Category Archives: Climate

Health alert over fracking’s chemical cocktails

Gas wells at a fracking site in the US state of Pennsylvania Image: Gerry Dincher via Wikimedia Commons
Deep concerns: gas wells at a fracking site in the US state of Pennsylvania
Image: Gerry Dincher via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the US have established that some chemicals used in the controversial process of fracking to extract gas and oil could represent health and environmental hazards.

LONDON, 19 August, 2014 − Fracking is once again in trouble. Scientists have found that what gets pumped into hydrocarbon-rich rock as part of the hydraulic fracture technique to release gas and oil trapped in underground reservoirs may not be entirely healthy.

Environmental engineer William Stringfellow and colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of the Pacific told the American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco that they scoured databases and reports to compile a list of the chemicals commonly used in fracking.

Such additives, which are necessary for the extraction process, include: acids to dissolve minerals and open up cracks in the rock; biocides to kill bacteria and prevent corrosion; gels and other agents to keep the fluid at the right level of viscosity at different temperatures; substances to prevent clays from swelling or shifting; distillates to reduce friction; acids to limit the precipitation of metal oxides.

Household use

Some of these compounds – for example, common salt, acetic acid and sodium carbonate – are routinely used in households worldwide.

But the researchers assembled a list of 190 of them, and considered their properties. For around one-third of them, there was very little data about health risks, and eight of them were toxic to mammals.

Fracking is a highly controversial technique, and has not been handed a clean bill of health by the scientific societies.

Seismologists have warned that such operations could possibly trigger earthquakes, and endocrinologists have warned that some of the chemicals used are known hormone-disruptors, and likely therefore to represent a health hazard if they get into well water.

Industry operators have countered that their techniques are safe, and involve innocent compounds frequently used, for instance, in making processed food and even ice-cream.

But the precise cocktail of chemicals used by each operator is often an industrial secret, and the North Carolina legislature even considered a bill that would make it a felony to disclose details of the fracking fluid mixtures.

So the Lawrence Berkeley team began their research in the hope of settling some aspects of the dispute.

Real story

Dr Stringfellow explained: “The industrial side was saying, ‘We’re just using food additives, basically making ice-cream here.’ On the other side, there’s talk about the injection of thousands of toxic chemicals. As scientists, we looked at the debate and asked, ‘What’s the real story?’”.

The story that unfolded was that there could be some substance to claims from both the industry and the environmentalists. But there were also caveats. Eight substances were identified as toxins. And even innocent chemicals could represent a real hazard to the water supply.

“You can’t take a truckload of ice-cream and dump it down a storm drain,” Dr Stringfellow said. “Even ice-cream manufacturers have to treat dairy wastes, which are natural and biodegradable. They must break them down, rather than releasing them directly into the environment.

“There are a number of chemicals, like corrosion inhibitors and biocides in particular, that are being used in reasonably high concentrations that could potentially have adverse effects. Biocides, for example, are designed to kill bacteria – it’s not a benign material.” – Climate News Network

Mystery over Kazakh nuclear power plans

Sign for a uranium mining operation in southern Kazakhstan Image: Mheidegger via Wikimedia Commons
Sign for a uranium mining operation in southern Kazakhstan
Image: Mheidegger via Wikimedia Commons

By Komila Nabiyeva

Russia intends to build the first thermal nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan, the world’s largest uranium producer. But where it will be in that vast country and who will own it remain unclear.

BERLIN, 18 August, 2014 – As the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, signed the recent deal forming the Eurasian Economic Union with his counterparts from Belarus and Kazakhstan in the Kazakh capital city of Astana, one controversial agreement went relatively unnoticed.

On the same day, May 29, the Russian state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Kazakh national atomic company, Kazatomprom, on constructing the first nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan.

The MoU lays out intentions of both parties on design, construction, commissioning, operation and decommissioning of a nuclear power plant with water-water energy reactors (VVER) –  that is, water-cooled water-moderated reactors  – with an installed capacity of 300 to 1,200 MW, according to the Rosatom press release. But other vital details about where the plant will be and who will own and operate it remain a mystery.

It seems surprising that Kazakhstan has not had a thermal nuclear plant before, especially as most of Russia’s uranium comes from local mines, which last year provided 38% of the world’s supply. One explanation may be the strength of the public protests against the construction of a nuclear power station.

