant or carbon-dioxide producing industry that commences construction before 2024 is eligible for tax credits for up to 12 years. The tax credits offered up to $35 per metric ton of carbon dioxide captured if the CO2 is put to use (pushing out oil from depleting fields is the most popular use) or up to $50 if it is simply buried in underground storage. Hence, the bill benefits fossil fuels companies at a lower cost of carbon capture and help fossil fuels companies expand oil production, and continue to build coal plants. Thus, the carbon removal companies are not willing to sequestrate carbon when there is a market for selling it. The only way to make money off sequestration is if the government is directly subsidizing it or if there is an extremely high carbon price. Currently, there is no carbon price anywhere in the world great enough to make sequestration profitable. At present, carbon is trading at a low price in the global market compared to the cost of storing it underground.

However, tax credits could make negative emission projects more financially attractive and more economically viable. Based on the incentives provided by 45Q bill, direct air capture could be a critical tool for CO2 removal since it has a countless potential for removing carbon and reuse it. Since the high cost of the technology in pilot projects has been an obstacle to a large-scale implementation, hopefully, new regulations and tax credits such as 45Q bill ease the process and lower the costs. Although the tax credit will not cover the full cost of these technologies, it will make a noticeable reduction in the operating cost.

Tax credits and regulations mean greater opportunities for developers and suggest positive movement in wider efforts to stem climate change, as carbon capture and storage is widely considered to be a significant element of addressing climate change. Recently, several private investors and fossil fuels companies have started investments in DAC technology. Especially, the oil and coal industry since the captured CO2 can be used for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). However, utilizing DAC technology to develop EOR would neutralize any efforts regarding climate mitigation actions.

Direct air capture could hold the promise of capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. However, since there is an economic benefit of using CO2 to make fuels or for enhanced oil recovery, fossil fuels industry are making money off the technology. In a time that there is relatively little carbon budget left to keep the world temperature below 1.5C or 2C, nations need to focus on cutting CO2 emissions rapidly by shifting their reliance away from fossil fuels to the renewable energy, in particular. (more…)

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Houston Mayor Turner, City Council Members, and community members displaced by Harvey speaking at a City of Houston press conference.

Months after Hurricane Harvey, Houstonians are still suffering. Over 5,000 people are not in their homes, some housed in hotels, others hopping between family or friends to ensure a roof over their heads. City of Houston urgently requests funding from the federal government to help the most vulnerable rebuild as well as to mitigate future flooding disasters.

As the U.S. House approved $81 billion for hurricane relief today, Texans await for the U.S. Senate to follow in their footsteps to help support hurricane-ravaged Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Yet this, according to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, is not enough. He called the reluctance to fully fund the $61 billion aid request from Texas a “formula for failure,” stating that the current proposal will not do enough to help those most vulnerable. In order for Houston to become a stronger and more resilient city, it needs strong support from the state and federal governments.

Gov. Abbott’s request for $61 billion, which the House did not fully fund in their package, includes $12 billion for what’s known as the “Ike Dike.” The Ike Dike is a proposed barrier that would be constructed in order to reduce the impact of storm surge on the petrochemical plants and refineries that line Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel. It would also include $466 million for the Port of Houston to “create resiliency” and harden the Houston Ship Channel.

Who Pays for Harvey?

While a 20 foot storm surge would no doubt create untold ecological, environmental, and health crises, the real impetus behind the Ike Dike is to protect the assets of the petrochemical industry, and this is $12+ billion  taxpayer-funded bailout. Public Citizen joins Center for Climate Integrity as part of a campaign called Who Pays for Harvey. Scientists have demonstrated that the rainfall and flooding from Harvey was made worse due to climate change-related effects. Furthermore, many of the major petrochemical companies that line the Houston Ship Channel have been aware of the impacts of climate change for decades, yet have actively funded denial campaigns to mislead the American public. Rather than another corporate bailout, government should hold corporations accountable for their role in climate change. Corporations should at the very least foot the bill for the infrastructure projects that serve to protect their assets, while leaving federal dollars to help the most vulnerable rebuild and put their lives back together.

