Category Archives: Economy

Waste problems still haunt nuclear option

Closing shot: the nuclear popwer plant at San Onofre, California Image: D Ramey Logan/WPPilot via Wikimedia Commons
Closing shot: the nuclear power plant at San Onofre, California
Image: D Ramey Logan/WPPilot via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Nuclear power is seen as one of the possible solutions to climate change, but the recent closure of five US power stations is forcing the industry to face up at last to the damaging legacy of how to deal with radioactive waste.

LONDON, 15 July, 2014 − Long-term employment is hard to find these days, but one career that can be guaranteed to last a lifetime is dealing with nuclear waste.

The problem and how to solve it is becoming critical. Dozens of nuclear power stations in the US, Russia, Japan, and across Europe and Central Asia are nearing the end of their lives.

And when these stations close, the spent fuel has to be taken out, safely stored or disposed of, and then the pressure vessels and the mountains of concrete that make up the reactors have to be dismantled. This can take between 30 and 100 years, depending on the policies adopted.

In the rush to build stations in the last century, little thought was given to how to take them apart 40 years later. It was an age of optimism that science would always find a solution when one was needed, but the reality is that little effort was put into dealing with the waste problem. It is now coming back to haunt the industry.

Profitable business

Not that everyone sees it as a problem. A lot of companies view nuclear waste as a welcome and highly profitable business opportunity.

Either way, because of the dangers of radioactivity, it is not a problem that can be ignored. The sums of money that governments will have to find to deal with keeping the old stations safe are eye-wateringly large. They will run into many billions of dollars − an assured income for companies in the nuclear waste business, stretching to the end of this century and beyond.

The US is a prime example of a country where the nuclear waste issue is becoming rapidly more urgent.

The problem has been brought to the fore in the US because five stations have closed in the last two years. The Crystal River plant in Florida and San Onofre 1 and 2 in California have closed down because they were judged too costly to bring up to modern standards. Two more − Kewaunee in Wisconsin andthe  Vermont Yankee plant − could no longer compete on cost with the current price of natural gas and increased subsidies for renewables.

Nuclear Energy Insider, which keeps a forensic watch on the industry, predicts that several other nuclear power stations in the US will also succumb to premature closure because they can no longer compete.

The dilemma for the industry is that the US government has not solved the problem of what to do with the spent fuel and the highly radioactive nuclear waste that these stations have generated over the last 40 years. They have collected a levy − kept in a separate fund that now amounts to $31 billion − to pay for solving the problem, but still have not come up with a plan.

Legal action

Since it costs an estimated $10 million dollars a year to keep spent fuel safe at closed stations, electricity utilities saddled with these losses, and without any form of income, are taking legal action against the government.

The US government has voted another $205 million to continue exploring the idea of sending the waste to the remote Yucca Mountain in Nevada − an idea fought over since 1987 and still no nearer solution. Even if this plan went through, the facility would not be built and accepting waste until 2048.

The big problem for the US, the utility companies and the consumers who will ultimately pay the bill is what to do in the meantime with the old stations, the spent fuel, and the sites. Much of the fuel will be moved from wet storage to easier-to-manage dry storage, but it will still be a costly process. What happens after that, and who will pay for it, is anyone’s guess.

The industry is having a Nuclear Decommissioning and Used Fuel Strategy Summit in October in Charlotte, North Carolina, to try to sort out some of these issues.

But America is not alone. The UK has already closed a dozen reactors. Most of the rest are due to be retired by 2024, but it is likely that the French company EDF, which owns the plants, will try to keep them open longer.

The bill for dealing with existing nuclear waste in Britain is constantly rising and currently stands at £74 billion, even without any other reactors being decommissioned.

The government is already spending £2 billion each year trying to clear up the legacy of past nuclear activities, but has as yet found no solution to dealing with the thousands of fuel rods still in permanent store at power stations.

As with the US, even if a solution is found, it would be at least 2050 before a facility to deal with this highly dangerous waste could be found. By that time, billions of pounds will have been expended just to keep the used fuel from igniting and causing a nuclear meltdown.

It is hard to know how the industry’s finances could stand such a drain on its resources without going bankrupt.