Experimental reactor

Russia did build an experimental fast breeder reactor near Aktau city on the Caspian Sea in 1973, but it closed in 1999. Since then, the Kazakh government has been keen to build a conventional nuclear station as a replacement.

Russia has close ties with Kazakhstan because the country has been used for Russia’s space programme and nuclear testing. Its vast, flat desert interior was seen as a perfect launch pad. Large areas of what is the world’s largest landlocked country can be isolated without inconveniencing the population of 17 million, most of whom live along the greener border areas of the country.

From the Kazakh point of view, nuclear power is a vital part of the country’s plan to improve its green credentials, launched last year by President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Currently, oil from the Caspian Sea is enriching the government, but is exacerbating climate change.

According to the green plan, Kazakhstan is to increase the share of alternative and renewable energy in electricity generation from less than 1% to 50% by 2050. Nuclear power is part of the planned energy mix. .

The construction of the nuclear power plant will involve Russian loans, but the question of its ownership remains open, Vladislav Bochkov, from the Rosatom press office, told the Climate News Network.

The signed document mentions the possibility of production of atomic fuel or its components in Kazakhstan, as well as co-operation on nuclear waste management and the personnel training. The official intergovernmental agreement is to be signed by the end of 2014, Bochkov said.

Site ambiguous

The site of the plant also remains ambiguous. In media interviews, Rosatom said the plant will be constructed in Kurchatov, a city in north-east Kazakhstan, near the former Soviet Semipalatinsk nuclear test site.

However, in an interview on the Astana TV channel, the head of Kazatomprom, Vladimir Shkolnik, said that two nuclear power plants may well be constructed − one in Kurchatov, and one near the Balkhash Lake in south-east Kazakhstan.

It is clear that Kazakhstan has been keen on building nuclear plants for some years. “The demand for cheap nuclear energy, in the foreseeable future, will only increase,” President Nazarbayev said during his annual address in January this year.

“We have to develop our own fuel industry
and build nuclear power stations”

“Kazakhstan is the world leader in uranium production. We have to develop our own fuel industry and build nuclear power stations”

Today, Kazakhstan generates more than 80% of its electricity from coal. However, as a result of the country’s outdated coal mining and production industry, its emissions have risen 40% since 2006.

In its 2010 submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Kazakhstan pledged, on a voluntary basis, that by 2020 it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 15% below its 1992 levels.

Dmitry Kalmykov, director of EcoMuseum, a Kazakh environmental NGO, said: “From the economic point of view, the interest of the Kazakh government to develop nuclear power is understandable. The country leads in uranium production, it used to have parts of the production cycles of atomic fuel, and even the personnel since Kazakhstan still runs four testing reactors.

“Yet, so far, the government has not provided any information on how economically rational it is in comparison with coal or renewable energy.”

Kalmykov said the choice of Kurchatov in the north-east as the site for the plant appears questionable. He said: “We already have, 150-160 km from Kurchatov, two gigantic Ekibastuz coal power stations, the biggest in the country, and another one nearby. Everybody knows in Kazakhstan that there is oversupply of energy in the north. The biggest need for energy is in the south.”

Kazakhstan’s electricity grid system was historically divided into three networks, with two in the north connected to the Russian system and the southern one connected to the Central Asian energy system.

Petr Svoik, an opposition politician and analyst in Kazakhstan, wrote on the Forbes.kz website that a nuclear power plant in Kurchatov makes little sense for the energy needs of Kazakhstan. “Its only advantage is convenience of energy export to Russia,” he said. “In fact, it will be a Russian nuclear power plant on the Kazakh territory.”

Expand capacity

In an interview with the Climate News Network, Svoik said the MoU on constructing a nuclear power plant gives Kazatomprom a chance to expand its capacity from uranium mining and first processing to the company dealing with the full nuclear cycle, including the atomic fuel production.

Since 1973, the Ulba metallurgical plant in the east of Kazakhstan has been producing nuclear fuel pellets from Russian-enriched uranium.

Vladimir Slivyak, from the Russian environmental group Ecodefense, said Rosatom constructs only 1200 MW reactors, whereas Kazakhstan needs less capacity.

“The only exception is a very old reactor built during the Soviet times in the 1980s,” he said. “Formally, Rosatom has smaller projects, but they never developed to the implementation stage. So it cannot just start constructing a smaller reactor, but would need five to six years for the equipment to be developed.”