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While we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing the words “natural”, “healthy” and “environmentally-friendly” thrown around in advertisements for a variety of consumer goods, it’s important to remember that household items are not the only things capable of being greenwashed – case in point, natural gas.

The word “natural” has been used to connote things such as ‘green’, ‘healthy’, ‘non-toxic’. Many people’s cursory understanding of natural gas is that if it’s “natural”, it must be good, right? Unfortunately the truth about natural gas is more complicated. While it is true that natural gas emits far less CO2 than coal upon combustion, there are a host of other ‘fine-print’ problems that come along with the switch, most notably, fugitive emissions.

Leaky pipes and valves allow methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to escape into the atmosphere.  Photo by Kevin Moloney, NYT

Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, escapes from wells and leaky pipes and valves into the atmosphere.
Photo by Kevin Moloney, NYT.

Fugitive emissions are the emissions not intended to take place and that usually result from pressurized equipment leaks. While these leaks are relatively tiny, when expanded to a large enough scale the amount of methane being leaked into the atmosphere can have a large impact on climate. While the EPA originally reported that average leakage rate in natural gas production was somewhere around 1.5%, a collaborative study by scientist from several universities and government agencies released this past October revealed that the figure should be much closer to 3%. Even worse, there have been reports of methane leakage upwards of 12% at some production sites.

Many climate change mitigation plans focus on reducing CO2 emissions, but methane and its effects should not be overlooked. The IPCC has reported that over a 100-year period, methane is 35 times more potent of a heat-trapping gas than CO2. When looking at the effects of methane over 20 years, this figure jumps to 87. Suddenly, that comparatively small amount of methane being leaked out of wells, pipes and valves is incredibly important. In other words, 1 ton of methane being released into the atmosphere has the same heat-trapping effect over a 20 year period as releasing 87 tons of CO2.

20 Year Climate Impact of Natural Gas vs CoalWhile the CO2 emissions from burning natural gas are about half what is produced by burning coal plant to produce the same amount of power, after accounting for fugitive emissions and converting leaked methane into CO2 equivalent (using the IPCC 87x factor referenced earlier), natural gas climate change impact is almost as bad as coal.

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After years in the making, this past Tuesday the Senate voted 68-32 in favor of the new Farm Bill, which is expected to be signed into law by President Obama in the next few days. While the nearly trillion dollar bill has received a lot of media attention on its relation to its cut of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which composes 80% of the bill’s budget, it’s crucial to look at the other 20% of the bill and its environmental implications.

Senate Votes On 2014 Farm Bill

Senate votes on 2014 Farm Bill
Photo by Alex Wong, Getty Images

The bill, for the most part, has drawn a lot of praise in regards to its environmental provisions . So-called ‘highlights’ of the bill include :

• Provisions for farmers to meet certain standards of environmental protection if they wish to be eligible to receive federal crop insurance
• Funding for farmers to create wildlife habitats on their land
• Funding for on-farm renewable energy
• Removal of so-called ‘anti-environmental’ riders

However, it is possible that one of the non-environmental provisions of the bill will have an unintended consequence – stripping soils of their nutrients and increasing runoff . Perhaps the most popular provision of the bill is the fact that it cuts ‘direct payments’ to farmers, or what many people have called “welfare for farmers” . These payments are subsidies for farmers based on how many acres of land they have, regardless of whether or not that land is farmed.

To cease what many see as handouts, the government as slashed this program and expanded its crop insurance program, one where the government pays the difference to farmers when slips in revenue and/or crop yield occur. While this is particularly useful in ensuring that there is ‘stable’ agricultural production, it also continues to incentivize producers (including many mega ‘agribusiness’ conglomerates) to produce as much as possible. Such large scale agricultural production can and has led to increased fertilizer runoff (causing aquatic ‘dead zones’ and contaminated drinking water ), nutrient-depleted soil and increased greenhouse gas emissions , due to insufficient environmental protection requirements.

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Our climate is changing and action is desperately needed, but that message is not getting through to to many of our leaders. Climate-Com will explore how the media can better present current climate science so that the public and our leaders will be convinced to act.