Similar problems are faced by Germany, which is already closing its industry permanently in favour of renewables, and France, with more than 50 ageing reactors.

Japan, still dealing with the aftermath of the Fukushima accident in 2011, is composed of crowded islands where few people will welcome a nuclear waste depository.

Many countries in the former Soviet bloc with ageing reactors look to Russia − which provided them − to solve their problems. But this may be a false hope, as Russia has an enormous unsolved waste problem of its own.

Dramatic rise

In all these countries, the issue of nuclear waste and what to do with it is a problem that has been put off − both by the industry and politicians − as an issue to be dealt with sometime in the future. But the problem is becoming more urgent as the costs and the volume of waste rises dramatically.

Unlike any other form of generation, even dirty coal plants, getting rid of nuclear stations is no simple matter. To cleanse a nuclear site so that it can be used for another industrial use is difficult. Radioactivity lasts for centuries, and all contamination has to be physically removed.

For many critics of the industry, the nuclear waste issue has always been a moral issue − as well as a financial one − that should not be left to future generations to solve. The industry itself has always relied on its continuous expansion, and developing science, to deal what it calls “back end costs” at some time in the distant future.

But as more stations close, and fewer new ones are planned to raise revenue, putting off the problem no longer seems an option, either for the industry or for the governments that ultimately will have to pick up the bill. – Climate News Network

Europe faces deadly cost for climate inaction

Smoke from Russian forest fires obscures the Sun in 2010 Image: Ximonic, Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons

Smoke from Russian forest fires obscures the Sun in 2010
Image: Ximonic, Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

A failure to act to reduce the impacts of climate change could cost Europe dear in lives lost and economic damage, according to a European Commission study.

LONDON, 13 July 2014 − Inaction over climate change costs lives. And in the case of European inaction, it is estimated that this could one day cost 200,000 lives a year.

That is the warning in a new European Commission (EC) study, which also says that failing to take the necessary action could burn 8,000 square kilometres of forest, and commit European taxpayers to at least €190 billion (US$259 bn) a year in economic losses.

Flood damage, too, could exceed €10bn a year by 2080, while the number of people affected by droughts could increase sevenfold, and coastal damage from sea level rise could treble.

The study weighs the bleak consequences of inaction. Scientists considered what would happen if the politicians and players on the continent worked with international partners to constrain global warming to a 2°C rise, or alternatively took no action and allowed global temperatures to soar to 3.5°C. They analysed the impact of climate change in agriculture, river floods, coasts, tourism, energy, droughts, forest fires, transport infrastructure and human health.

All involved in the research emphasised that their projections were conservative – that is, they were underestimates – and imagined a planet 60 years from now that was occupied by its present population, at its present state of economic growth. In a more populated, more developed world, the losses would be hugely greater.

Probable underestimates

The biggest and most obvious cost was to human health: premature death – from heat stress or other climate-related impacts – would account for €120 billion; coastal losses would claim €42 billion and agriculture €18bn. The worst-hit regions would be southern and south central Europe, which would bear 70% of the burden; northern Europe would experience the lowest.

If the world keeps temperature rise to the current international target of 2°C, there will still be huge costs, but the constraint would knock at least €60 billion off the overall bill. It would save lives too,  reducing the notional premature death toll by 23,000, and would burn only about 4,000 square kilometres of forest.

Calculations such as these − which are aids to political and economic planners, and intended to spur forthcoming political action − are uncheckable, but they are also almost certainly underestimates. They take no account of losses of, for example, biodiversity, on which it is impossible to place a value, and they do not include the consequences of catastrophic tipping points, such as the melting of Arctic ice.

Connie Hedegaard, the EC’s Commissioner for Climate Action, said: “No action is clearly the most expensive solution of all. Why pay for the damages when we can invest in reducing our climate impacts and becoming a competitive low-carbon economy?

“Taking action and taking a decision on the 2030 climate and energy framework  in October will bring us just there, and make Europe ready for the fight against climate change.” – Climate News Network

Climate puts US at risk of multi-billion bill

Overheating: US crops such as cotton face a %20 drop in yield Image: Wars via Wikinmedia Commons
Overheated economy: US crops such as cotton face a 20% drop in yield
Image: Wars via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

A study of the possible cost of climate change to the US economy warns government and business that billions of dollars could be at risk through damage to property, reduced harvests and workers incapacitated by extreme heat.

