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Tue, 2014-05-27 14:26Sharon Kelly
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“All of the Above” or “Action now?”: Obama’s Natural Gas Contradiction

At a talk in Vermont last week, the nation's top energy official offered up his thoughts on a problem the White House has said calls for “urgent action”: climate change.

“We need to mitigate the effects of climate change and need to adapt at the same time,” said Dr. Ernest Moniz, Secretary of Energy, as he described the findings of a White House report issued earlier this month outlining the dangers of global warming and the impacts already felt nationwide.

But Moniz's talk also highlighted a fundamental flaw in the approach that President Obama has taken to energy and the environment.

The president has begun sounding alarm bells about the hazards and costs of worsening climate disruption. At the same time, he has aggressively promoted the nation's ongoing shale gas rush. And yet, experts warn this drilling frenzy may have wiped out most of the gains made by slashing carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal.

It's a paradox that the Washington Post labeled “a jarring juxtapostion” and “the contradiction at the heart of President Obama's climate change policy.” 

Thu, 2014-05-15 13:00Anne Landman
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Colorado Oil and Gas Operations Emitting Far More Benzene, Methane Than Expected

Gas pumpjack in Weld County, Colorado

Scientists affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have determined that oil and gas operations on Colorado's front range are pumping almost three times more methane and seven times more benzene into the air than previously estimated.

Benzene is a regulated air toxin that causes cancer and methane is 20 to 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere.

Researchers collected air samples from an airplane over Weld County over two days in May 2012. Previous studies measured air samples taken at ground-level or from a 985-foot tall tower. This is the first study to measure airborne contaminants from an airplane.

Researchers found that 24,000 active oil and gas wells active in Weld County in May 2012 were emitting a total of 19.3 tons of methane each hour, or about triple the amount the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated would come from industry-reported emissions.

Drilling operations emitted benzene at a rate of 380 pounds each hour, or about seven times more than the 50 pounds an hour the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment estimated based on industry-reported data.

Fri, 2014-05-02 10:42Judith Lavoie
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U.S. Officials Search For Answers On Bitumen Spills As Canada Eyes Enbridge, Kinder Morgan Oil Pipelines

EPA sampling during Enbridge bitumen spill

U.S officials are struggling to figure out how bitumen from the Alberta oilsands will behave if there is a spill either from a pipeline or into the Salish Sea, the fragile ocean environment between Canada and the U.S.

As the U.S. debates the future of the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Alberta oil to the Gulf Coast, and Canada looks at Kinder Morgan's proposed twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline and the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project, there is a growing urgency to find out how diluted bitumen behaves if there is a spill, said scientists, policy makers and environmentalists gathered in Seattle for the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference this week.

“Does it float or not float? That's the question,” said Gary Shigenaka, marine biologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hazardous materials response division, flashing a picture of thick, black bitumen extracted from the oilsands.

NOAA is studying the behaviour of bitumen and the diluent with which it is mixed to make the peanut-butter like substance flow through pipelines, but, so far, there are few concrete answers, Shigenaka said.

Studies show that although diluted bitumen — dilbit — initially floats in water, it sinks when it is mixed with sediment, which would happen in high turbulence or in areas such as a river estuary, Shigenaka said.

Fears about the behaviour of bitumen in water have been growing since the 2010 spill of about 3.2 million litres (843,000 gallons) of thick crude into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. It was the first spill of diluted bitumen from Alberta into a waterway, and agencies struggled to cope with a substance that released toxic fumes from the diluent and then sank as the bitumen mixed with river sediment.

Fri, 2014-02-14 12:40Sharon Kelly
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New Study Shows Total North American Methane Leaks Far Worse than EPA Estimates

Just how bad is natural gas for the climate?

A lot worse than previously thought, new research on methane leaks concludes.

Far more natural gas is leaking into the atmosphere nationwide than the Environmental Protection Agency currently estimates, researchers concluded after reviewing more than 200 different studies of natural gas leaks across North America.

The ground-breaking study, published today in the prestigious journal Science, reports that the Environmental Protection Agency has understated how much methane leaks into the atmosphere nationwide by between 25 and 75 percent — meaning that the fuel is far more dangerous for the climate than the Obama administration asserts.

The study, titled “Methane Leakage from North American Natural Gas Systems,” was conducted by a team of 16 researchers from institutions including Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and is making headlines because it finally and definitively shows that natural gas production and development can make natural gas worse than other fossil fuels for the climate.

The research, which was reported in The Washington Post, Bloomberg and The New York Times, was funded by a foundation created by the late George P. Mitchell, the wildcatter who first successfully drilled shale gas, so it would be hard to dismiss it as the work of environmentalists hell-bent on discrediting the oil and gas industry.

Tue, 2014-01-21 12:29Sharon Kelly
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In Push For Nuclear Power, Climate Change Concerns Overlooked

Three years ago the world was reminded of the dangers nuclear energy poses when catastrophe struck Japan at the Fukushima power plant. Since then the gravity of the disaster has grown more evident as cleanup efforts have turned into a debacle. In the last month alone we have seen news of radioactive water leaks at the site, lawsuits from U.S. Navy sailors who responded to the initial disaster and are now developing cancer and ongoing harm to the fishing industry.

The nuclear industry is often portrayed as a climate-neutral alternative to coal and natural gas. An industry-tied movie called Pandora's Promise, recently featured at Sundance and debuted through Netflix and iTunes, has been promoting this very perspective.

But nuclear power plants need cooling water, which means they are often situated on shorelines. That makes these plants more vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, such as sea level rise. They are also more at risk of being affected by the ever-growing number and severity of storms tied to climate change, such as Hurricane Sandy.