Lake Buchanan
What: A panel discussion on how we can change the way we communicate climate science and facts to the public through the media, particularly broadcast meteorologists. Featuring Jim Spencer of KXAN-TV and Kris Wilson, PhD of UT School of Journalism.

When: Sunday, October 6, 2013 from 3:30pm to 7:00pm

Where: Scholz Garten, 1607 San Jacinto Blvd., North meeting room

Who: Climate Change Now Initiative, Public Citizen’s Texas Office, KXAN-TV, UT School of Journalism, Forecast the Facts, Texas Drought Project, Austin Citizen Climate Lobby

Cost (suggested donation): $10.00 – Adults, $5.00 for students, 16 and under free **Also, free if you calculate your personal carbon footprint using an online carbon calculator and send the tons of carbon per year with your name to [email protected]**
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This article written by Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, appeared on the editorial page of the San Antonio Express-News on Sept. 2

The newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, leaked to media earlier this week, is frightening and conclusive.

The panel of several hundred scientists, which won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, says the odds are at least 95 percent that humans are the principal cause of climate change. The panel predicts an increase of 5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century and warns that a rise of that magnitude would cause “extreme heat waves, difficulty growing food and massive changes in plant and animal life, probably including   a wave of extinction,” according to the New York Times.

Yet U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the Committee on Science and Technology, claims the science is uncertain about how much of the warming is caused by humans.
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Armstrong Energy is facing challenges from the market that may threaten the viability and profitability of its proposed coal export terminal in Louisiana, a new Public Citizen report (Armstrong Coal final report) finds. A failed company and abandoned export terminal would create significant costs for Plaquemines Parish.

In the report, “RAMming It Down Our Throats: Armstrong Energy Could Leave Louisiana Taxpayers Holding the Bag on Its Proposed RAM Terminal,” Public Citizen looked at Armstrong Energy’s financial condition and the effect of market conditions on the coal export company.

“Armstrong Energy is in hot water,” said Hillary Corgey, researcher for Public Citizen and the report’s author. “Between rising debt, market conditions unfavorable to coal, and climate change, the RAM Terminal may have a good chance of sinking, both in terms of its hurricane-prone location and the viability of the company.”

The RAM Terminal is to be built near the 150-year old community of Ironton in Plaquemines Parish, La., 30 miles south of New Orleans. The terminal is to be fully operational within two years of construction and ship 10 million tons of coal. Two hearings on August 14 and 15 attracted more than 100 residents who oppose the terminal’s latest push for permits.
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StateImpact Texas, a reporting project of local public media and NPR, has provided us with an excellent overview of the continuing drought in Texas.

Today, 12.2% of the state is in exceptional drought (the highest level of drought under the US Drought Monitor reporting)  This is the map for September 13, 2011 - at this time 87.3% of the state was in exceptional drought.

Today, 12.2% of the state is in exceptional drought (the highest level of drought under the US Drought Monitor reporting) This is the map for September 13, 2011 – at this time 87.3% of the state was in exceptional drought.


In October 2010 the current drought began and Texas endured the worst single-year drought in its history in 2011. While the situation has improved, do not be fooled, the drought is far from over — and the conditions that caused it aren’t going away anytime soon.

NPRs StateImpact shows us the the cost to Texas, to date, as well as some dire considerations the state will have to make as we move forward.

Click here to see their report.

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wind_turbine_aalborgProbably not overall, but the City of Houston has made a historic commitment – to buy half its power from renewable sources.

Houston was built around the oil and gas industries and has long suffered the consequences of being home to many of the nation’s most polluting refining and chemical manufacturing facilities.  Purchasing clean energy for the City’s facilities won’t change all that, but it does represent a significant change in mindset.

In the absence of federal legislation to address the increasingly pressing problem of climate change, local action has become essential.  At the very least, the energy used in public buildings – that taxpayers pay for – should be clean energy.  Houston is taking a huge step in that direction.

Wind energy is already one of the cheaper energy sources in Texas and solar energy is becoming competitive, especially as prices increase with higher energy demand.  These trends will be helped by large-scale investments like the one Houston is making.

Moving away from energy from coal-fired power plants will also help keep jobs growing in Texas.  Luckily, this isn’t an issue of jobs vs. the environment.  It’s an easy choice of supporting both.  Kudos to Houston to for recognizing an opportunity to take a leadership role.