Sending a signal

Slivyak said Russia might be sending a signal to the West that it has other partners, despite the economic sanctions.

He said: “In such a tight political situation, with a conflict with the Ukraine and a number of countries introducing sanctions against the country, the Russian government in response demonstrates its establishment of a new trade-economical union with some countries from the former Soviet Union. To give it weight, a range of bilateral agreements is signed, and the MoU on construction of a power plant is one of them.”

Slivyak said he was sceptical about the MoU because plans about constructing the nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan by Russia have appeared in the news over the last 10 years, but never reached the stage of the official intergovernmental agreement or a contract.

On being asked by the Climate News Network for an interview, the Kazatomprom press office said to contact Rosatom for comments, as “the memorandum was their initiative”. However, the Rosatom press office declined to provide the MoU text. – Climate News Network

  • Komila Nabiyeva is a Berlin-based freelance journalist, reporting on climate change, energy and development.

Human factor speeds up glacial melting

Glaciers such as Artesonraju in the Peruvian Andes are melting at record rates Image: Edubucher via Wikimedia Commons
Glaciers such as Artesonraju in the Peruvian Andes are melting at record rates
Image: Edubucher via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists simulating changes in mountain glaciers over the last century and a half have established that rates of melting have increased greatly in recent years – and that humans are the main culprits.

LONDON, 17 August, 2014 – The impact of human activity is melting the glaciers in the world’s mountain regions, and is doing so at an accelerating rate.

Ben Marzeion, a climate scientist at the University of Innsbruck’s Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics, Austria, reports with colleagues in the journal Science that they used computer models to simulate changes in the world’s slow-flowing frozen rivers between the years 1851 and 2010. The study embraced all the world’s glaciers except those in Antarctica.

This kind of manipulation allows researchers to play with the possibilities and see, for instance, how much changes in the sunlight patterns, high-level atmospheric changes because of volcanic eruptions, or simply slow cycles of natural weather patterns might be at work in the ice record.

The answers were unequivocal about human impact on the environment. “In our data, we find unambiguous evidence of anthropogenic contribution to glacier mass loss,” Dr Marzeion says.

In retreat

That glaciers are losing mass − retreating uphill, and melting at a faster rate − is not in doubt. A year ago, one group established without any doubt that worldwide, and overall, glaciers are in retreat.

In South America, some glaciers in the Andes are melting at a record rate, while satellite measurements show that the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland doubled its flow speed between 1997 and 2003, and has doubled it again since 2003.

In Europe, 19th-century landscape painters, pioneer photographers and mountain guides unwittingly made permanent, easily-accessible records of Alpine glacier geography. These now set a baseline for all modern measurements, and researchers have established that the melt is getting faster.

The challenge is to determine how much of this is due to natural causes, and how much to changes in human land use, and the emission of greenhouse gases.

Higher proportion

The Innsbruck team has calculated that around a quarter of all the melting between 1851 and 2010 can be put down to human activity. But that is the overall picture: the proportion gets higher with time. Between 1991 and 2010, the fraction of melting due to human activity rose to two-thirds.

“In the 19th century and first half of the 20th century we observed that glacier mass loss attributable to human activity is barely noticeable, but since then has steadily increased,” Dr Marzeion says. – Climate News Network

Arctic warming blamed for dangerous heat waves

Feeling the heat: a wildfire rages in New Mexico during the 2012 heat wave in the US Image: Kari Greer/USFS Gila National Forest via Wikimedia Commons
Feeling the heat: a wildfire rages in New Mexico during the 2012 heat wave
Image: Kari Greer/USFS Gila National Forest via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Giant waves in the jet stream that often governs our weather are changing as the Arctic warms more rapidly − leading to long periods of soaring temperatures that pose major threats to economies and human health.

LONDON, 16 August, 2014 − Few people have heard of Rossby waves and even less understand them, but if you are sweltering in an uncomfortably long heat wave, then they could be to blame.

New discoveries about what is going on in the atmosphere are helping to explain why heat waves are lasting longer and causing serious damage to humans and the natural world. These events have doubled in frequency this century, and the cause is believed to be the warming of the Arctic.

The weather at the Earth’s surface is often governed by high winds in the atmosphere, known as jet streams. In 1939, Carl-Gustaf Arvid Rossby, a Swedish-born America meteorologist, discovered waves in the northern jet stream that were associated with the high and low pressure systems at ground level that form daily weather patterns.