Case in point: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers recently concluded that a small six-foot-high miniature tsunami that hit near a New Jersey nuclear power plant this summer was not the result of a seismic event (as tsunamis usually are). Instead, the researchers concluded that the surge was caused by a sudden atmospheric pressure change. The nuclear plant, Oyster Creek, did not report any damage. But experts say there was a cautionary lesson on offer: expect the unexpected. Climate change will cause more destructive and seemingly freakish events like this. Emergency planners need to plan for them — especially when the risks are high as is the case with nuclear plants.

Mon, 2013-10-14 05:00Sharon Kelly
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Flaws in Environmental Defense Fund's Methane Study Draw Criticism from Scientists

Perhaps the single most consequential and controversial issue at the center of the onshore natural gas drilling boom is the question of methane leaks. Natural gas is primarily made of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and if enough escapes into the atmosphere, these leaks could potentially make natural gas a worse fuel for the climate than coal.

In mid-September, researchers from the University of Texas published a study that was hailed by a triumphant oil and gas industry, which claimed it definitively showed that methane leaks from fracking are minimal. Major news outlets largely fed this excitement, proclaiming that the study showed EPA had dramatically overestimated methane leaks from the drilling boom.

But as the celebrations died down and more sober and rigorous analysis of the study has begun, scientists are finding that the University of Texas study is riddled with flaws.

The backers of the report cherry-picked the oil and gas wells included in the study, selecting smaller wells that had less capacity to leak and ones that used leak controls that are not currently used at many of the nation’s wells. The authors systematically ignored more recent federal research indicating that as much as 17 percent of natural gas – more than 10 times the estimate indicated by the UT study – leaks from gas fields, and overlooked serious methodological flaws that were pointed out in similar studies dating back as far as 1996.

As scientists have raised these concerns, the Environmental Defense Fund, one backer of the study which was 90 percent funded by the oil and gas industry, have tried to tamp down some of the media excitement surrounding the result and said that their research was misrepresented.

Sun, 2013-10-06 21:16Steve Horn
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NY Times' Joe Nocera Overlooks Key Flaws in EDF Fracking Climate Change Study

Yesterday, New York Times' columnist Joe Nocera weighed in on the study by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and University of Texas-Austin (UT-Austin) on the climate change impacts of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”)DeSmogBlog got a special mention in Nocera's op-ed titled, “A Fracking Rorschach Test.” 

Nocera praised UT-Austin Professor David Allen and colleagues for obtaining what he claimed was “unassailable data” on fugitive methane emissions and fracking's climate change impact potential. 

“The reason the Environmental Defense Fund wanted this study done is precisely so that unassailable data, rather than mere estimates, could become part of the debate over fracking,” wrote Nocera. “You can’t have sound regulation without good data.”

Missing from Nocera's praise: new findings by the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change in their latest comprehensive review of the climate crisis.

IPCC revealed “over a 20-year time frame, methane has a global warming potential 86 [times the amount of] CO2, up from its previous estimate of 72 [times],” as explained by Climate Progress' Joe Romm.

In juxtaposition, Nocera dismissed DeSmog's criticisms of the study - one we referred to as “frackademia.” 

Simplifying the crux of my 3,000-word DeSmog critique and the 800-word follow-up as “because the nine companies involved had both cooperated and helped pay for it,” Nocera then rhetorically asks “why a study that necessitated industry cooperation and money is inherently less valid than a study produced by scientists who are openly opposed to fracking was left unanswered.”

Tue, 2013-08-13 07:00Sharon Kelly
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Greenwashing Concerns Mount as Evidence of Fracking's Climate Impact Grows

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.

The culprit, an 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% 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 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, 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.

Wed, 2012-08-15 10:54Farron Cousins
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Media Fails Again On Climate Change Coverage During Massive Heat Waves

North America just witnessed the hottest month in the history of record keeping (about 117 years). The month of July shattered every previous record, but was certainly not a freak occurrence. So far, the first 7 months of this year have been the warmest on average since records began over a century ago. Media outlets were abuzz with coverage of floods, droughts, fires, and storms, so naturally you’d think climate change would have played a massive role in their coverage.

You’d be wrong.

A great new study by Media Matters for America shows that our major media outlets – from cable news to print – almost completely ignored the role that man-made climate change played in our severe weather.

According to the study, only about 25% of print articles on the massive heat wave even mentioned climate change, while less than 9% of TV news stories about the weather mentioned climate change. Of the major cable outlets, MSNBC devoted the most time to discussing climate change, bringing up the issue in about 88% of their stories on the heat wave.

Not surprisingly, Fox News only mentioned climate change once, and the theory was quickly shot down by conservative hosts.

From the Media Matters report:

Fri, 2012-06-01 21:00Laurel Whitney
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400 PPM Carbon Dioxide Concentrations Breach The Arctic

There's a saying that trouble comes in threes. Earlier this week, the International Energy Administration announced that emissions reached a record high last year, increasing by 1 Gt worldwide. At the Bonn climate talks, experts have warned that the window to curb a global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees is swiftly drawing to a close.

To cap it off, NOAA released the news that carbon dioxide levels have reached a new milestone this spring, tipping the scales over 400 ppm, a concentration the world hasn't seen in the last 800,000 years.

Scientists are seeing these high concentrations at their northernmost stations in the Arctic. Remote sites measure the gas in Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and also an island in the North Pacific, Mauna Loa, which has been recording ambient CO2 concentrations since 1959 (and produced the now-famous Keeling curve).

The global average is still around 395 ppm, but the Arctic is seen as an important indicator for global conditions to come, since it is an ecosystem that is much more sensitive to changing conditions.

The northern sites in our monitoring network tell us what is coming soon to the globe as a whole,” said Pieter Tans, an atmospheric scientist with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder, Colo. “We will likely see global average CO2 concentrations reach 400 ppm about 2016.”

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