Talk to your local elected officials about using clean energy to power your public buildings.

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Texas Capitol - north viewWith the regular session behind us and energy and environmental issues not likely to find a place in the special session, it’s a good time to look at what we accomplished.

Our wins came in two forms – bills that passed that will actually improve policy in Texas and bills that didn’t pass that would have taken policy in the wrong direction.

We made progress by helping to get bills passed that:

  • Expand funding for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) by about 40%;
  • Create a program within TERP to replace old diesel tractor trailer trucks used in and around ports and rail yards (these are some of the most polluting vehicles on the road);
  • Establish new incentives within TERP for purchasing plug-in electric cars; and
  • Assign authority to the Railroad Commission (RRC) to regulate small oil and gas lines (these lines, known as gathering lines, are prone to leaks); and
  • Allows commercial and industrial building owners to obtain low-cost, long-term private sector financing for water conservation and energy-efficiency improvements, including on-site renewable energy, such as solar.

We successfully helped to stop or improve bad legislation that would have:

  • Eliminated hearings on permits for new pollution sources (the contested case hearing process is crucial to limiting pollution increases);
  • Eliminated additional inspections for facilities with repeated pollution violations;
  • Weakened protections against utilities that violate market rules and safety guidelines;
  • Eliminated property tax breaks for wind farms, while continuing the policy for other industries;
  • Granted home owners associations (HOAs) authority to unreasonably restrict homeowners ability to install solar panels on their roofs; and
  • Permitted Austin City Council to turn control of Austin Energy over to an unelected board without a vote by the citizens of Austin.

We did lose ground on the issue of radioactive waste disposal.  Despite our considerable efforts, a bill passed that will allow more highly radioactive waste to be disposed of in the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) facility in west Texas.  Campaign contributions certainly played an important roll in getting the bill passed.

We were also disappointed by Governor Perry’s veto of the Ethics Commission sunset bill, which included several improvements, including a requirement that railroad commissioners resign before running for another office, as they are prone to do.  Read Carol’s post about this bill and the issue.

With the legislation over and Perry’s veto pen out of ink, we now shift our attention to organizing and advocating for a transition from polluting energy sources that send money out of our state to clean energy sources that can grow our economy.

We’re working to:

  • Promote solar energy at electric cooperatives and municipal electric utilities;
  • Speed up the retirement of old, inefficient, polluting coal-fired power plants in east Texas;
  • Protect our climate and our port communities throughout the Gulf states from health hazards from new and expanded coal export facilities;
  • Fight permitting of the Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines in Texas;
  • Ensure full implementation of improvements made to TERP; and
  • Develop an environmental platform for the 2014 election cycle.

Our power comes from people like you getting involved – even in small ways, like writing an email or making a call.  If you want to help us work for a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable future, email me at [email protected]  And one of the best things you can do is to get your friends involved too.

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pants on fireAccording to PolitiFact Texas, State Representative Wayne Smith’s pants are on fire.  PolitiFact Texas recently analyzed a statement regarding global climate change by Mr. Smith, a Republican from Baytown.

During floor discussion of his greenhouse gas permitting bill, HB 788, he said, “Science has not shown greenhouse gases to be a problem.”  Then Smith went on to say, “There’s no need to regulate greenhouse gases.”  Well, Politifact Texas disagreed.  They throughly researched Mr. Smith’s statements and found them to be totally false, or “pants on fire” as they put it.

Take a look at the PolitiFact Texas analysis and give Representative Smith’s office a call and tell them what you think about his inaccurate statements: (512)463-0733.

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Just before Earth Day, the House of Representatives once again demonstrated its commitment to protecting the fossil fuel industries that fund many of the members campaigns instead of protecting the people of our state from the devastating impacts of climate change by passing HB 788. The bill requires the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to permit greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change, but would remove the agency’s authority to limit such emissions.

You might wonder “what’s the point?”  The point is to take control of greenhouse gas permitting for Texas facilities from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and place it in the hands of our state environmental agency – which has a much cozier relationship with industry.  While EPA may ultimately prefer that states take responsibility for such permitting, we hope they wouldn’t support such a ineffective system as is proposed in HB 788.