LONDON, 29 June, 2014 − The sheer economic cost of climate change to Americans could be far greater than many realise, an influential study says.

The study was commissioned by the Risky Business Project, a research organisation chaired by a bi-partisan panel and supported by several former US Treasury Secretaries.

It expects climate change to have varied impacts across different regions and industries. Rising sea levels, it says, could destroy many billion dollars’ worth of coastal properties by 2050, and warming temperatures, especially in the south, south-west and mid-west, could cut the productivity of people working outdoors by 3%.

Without a change in crops, harvests in these regions could fall by 14%. But further north, in states such as North Dakota and Montana, winter temperatures will probably rise, reducing frost and cold-related deaths and lengthening the growing season for some crops.

Kate Gordon, executive director of the Risky Business Project, said : “We still live in a single integrated national economy, so just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean you won’t feel the heat of climate change.”

Michael Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, said: “Damages from storms, flooding, and heat waves are already costing local economies billions of dollars. We saw that firsthand in New York City with Hurricane Sandy.

Costs of inaction

“With the oceans rising and the climate changing, the Risky Business report details the costs of inaction in ways that are easy to understand in dollars and cents − and impossible to ignore.”

Hank Paulson, a former Treasury Secretary and co-chair of the Risky Business Project, said the report shows us that “our economy is vulnerable to an overwhelming number of risks from climate change.

“But if we act immediately, we can still avoid most of the worst impacts of climate change and significantly reduce the odds of catastrophic outcomes. But the investments we’re making today will determine our economic future.”

In a section on short-term climate threats, the authors say: “The American economy is already beginning to feel the effects of climate change. These impacts will likely grow materially over the next 5 to 25 years…”

“Just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean
you won’t feel the heat of climate change”

They say there is a 1-in-20 chance of yield losses of more than 20% in corn, wheat, soya and cotton crops over that timespan.

On energy, they say changes in temperature driven by greenhouse gases will probably mean a need to build roughly 200 average coal-fired or natural gas-fired power plants between 2020 and 2045, costing up to $12 billion per year.

Climate impacts, the report says, are unusual because future risks are directly tied to present decisions. By failing to lower greenhouse gas emissions today, decision-makers put in place processes that increase overall risks tomorrow.

By 2050, on present trends, $66bn-$106bn worth of existing coastal property will probably be below sea level nationwide, with $238-$507bn worth by 2100.

By mid-century, the average American will probably see 27 to 50 days over 95°F (35°C) each year − two to more than three times the average annual number of such days seen over the last 30 years. By the end of the century, this number will probably average 45 to 96 days over 95°F each year.

But the study says that the south-west, south-east, and upper mid-west will probably see several months of 95°F days annually.

Human threshold

In the longer term, extreme heat during parts of the year could pass the threshold at which the human body can no longer maintain a normal core temperature without air conditioning. At these times, anyone who has to work outdoors, or without access to air conditioning, will face severe health risks and possible death.

The authors say they hope it will become standard practice for the American business and investment community to factor climate change into its decision-making process. They say: “We are already seeing this response from the agricultural and national security sectors; we are starting to see it from the bond markets and utilities as well.

“But business still tends to respond only to the extent that these risks intersect with core short-term financial and planning decisions.”

And the authors warn the government: “We also know that the private sector does not operate in a vacuum, and that the economy runs most smoothly when government sets a consistent policy and a regulatory framework within which business has the freedom to operate.

“Right now, cities and businesses are scrambling to adapt to a changing climate without sufficient federal government support…” − Climate News Network

Heat has deadly impact on Nepal’s Gulf workers


Migrant workers have helped create the spectacular Doha skyline, Qatar Image: Darwinek via Wikimedia Commons
High price: migrant workers have helped create skylines like Doha’s in Qatar
Image: Darwinek via Wikimedia Commons


By Kieran Cooke and Om Astha Rai

Temperature extremes resulting from climate change have led to serious concerns about the impact on human health − but warnings have come too late for many Nepali migrants who have died working in Gulf states.