Jet streams travel at up to 200 kilometres an hour, frequently wandering north and south − with cold Arctic air to the north, and warmer air to the south.

Rapid variations

When the jet stream develops Rossby waves and they swing north, they suck warm air from the tropics to Europe, Russia or the US. And when they swing south, they do the same thing with cold air from the Arctic. The waves constantly change shape, and so cause rapid variations in the weather.

But new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, has discovered a tendency for these waves in the jet stream to get much bigger and to get stuck – particularly in July and August. This causes heat waves that last not just for a few days but for weeks.

This is a serious health and economic threat. A recent example is the record heat wave in the US that hit corn farmers and worsened wildfires in 2012.

Close study of records shows that, from 1980 to 2003, there were two such heat wave events every four years on average. From 2004-07, there were three events, and between 2008-11 there were five.

Ice shrinking

Theory and the new data both suggest a link to processes in the Arctic. Since 2000, the Arctic has been warming about twice as fast as the rest of the globe. One reason for this is that ice is rapidly shrinking in the White Sea − a southern inlet of the Barents Sea on the north-west coast of Russia – and so less sunlight gets reflected back into space, while the open ocean is dark and hence warms more.

“This melting of ice and snow is actually due to our lifestyle of churning out unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels,” says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, co-author of the study and founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

As the Arctic warms more rapidly, the temperature difference to other regions decreases. Yet temperature differences are a major driver of the atmospheric circulation patterns that in turn rule our weather.

“The planetary waves topic illustrates how delicately interlinked components in the Earth system are,” Schellnhuber concludes: “And it shows how disproportionately the system might react to our perturbations.” – Climate News Network

Top 20 oil projects put investors’ billions at risk

An oil extraction platform in the North Sea, off the coast of Norway Image: Håkon Thingstad via Wikimedia Commons
An oil extraction platform in the North Sea, off the coast of Norway
Image: Håkon Thingstad via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

An oil industry thinktank warns that high-cost extraction projects failing to match oil demand with global emissions reduction targets could waste US$91 billion of investors’ money over the next decade. 

LONDON, 15 August 2014 – If you want a safe bet, don’t invest in some of today’s tempting oil and gas projects. That’s the message from a UK-based financial thinktank that aims to align the global energy market with climate reality.

The report, by the not-for-profit Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI), warns that US$ 91 billion of investors’ money risks going to waste over the next decade because of the industry’s plans.

It highlights a top 20 of the world’s most expensive future oil projects being considered for development, and concludes that, to be profitable, some of them will need oil prices to be far higher than today’s levels.

The findings in the report, CTI says, demonstrate the mismatch between continuing oil demand and reducing carbon emissions to limit global warming.

Economic justification

Since an earlier CTI report in May this year, institutional investors have been asking for more details of the economic justification for projects that require high oil prices.

This latest research ranks oil majors according to their capex (capital expenditure) exposure to undeveloped, high-cost projects, and reveals the projects at highest risk.

The companies, CTI says, need to reduce exposure to exploration projects that must earn the highest prices for their oil, and that this is the principle that should determine investment decisions, rather than the simple pursuit of production volume.

“This analysis demonstrates the worsening
cost environment in the oil industry”

All the fields require at least $95 a barrel to be sanctioned, identified by CTI as the key risk level −  the market price required to go ahead with the project, assuming a $15 contingency allowance or “risk premium” on top of the break-even price.

Some projects will need prices above $150 per barrel. The global Brent oil benchmark has ranged between $99 and $114 per barrel over the past 12 months.

Using data from the independent consultants Rystad Energy, CTI finds that BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total, Eni and Royal Dutch Shell are considering investing a total of $357 billion over the next decade on new production in costly and often technically-challenging projects − ranging from Canadian oil sands to deep water finds in the Gulf of Mexico and discoveries in the Arctic.

Both BP and Total have particularly high exposure to deep water and ultra-deep water projects, while ConocoPhillips is heavily exposed to Arctic projects. High carbon-emitting oil sands projects account for 27% and 26% respectively of Shell’s and Conoco’s potential high-cost development spend.

“This analysis demonstrates the worsening cost environment in the oil industry, and the extent to which producers are chasing volume over value at the expense of returns,” said Andrew Grant, CTI analyst.