Adding insult to injury, the author of the bill, Representative Wayne Smith, took advantage of the opportunity to spread misinformation.  Smith stated, “…the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are based on an unfounded science,” claiming this language was struck to remove the politics from the bill.  His remarks epitomizes a legislature that continues to threaten the health and safety of the people it should protect through weakened environmental regulations.

In fact, removing language which has been in Texas’ Health and Safety Code for 22 years which gives TCEQ the authority to limit greenhouse gases put the politics in the bill and took the science out of it.  Governor Rick Perry is an avid climate change denier and may have influenced the drafting of HB 788.

This type of misinformation does a disservice to Texas citizens who must endure the harmful impacts of climate change, such as drought, wildfires, sea-level rise and more volatile weather patterns. These changes have already cost our state billions of dollars and numerous lives.  Climate change is happening now and given the big jump in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions last year, we’re probably in for more harmful impacts than many predicted just a few years ago.

Image

This graph compares increasing CO2 levels (dark line) to increasing average global temperature over the last century (blue and red bars).

Although our efforts to stop or amend HB 788 in the Texas House were unsuccessful and it was disheartening to hear Representative Smith’s comments, Earth Day brought a refocusing on facts.

The Committee on International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs held a hearing on Global Climate Change and Trade.  Attendance was sparse in the audience, but a stellar line-up of scientists, delegates, and business representatives took the witness stand to testify on the fact of climate change.

HB788 was mentioned in anonymous fashion as a bad greenhouse gas bill on several occasions.  But, the most glaring comments were directed at Texas’ lack of policy to address climate change.  Cynthia Connor, the Resource Security Policy Adviser for the British Consulate General in Houston spoke in serious tones.  Her message was that Texas has a responsibility to adopt climate change policies to protect $20 billion in Texas investments by UK-owned business, which are responsible for  70,000 jobs.

Almost all of the witnesses addressed Texas’ policy of climate change denial.  To their credit, most of the Representatives on the committee asked questions to confirm the scientific findings, how climate change affects Texas, and how our climate change policies compare to the rest of the modernized world.  The general consensus is that Texas lags far behind the rest of the world.  Texas fails to acknowledge the potential harms of climate change and ignores its responsibility to lead the nation in ethical energy policies as the top producer of oil and natural gas.

While these weren’t messages of hope, at least they were based in scientific facts and observations.  At least for a brief time, science was recognized in our state capitol.

We must each do what we can to reduce our personal impact and we must convince our elected officials that the time for climate change denial is over.

HB 788 is now being considered in the Texas Senate.

Email your Texas state senator to oppose HB 788 and protect Texas’ climate, economy and people.

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algae-open-pondChlorella sp. is a species of algae that has a significant proportion of fatty acids to its body mass. For humans, this can be a problem. But, in a world needing more clean energy, fatty biomass is considered a promising option by many scientists and engineers.

Why algae? Algae can grow in a body of water almost anywhere. We don’t need to use any of our precious farmland to grow it. Water conservationists may initially be concerned, but a group of scientists found that Chlorella sp. thrives in our waste water. Not only that, it cleans up the water, removing ammonia and a host of toxic metals. According to their report, the algae could be used to help clean up waste water at municipal water treatment plants then harvested for biofuels.

graph_algaeI had a chance to speak with Dr. Martin Poenie, Associate Professor in Molecular Cell & Developmental Biology, at The University of Texas at Austin. The Poenie Lab is helping to develop a technique for harvesting the oils from algae that could greatly reduce cost. Dr. Poenie also told me algae can be a significant source of phosphates, which we use in fertilizers. One of the most significant things about algae biofuels, is their small carbon footprint and high energy content. CO2 is sequestered during the growth phase of the algae and it is not released until the fuel is burned. On the whole, biofuels from algae look promising, and the variety of products that can be derived from it will make algae farming even more profitable.

Texas could do more to capture the energy and job benefits from this home grown energy source. Texas Legislature should act to strengthen renewable energy goals. HB 303, SB 1239, and HB  723 would all be good steps in the right direction.

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