LONDON/KATHMANDU, 27 June, 2014 − Sabin is a 22-year-old from a small town in eastern Nepal, in the foothills of the Himalayas. But he isn’t living there now. To support his family, he’s been working as a truck driver in Qatar for the last five years.

“When I arrived in Qatar I could not believe the heat,” he says. “I never knew such extreme temperatures in my home place. Without AC (air conditioning) in my truck, I wouldn’t be able to survive. I would simply die.”

Sabin is part of an estimated 400,000-strong contingent of Nepalis now working in the small Gulf state − and he is one of the lucky ones. A substantial number of his fellow workers have died because of the conditions they have to work and live in – and the searing heat is thought to be a major factor in the high mortality rate.

Construction workers in Qatar, where summertime temperatures can reach 45˚C or more, are particularly vulnerable to heat exposure.

Dipesh has worked on various projects in Qatar. He has seen fellow Nepali workers − most of whom come from villages high up in the Himalayas, where they are used to a cool climate − wilt in the heat and then, ironically, die as a result of the cold in air conditioned rooms.

‘Killer machine’

“Especially for those working in the construction sector, the AC is like a killer machine,” Dipesh says. “They are exposed to extreme temperatures outside, then when they get breaks in the day, they fall asleep in the artificially-cooled rooms. Some of them never wake up – they die in their sleep.”

Qataris have the highest income per capita in the world, but only 6% of the 2 million people in the country are citizens. The rest are immigrants − the majority coming from Asia.

While exact statistics are hard to come by, because workers who speak out fear repercussions,  it is believed that at least 60 Nepalis − most of them working in the construction industry − have died in Qatar this year alone. In the majority of cases, the cause of death was officially given as heart disease. But many of the Nepalis believe that most of the deaths were caused by heat stroke.

The human body is designed to maintain a core temperature of 37˚C. Health specialists say that the physical impact of heat is often neglected, and should be considered in discussions about climate change.

A multi-centre international study programme called Hothaps (high occupational temperature: health and productivity suppression) is examining the issue, particularly in relation to increasingly high temperatures being recorded in some regions due to climate change.

“Heat transfer goes into the body and only
evaporation of sweat can reduce body heat”

“If the ambient air temperature is higher than 37˚C, heat transfer goes into the body and only evaporation of sweat can reduce body heat,” Hothaps says. “However, such evaporation is less and less effective as the humidity level goes up and, at 100% relative humidity, sweating continues but creates no body heat loss.”

Studies have shown that when the core body temperature rises above 38˚C, physical and mental capabilities diminish rapidly and there is an increased risk of accidents.

When the body temperature is above 39˚C, heat stroke occurs, while above 40.6˚C there’s the strong possibility of life-threatening “severe hyperpyrexia”, or high fever – leading to death.

Heat not only affects health but can also have a big impact on economic activity, with the productivity of workers labouring outside dropping by as much as 80% during the hottest hours of the day in summer in cities such as New Delhi.

Increased urbanisation, particularly in parts of Asia, is only adding to the problem. The “heat island effect” means that cities are often several degrees warmer than the countryside, so those in urban areas are at greater risk of heat stress.

This has considerable implications for the economic future of tropical countries, which are seeing spikes in temperatures related to climate change.

Risk of malaria

In some tropical regions, contractors are insisting that their workers make increasing use of “cool periods” – instructing them to work at dawn or dusk, or to labour through the night. One problem of this is that mosquitoes are far more active in the cooler hours, and so the risk of malaria increases.

Some workers, such as those millions involved in agriculture, have no alternative but to work in − and often through − the hottest period of the day.

In Qatar, regulations prohibit companies from making workers labour through the hottest period of the day in the summer months. Adequate worker breaks should also be provided.

But Bhim Prasad Bhandari, who worked as a tea boy in Qatar for four years before returning to his mountain village in Nepal, says: “The monthly salaries for Nepali workers are too low (less that $200), so they are often tempted to work overtime, even in the prohibited hours.