Projects shelved

Some majors have started cutting already. For example, in the Canadian oil sands sector so far this year, Total and Suncor have shelved the $11bn Joslyn mine project, and Royal Dutch Shell has put on hold its Pierre River project.

With deep-water projects, BP has delayed/cancelled its Mad Dog extension in the Gulf of Mexico, and Chevron is reviewing its $10bn Rosebank project in the North Sea.

In the Arctic, Statoil and Eni have deferred a decision on the $15.5bn Johan Castberg project.

The CTI report says projects that depend on sustained high prices for a return are at risk from a future double hit of falling oil prices and growing climate regulation in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.

Its study in May this year showed that oil prices have twice fallen as low as $40 per barrel in the last decade.

The US Energy Information Administration recently reported that the oil and gas sector has increased borrowing heavily to cover spending and dividends. − Climate News Network

Tar oil pipeline’s hidden pollution danger

Keystone pipeline protest in Olympia, capital of Washington state, US Image: Brylie Oxley via Wikimedia Commons
Keystone XL pipeline protest in Olympia, capital of Washington state, US
Image: Brylie Oxley via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

European researchers say a 2,000-mile pipeline designed to carry controversial tar sands oil from Canada to the southern US may lead to much more pollution than previously calculated.

LONDON, 14 August, 2014 − The oil industry has high hopes of the US$5.4 billion Keystone XL pipeline, which on completion is planned to carry crude oil from Canada’s tar sands in Alberta to refineries more than 2,000 miles away in Texas.

With President Barack Obama saying he will approve Keystone only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution”, the pipeline’s future is seen by many inside and outside the US as an acid test of his resolve to tackle climate change.

But in a report that questions US State Department calculations of Keystone’s impact, researchers in Europe say it could increase carbon emissions by much more than anyone has so far calculated.

Emissions increase

The research team, from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), says the pipeline could increase world greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 121 million tons of carbon dioxide a year − more than four times higher than the State Department’s estimated total of 30 million tons at most.

The official figure, the SEI says, ignores the fact that the extra oil refined once the pipeline is working will cause prices to fall by about $3 a barrel, increasing consumption and, with it, carbon emissions. The SEI report is published by the journal Nature Climate Change.

To put the possible 121 million ton figure in perspective, the total amount of CO2 emitted globally in 2013 was 36 billion tons.

The American Petroleum Institute said the study was irrelevant because the tar sands would be developed anyway and oil would be transported to the southern refineries by rail if not by pipeline.

But Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology in Washington, while agreeing that the total emissions increase is small, said the concern was more about the idea of boosting emissions than the degree of change.

Tar sands arouse vehement opposition from environment groups and from many communities in Alberta.

Concerns about exploiting the sands include the impact on health and safety, water resources, air pollution and soil damage. Beyond that, some analysts are increasingly arguing that the world cannot afford to burn most of its fossil fuel reserves (including unconventional oil, such as that from tar sands) if it is to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Oil prices

The authors of the SEI study, Peter Erickson and Michael Lazarus, found that, for every barrel of increased production, global oil consumption would increase by 0.6 barrels because of the resulting fall in world oil prices.

Taking other variables into account, they calculated that the net annual impact of Keystone XL could range from virtually nothing to 121 million tons of CO2 equivalent − a spread much wider than that found by the State Department, which did not account for global oil market effects.

“The key message is that the oil market impacts of Keystone XL could be significant – and have an emissions impact four times greater than the US State Department found,” Erickson told Responding to Climate Change, a London-based news and analysis website.

“That also suggests that more of this type of analysis − analysing the possible market effects of other fossil fuel infrastructure projects − could be warranted, as they could have similar effects”. − Climate News Network

Climate change heralds end of civilisations

Arid land in the former Fertile Crescent area of south-west Syria Image; Simone Riehl/Tübingen University
Arid landscape in the former ‘Fertile Crescent’ area of south-west Syria
Image; Simone Riehl/Tübingen University

By Paul Brown

New research supports the growing body of evidence that many past civilisations have collapsed because of climate change. So is history repeating itself?

LONDON, 13 August, 2014 –  Scientists looking at what is known as the “Fertile Crescent” of ancient Mesopotamia have found new evidence that drought caused by climate change brings an end to civilisations.

It is the latest study that confirms the threat posed to present civilisations in Africa, Asia and parts of the United States by changes in rainfall pattern that could lead to the abandonment of once-fertile areas − and the cities that once were fed by them.