“Some companies do not want to halt their work during the day. The official work time is eight hours, but the Nepalis, who are often burdened with loans and the expectations of their families at home, carry on and work up to 14 hours a day. They live in unliveable conditions.” – Climate News Network

• Om Astha Rai is a reporter with Nepalese national newspaper, Republica Daily.

• Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the Nepali workers.

Monsoon brings late relief to scorched India


Sweltering heat has hit Kolkata street hawkers by keeping many customers away Image: Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons
Fierce heat has hit Kolkata street hawkers by keeping many customers away
Image: Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons

By Shiba Nanda Basu

Meteorological researchers in India suspect that climate change is a contributory factor to the changing weather patterns that have caused  the late arrival of the monsoon after a summer of swelteringly dry heat that has broken temperature records

Kolkata, 24 June, 2014 − At last, the rains have come. The summer monsoon arrived in West Bengal last week – almost two weeks later than usual − and brought relief to Kolkata and other cities and states across India that have been enduring an unusually hot summer.

A temperature of 41.5˚C was recorded in Kolkata in late May – the highest in 10 years – while temperatures in New Delhi  earlier this month exceeded 43˚C for seven consecutive days, and at one stage reached 48˚C. Other cities and states have had record temperatures, and many lives have been lost due to the heat.

Livelihoods have also suffered. Kolkata is famous for its bustling streets and pavements crowded with hawkers, but throughout recent months there has been a deserted look to the city.

“We have had to close our stalls earlier than usual and there’s been hardly any customers,” says Asraf Ali, a street hawker. “People from neighbouring districts, who are our main customers, have not been coming into the city due to the terrible heat.”

Absence of humidity

One thing that’s been worrying residents of Kolkata is an unusual period of what is called “dry heat” – an absence of humidity. Locals say this has made daytime conditions even more scorching.

Aminul Hasaan, a worker in one of Kolkata’s notoriously polluting leather tanning factories, says: “I was working so hard, and usually I sweat so much. But in the weeks before the monsoon I felt my forehead was always dry. It made me feel sick.”

Anshujyoti Das, who works for Express Weather, a private weather research organisation that aims to provide location-specific weather forecasts, says the dry heat indicates certain changes in weather patterns.

He says: “We cannot claim that this is the direct result of climate change, but we can’t brush the issue under the carpet. We must conduct studies to ascertain the reasons behind such unusual weather patterns.”

One possible cause for the dry conditions is thought to be the absence of the north-westerly storms that usually lash Kolkata and surrounding areas in the run-up to the monsoon.

On average, five to seven such storms hit in April and May, but this year only one was recorded. There was also an absence of moisture-laden winds blowing from the south.

Due to the conditions, the local government authorities extended summer vacations at 57,000 primary schools and more than 18,000 secondary schools. And the city police in Kolkata decided that traffic constables aged 55 and above should be relieved of their duties because of the extreme heat.

Dilip Adak, a senior officer at Kolkata’s traffic department, said: “We try to help [traffic policemen] by providing oral rehydration kits and umbrellas, but often that is not enough.”

Driving up prices

About half of India’s 1.25 billon people are involved in agriculture and are dependent on the summer monsoon rains. The late arrival of the monsoon can have a serious impact, driving up prices of many agricultural goods.

The latest report from the Indian Meteorological Department shows that the monsoon has not only arrived late but is less intense than normal, with many areas receiving well below average rainfall.

Climate change and the influence of an El Niño – a periodic warming of waters in the western Pacific that affects prevailing trade winds, with serious consequences on both sides of the Pacific and Indian Oceans – are seen as important influences on the behaviour of the monsoon– Climate News Network

• Shiba Nanda Basu is a reporter with The Statesman newspaper, Kolkata, India.

• Additional reporting by Kieran Cooke.

US corn’s gravy train faces derailment


A field of Maize in the Corn Belt state of South Dakota on the American Great Plains Image: Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons
A ripening field of maize in the American Corn Belt state of South Dakota
Image: Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The US produces enough corn in one year to fill a freight train stretching round the world, according to a recent study. But climate change and unsustainable use of water resources and fertilizers threaten this vast industry.

LONDON, 22 June, 2014 – One-third of cropland in the US is devoted to corn. It produces nearly 40% of the world’s corn, and a record harvest last year was valued at nearly $70 billion.

But now there are warnings that this mighty agricultural edifice – which supports not only farmers, but a legion of food and animal feed, transport and other companies, big and small − could be seriously damaged by a changing climate.

To make matters worse, increasingly scarce water supplies could also have an adverse effect, and so too could the intensification of growing techniques − in particular, the overuse of  fertilizers and pesticides.

A study by Ceres, a US not-for-profit group that lobbies for more environmental sustainability in the business sector, looks at the risks facing one of the country’s main industries.

Negative impact

States in the American Midwest and the Great Plains region – known as the Corn Belt − account for the bulk of corn production. But the study warns: “Record-breaking weather events – including prolonged drought, intense precipitation and high temperatures – are increasingly common in the Corn Belt and are negatively impacting corn yields and corporate profits.”

Floods in 2010/11 caused millions of dollars worth of crop losses in many areas. Lands were also degraded, and erosion increased. The following year there was drought, when the rains didn’t arrive and temperatures soared.

“The 2012/13 drought exemplified the vulnerability of the US corn supply chain to extreme weather,” the study says.

The bulk of US corn output goes either to animal feed or to the production of ethanol fuels, with only 10% going to food processing.

According to the report: “The 2012/13 drought had unusually severe financial impacts for many companies in the US corn value chain, hitting the meat and grain trading sectors particularly hard.

“Impacts ranged from interruptions to corn supply − which affected meat processing and ethanol refining activities − to operational challenges linked to insufficient water for manufacturing facilities, to low Mississippi river water levels that restrict transport of agricultural goods.”

While the percentage of corn production shipped abroad is relatively small, the US is still the world’s biggest corn exporter. Shortages or rising prices can have an adverse impact on the developing world, with the potential for outbreaks of serious social unrest.

The study points out that extreme weather events in recent years have resulted in large-scale price volatility. This in turn has led to what it calls riskier growing practices, with farmers and the big agricultural conglomerates seeking to cash in on rises in the market by using ever more fertilizer and pesticides on their lands.

The US government’s recent National Climate Assessment said the negative effects of climate change, such as higher temperatures and drought, would outweigh any positive impacts in the Midwest and Great Plains.

The Ceres study says corn is particularly sensitive to higher temperatures, and much of the corn is grown in regions where water supplies are already limited. In future, corn growing might have to move to cooler and more water-abundant areas further north.

Northward shift

“Higher temperatures and increased water stress mean that increased irrigation for corn will be required. Given limited water supply in parts of the Great Plains region, a northward shift in corn acreage is predicted, increasing the risk of stranded agricultural assets, such as processing, storage and transportation infrastructure.”

Costs, to the agricultural industry and to the US government are mounting. In 2012-13, the government’s Federal Crop Insurance Programme paid out a record $10.8 billion to farmers, mostly for reasons related to the drought.

Ceres says farmers and the large conglomerates that control increasing amounts of agricultural land must learn to farm more sustainably. In many cases, this means a less intensive crop regime.

There should be more measured use of fertilizers and pesticides. More efficient irrigations methods and charging systems that encourage less water use should also be implemented.

More mixed cropping should be introduced in order to preserve soil fertility, the report recommends. And companies should examine their supply chains, and pressure the farming sector to put in place better land practices.

Perhaps most controversially, Ceres has a simple message that is likely to cause a storm of anger across the Corn Belt: buy less corn. – Climate News Network

Fracking boom threatens US water supplies

A warning sign at a fracking site in Pennsylvania Image: Ostroff Law via Wikimedia Commons
Mixed message: a warning sign at a fracking site in Pennsylvania
Image: Ostroff Law via Wikimedia Commons

By Valerie Brown

Campaigners in the US warn that fracking for oil or gas, which has transformed the country’s energy market, is seriously depleting or contaminating supplies of the most vital asset − water


OREGON, 18 June − Since the onset of the fracking boom almost a decade ago, every state in the US has been examining its geological resources in the hope of finding oil or gas it can access through this extraction method. Almost half the states are now producing at least some shale gas, with a few – Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, North Dakota – sitting on massive deposits.