The focus of research by a team from Tübingen University, Germany, is the area currently part of Iraq and the Persian Gulf where the development of ancient agriculture led to the rise of large cities.

Evidence from grain samples up to 12,000 years old shows that while the weather was good, the soil fertile and the irrigation system well managed, civilisation grew and prospered. When the climate changed and rainfall became intermittent, agriculture collapsed and the cities were abandoned.

Analysed grains

Dr Simone Riehl, of the Institute for Archaeological Sciences and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at Tübingen University, analysed grains of barley up to 12,000 years old from 33 locations across the Fertile Crescent to find out if they had had enough water while growing and ripening.

The 1,037 ancient samples were between 12,000 and 2,500 years old. They were compared with modern samples from 13 locations in the former Fertile Crescent.

Dr. Riehl and her team measured the grains’ content of two stable carbon isotopes.

When barley grass gets insufficient water while growing, the proportion of heavier carbon isotopes deposited in its cells will be higher than normal. The two isotopes 12C and 13C remain stable for thousands of years and can be measured precisely – giving Riehl and her colleagues reliable information on the availability of water while the plants were growing.

They found that many settlements were affected by drought linked to major climate fluctuations. “Geographic factors and technologies introduced by humans played a big role and influenced societies’ options for development, as well as their particular ways of dealing with drought,” Riehl says.

Her findings indicate that harvests in coastal regions of the northern Levant, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, were little affected by drought. But further inland, drought led to the need for irrigation or, in extreme cases, abandonment of the settlement.

The findings give archaeologists clues as to how early agricultural societies dealt with climate fluctuations and differing local environments. “They can also help evaluate current conditions in regions with a high risk of crop failures,” Riehl adds.

The study is part of a project, backed by the German Research Foundation, looking into the conditions under which Ancient Near Eastern societies rose and fell.

Scientists carrying out similar research in the Indus Valley, in present Pakistan and north-west India, home to the Harappan Civilisation, also believe that drought was the cause of the civilisation’s demise.

It was characterised by large, well-planned cities with advanced municipal sanitation systems and a script that has never been deciphered. But the Harappans seemed to slowly lose their urban cohesion, and their cities were gradually abandoned.

Cities abandoned

According to an article in Nature in March, a 200-year drought, caused by the failure of the monsoon, led to the abandonment of the cities and the end of the civilisation.

Across the Atlantic, another puzzle was the loss of the Mayan cities and culture in Central America. This was a people that had the time, money and manpower to build massive temples and cities for a population estimated at 13 million.

Many theories have been put forward as to why, over a period of about 200 years from 750 to 950AD, the Mayans abandoned their way of life. Research on the subject by Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, says that a series of droughts caused by local climate change was the cause.

With the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting a faltering of the monsoon that is vital for the Indian sub-continent’s ability to feed itself, it seems as though history could repeat itself. Certainly, some people in India believe it could happen unless action to curb climate change is taken.

Environmental refugees in Africa are also seen as victims of changing weather patterns, and California is suffering a three-year drought that is badly affecting water supplies in this most prosperous of American states. – Climate News Network

Norway fails to tap new Arctic oil and gas

Melkøya gas plant, 110km south of Statoil’s latest Arctic drilling site Image: Joakim Aleksander Mathisen via Wikimedia Commons
Melkøya gas plant, 110km south of Statoil’s latest Arctic drilling site
Image: Joakim Aleksander Mathisen via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The Norwegian company conducting some of the most northerly drilling operations in the world admits that it has failed so far to find commercially exploitable hydrocarbon reserves in the high Arctic.

LONDON, 12 August, 2014 − Statoil, the Norwegian state-owned company, has announced that it has failed to find commercial quantities of oil and gas in the Barents Sea this year.

The Arctic remains one of the oil industry’s most promising exploration areas. The US Geological Survey says a large part of the world’s remaining hydrocarbon resources − perhaps as much as a quarter of its reserves − is thought to lie in the high northern latitudes of Russia, Norway, Greenland, the US and Canada.

Statoil hoped to find oil in the three test wells it drilled this summer in the high northern Arctic, having made finds in the area in 2011 and 2012.

Dry reservoir

But it has admitted to being disappointed at its latest results, which included a small quantity of natural gas at one site and a dry reservoir at another.