Nearly half a million wells in the US were producing shale gas in 2012. But while many countries now seek to bolster their economies by following the American lead in exploiting this controversial new source of fossil fuels, campaigners in the US are warning of serious collateral damage to the environment: the depletion and contamination of vital water supplies.

The process of fracking, short for “hydraulic fracturing”, involves injecting water, sand and chemicals down vertical wells and along horizontal shafts − which can be several miles long − to open up small pores in the rock. This releases the methane for capture.

Fracking a well just once uses upwards of five million gallons of water, and each well can be fracked 18 times or more. Texas alone used an estimated 25 billion gallons of water for fracking in 2012, according to a recent report by Ceres, a not-for-profit group advising investors on climate change.

Demand accelerating

Where surface water is lacking, as in Texas, underground aquifers are being emptied at record rates. And while fracking’s water use still trails behind personal and agricultural uses, demand is accelerating even while much of the US is suffering extreme drought, which is probably caused or worsened by climate change exacerbated, ironically, by burning fossil fuels.

There is no overarching policy regulating how the industry uses water. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, a provision known as the “Halliburton loophole” exempts oil and gas operations from almost all federal air and water regulations, leaving protection of these basic life necessities to the states.

Texas does not require operators to report groundwater use, but new regulations in California require operators to state where they will get their water and how they will dispose of their wastewater. Even in the face of a drought emergency, the state’s well operators still plan to take most of their water from surface sources, says Kyle Ferrar, California state co-ordinator of the Fractracker Alliance, a not-for-profit data analysis group.

Disposing of the water when fracking is complete is also challenging. The wastewater is a mixture of the injected freshwater, fracking chemicals, and deep formation water, which is usually briny and often mildly radioactive. It can’t be recycled for typical water uses, as few public drinking water or sewage treatment plants are equipped to remove fracking contaminants. In fact, some of these contaminants react with chlorine compounds to form trihalomethanes, which can cause liver and kidney damage.

The most reasonable wastewater solution appears to be re-using it in subsequent fracking operations − a practice that is growing in popularity among American well operators because it can reduce the amount of new water required. Waste can also be injected into spent oil and gas wells, much as CO2 is sequestered.

The US Environmental Protection Agency operates an underground injection control programme, which it administers directly in some states and allows state government to run in others. But many operators still pump the waste into large surface ponds lined with plastic, allowing the water to evaporate and carry some contaminants into the atmosphere. Storm runoff can also transmit wastewater from ponds and landfills to surface and groundwater systems.

Pennsylvania is struggling to balance its resources in the face of the fracking boom. In 2011, the Department of Environmental Protection asked the state’s gas well operators to stop discharging waste into surface waters. Because Pennsylvania’s geology is not conducive to stable injection wells, operators now ship much of their wastewater next door to Ohio, which encourages the practice as an income source.

Shady practices

In 2011, at least half the wastewater stored in Ohio came from out of state, according to the Environment Ohio Research & Policy Center. Many Ohio environmentalists object to taking other states’ waste − partly because the fracking boom has resulted in some shady practices.

“Dumping seems to be a really ongoing problem,” explains Julie Weatherington-Rice, senior scientist at Bennett & Williams Environmental Consultants in Ohio. “We’re seeing dumping down old mineshafts and dumping on roads where the spigot at the end of the tank is [allowed] to dribble all the way to the [disposal] well.”

In March, a Youngstown company admitted it had dumped thousands of gallons of waste into a stormwater sewer feeding into a river system. Testing revealed that the waste contained benzene, which is a known carcinogen, and toluene, a nervous system toxicant.

If concrete wellbores or seals at the wellhead are misaligned or corroded, methane and chemicals can migrate into potable water aquifers − something that the small town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, learned the hard way in 2009.

Most Dimock residents have individual water wells. Shortly after Cabot Oil and Gas began fracking in the area, a resident’s backyard water well exploded. After it was determined that Cabot’s operations were the source of the methane contamination, a consent agreement with the state required Cabot to supply Dimock’s drinking water.

But the state allowed Cabot to stop supplying water in 2011, without testing residents’ well water, according to a report by StateImpact, a project of National Public Radio stations.