Statoil announced in February this year that drilling in the Johan Castberg oilfield − also in the Barents Sea, off northern Norway and Russia − had produced no oil and little gas.

Irene Rummelhoff, Statoil’s senior vice-president for exploration on the Norway continental shelf, said of the latest drilling operations: “We are naturally disappointed with the results of this summer’s drilling campaign in the Hoop area.”

But the company reaffirmed its confidence in the potential of the area, where the latest drilling was conducted. Rummelhoff said the wells were three out of just six drilled so far in an area measuring 15,000 sq km. Even negative results provided valuable information for further drilling, she said.

“Non-commercial discoveries and dry wells
are part of the game in frontier exploration.”

“We do not have all the answers about the subsurface yet,” Rummelhoff said in a Statoil statement on the exploration programme. “Non-commercial discoveries and dry wells are part of the game in frontier exploration.”

The possibility and the wisdom of trying to recover oil and gas from the unique and very challenging Arctic environment sharply divide environmental campaigners and the energy industry.

In September 2013, Russian security forces detained 30 Greenpeace activists and journalists and seized their vessel, the Arctic Sunrise, during a protest at an offshore oil rig owned by Gazprom, the Russian energy company. The 30, who included four Russians, were held for around two months before being released.

Old partner

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had praise for what he called Russia’s “old and reliable partner” Exxon Mobil as he gave the signal on 9 August for the US energy company and its Russian partner, OAO Rosneft, to start drilling a $700 million Arctic Ocean oil well, Russia’s northernmost well.

“Despite current political difficulties, pragmatism and common sense prevails,” he said at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, as he ordered drilling to start.

“Nowadays, commercial success is defined by an efficient international co-operation. Businesses, including the largest domestic and foreign companies, understand this perfectly.”

The facts of climate science support the campaign groups: most of the hydrocarbons that lie beneath the Arctic cannot be burned if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.

By 2011, the world had used over a third of its 50-year carbon budget. Only 20% of its total reserves can be burned unabated, leaving up to 80% of oil and gas assets technically unburnable. − Climate News Network

US climate change debate heats up

Skiing areas such as Colorado are being hit by warmer winters Image: DebateLord at Wikimedia Commons
Skiing tourism areas such as Colorado are being hit by warmer winters
Image: DebateLord at Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Groups for and against US government plans for new regulations aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions have been slugging it out at a series of heated debates across America.

LONDON, 11 August, 2014 − Achieving progress in cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions and preventing serious global warming is never easy. But just how difficult a task that is became clear at a series of recent meetings across the US held to discuss the Obama administration’s latest plans for tackling climate change.

Those plans, announced in early June by the government’s Environmental Protection Agency, call for substantial nationwide cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Power companies − in particular, those operating coal-fired plants − will have to make big adjustments, reducing overall CO2 emissions by 25% on 2005 levels by 2025 and by 30% by 2030.

The EPA-sponsored public meetings, held in four US cities, were packed.

Long overdue

In Denver, in the state of Colorado, representatives of the skiing industry − a vital part of the state’s economy − said the new regulations were long overdue.

Skiing organisations said changes in climate were already happening and the industry was being badly hit, with drier and warmer winters resulting in less and less snow.

But coal mining is also central to Colorado’s economy. One resident of a coal mining community told the meeting: “The environmental extremist war on coal is really a war on prosperity. Coal means families can buy homes and put food on the table.”

The multi-billion dollar US coal industry is training its big guns on the EPA proposals.

Fred Palmer, a representative for Peabody Energy Corporation, the biggest coal producer in the US, told a meeting at the EPA’s HQ in Washington that the government should provide more funds for new technologies such as carbon capture and storage.

“Climate change is an issue we need to deal with in the right way,” Palmer said, “The only way to approach it is with technology, not with command-and-control from Washington.”

Other coal lobbyists have been wading into the fray. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity said the EPA’s emissions cutting programme “threatens to dismantle our nation’s economy, fundamentally alter the American way of life, and severely hamper US energy independence and leadership”.

Groups of campaigners in favour of the EPA proposals demonstrated at the meetings, with the area round the EPA’s Washington office turned into the site of a large green carnival.

Adamantly opposed

Although the Obama administration has a considerable battle on its hands – with many politicians, corporate groups and powerful business organisations adamantly opposed to the new proposals – there are signs that the White House is determined to implement the measures.

Coinciding with the public meetings around the country, the government’s Council of Economic Advisers issued a report saying cutting emissions makes sense economically, as well as environmentally.

For each decade that action on emissions is delayed, costs of meeting reduction targets rise by more than 40%, the report says.

The public mood about the seriousness of climate change and the need to take action seems to back Washington’s stance.

A recent poll carried out by the ABC news network in the US and the Washington Post found that seven out of 10 people think global warming is a serious problem that needs to be tackled – and more than 60% of those questioned wanted action on emissions, even if it means higher energy bills. – Climate News Network

New rules could block biofuel’s alien invaders

The invasive giant reed (Arundo donax) has been approved in the US as a biofuel crop Image: H Zell via Wikimedia Commons
The US approved the invasive giant reed (Arundo donax) as a biofuel crop
Image: H Zell via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Producing biofuel from plants can help to reduce fossil fuel use and climate change emissions, but scientists warn of risks that some species may become unwelcome and damaging invaders.

LONDON, 10 August, 2014 − Researchers in the US have warned those anxious to cut greenhouse emissions to make quite sure that the cure they choose will not turn out worse than the disease.

They have developed a tool that should help to avoid the danger that efforts to address climate change could allow invasive plant species to spread where they are not wanted.

Making fuel from plants avoids using fossil fuels − although it does use land that could otherwise grow crops. But scientists are concerned that plants grown for their energy could damage their new environment.

If a plant grown as a biofuel crop is approved solely on the basis of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the scientists from the University of Illinois warn that its potential as the next invasive species may not be discovered until it’s too late. So they have drawn up a set of regulatory definitions and provisions.

White list

They also assessed 120 potential bioenergy feedstock taxa (biological classifications of related organisms) and came up with a “white list” of 49 low-risk biofuel plants − 24 native and 25 non-native − from which growers can choose.

Lauren Quinn, an invasive plant ecologist at the university’s Energy Biosciences Institute, and her colleagues set out to create a list of low-risk biofuel crops that can be safely grown for conversion to ethanol. But in the process of doing that, they recognised that regulations were needed to instill checks and balances in the system.

“There are not a lot of existing regulations that would prevent the planting of potentially invasive species at the state or federal levels,” Dr Quinn says.

In approving new biofuel products, she says, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not formally consider invasiveness at all – just greenhouse gas emissions related to their production.

“Last summer, the EPA approved two
known invaders . . . despite public criticism”

The report’s co-author, A. Bryan Endres, professor of agricultural law at the university, says: “Last summer, the EPA approved two known invaders, Arundo donax [giant reed] and Pennisetum purpurem [napier grass], despite public criticism.”

The researchers say there is no clear and agreed scientific definition of what “invasive” means, although the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has made a brave attempt, while also broadening the category. It says: “Invasive alien species have devastating impacts on native biota, causing decline or even extinctions of native species, and negatively affecting ecosystems.”

Dr Quinn says: “Our definition of invasive is ‘a population exhibiting a net negative impact or harm to the target ecosystem’ . . . We want to establish guidelines that will be simple for regulators, and informed by the ecological literature and our own knowledge.

“We also need to recognise that some native plants can become weedy or invasive. It’s complicated, and requires some understanding of the biology of these plants.

High risk

“Some of the biofeedstocks currently being examined by the EPA for approval, like pennycress, have a high risk for invasion. Others have vague names such as jatropha, with no species name, which is problematic.

“For example, there are three main Miscanthus species, but only sterile hybrid Miscanthus giganteus types are considered low risk. However, the EPA has approved “Miscanthus” as a feedstock, without specifying a species or genotype.

“That’s fine for the low-risk sterile types, but could mean higher-risk fertile types could be approved without additional oversight.”

Dr Quinn thinks the team’s list of  low-risk feedstock plants will serve to clear up the confusion about plant names. It was developed using an existing weed risk assessment protocol, which includes an extensive list of 49 questions that must be asked about a particular species − based on its biology, ecology, and its history of being invasive in other parts of the world.

Although a plant may be native to a part of the US, it could be considered invasive if it is grown in a different region, Dr Quinn says. “For example, Panicum virgatum is the variety of switchgrass that is low risk everywhere except for the three coastal states of Washington, Oregon and California.

“But future genotypes that may be bred with more invasive characteristics, such as rapid growth or prolific seed production, may have higher risk.” − Climate News Network