Potable water

Because many residents still don’t have potable water as a result of the contamination, volunteers from around the state are holding local events to raise money to supply water to Dimock, says Karen Feridun, an activist with Berks Gas Truth, an anti-fracking group. The situation remains unresolved for the long term.

Although Pennsylvania and Texas have been hit especially hard by the effects of shale gas extraction, no part of the US is exempt.

Even the Pacific Northwest,long insulated from fossil fuel extraction and burning by virtue of its massive hydropower projects and deep layers of flood basalt covering any oil or gas-bearing formations, is now vulnerable.

The region faces the prospect of liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipelines and a massive increase in trains carrying oil and coal through the scenic Columbia River Gorge to west coast ports for shipment to China. LNG terminals are also being planned for gas shipment from the US east coast to Europe.

At some point, campaigners warn, all Americans may have to choose between energy and clean water.

“Make sure [fracking’s] not taking your drinking water or your irrigation or the water that your herds need to survive,” says Weatherington-Rice. “When this happens, you’ve lost that water forever.” – Climate News Network

Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, USA, is a science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists. In 2009, she received the Society of Environmental Journalists award for Outstanding Explanatory Reporting in Print for her article Environment Becomes Heredity for the Miler-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy’s Pacific Standard journal. 

Grass is greener for biofuels future


Coarse switchgrass grows fast and freely in the US Image: Lynn Betts/USDA NRCS via Wikimedia Commons
Fields of dreams: switchgrass, a coarse native plant, flourishes in America
Image: Lynn Betts/USDA NRCS via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

A genetically-engineered bacterium developed by scientists in the US can produce ethanol biofuel from coarse, wild-growing switchgrass, rather than using vital food crops such as maize

LONDON, 10 June − Scientists in the US claim they have developed a simple, one-step process that turns plant tissue into biofuel. A genetically-engineered bacterium can convert switchgrass into ethanol directly, without any expensive pre-treatment with enzymes to break down the cellulose fibres into something suitable for fermentation.

Biofuel is already big business in the US, with 13.3 billion gallons of ethanol delivered for vehicle fuel in 2012. It represents a carbon-neutral form of fuel, which is good, but not so good is that much of it has been converted from maize, a food crop requiring vast tracts of agricultural land that may one day be better used to produce food.

However, researchers at the University of Georgia at Athens report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that their new microbe, called Caldicellulosiruptor bescii, can not only convert biomass cellulose to sugars, but also turn the sugars to ethanol for fuel.

Waste lands

And it works on switchgrass, a North American native plant that flourishes on marginal and waste lands.

The researchers selected their candidate bacterium – found all over the world, usually in uncomfortable places such as hot springs – and introduced into it genes from other bacteria that produce ethanol.

They then had something that could turn fibrous grass into motor fuel, rather in the way that more traditional microbes turn barley into beer or grapes into wine.

“Given a choice between teaching an organism how to deconstruct biomass or teaching it how to make ethanol, the more difficult part is deconstructing biomass,” said Janet Westpheling, a member of the research team.

“This is the first step towards an industrial process
that is economically feasible.”

“Now, without any pre-treatment, we can simply take switchgrass, grind it up, add a low-cost, minimal salts medium, and get ethanol out the other end. This is the first step towards an industrial process that is economically feasible.”

The conversion of energy-rich corn or sugar cane to biofuels is an interim solution, because soon such produce will be more valuable as food.

The University of Georgia team is only one of hundreds that are experimenting with new ways to turn inedible plant growth from waste land into some form of fuel. The challenge to be overcome is the sheer toughness of plant fibres.

At least one team has looked for a way to exploit the soft, fast-growing tissues of duckweed; another has found a way to get high-grade rocket fuel out of a native American fir tree; and a third team has managed to convert algae into fuel oil.  In Finland, meanwhile, researchers are investigating ways to convert waste wood into methanol. In all cases so far, the work is either experimental or in a prototype stage.

Reliable supplies

The long-term prize will go to the production system that can deliver, on an industrial scale, the most reliable supplies of liquid energy at the most cost-effective rate.

So far, the genetically-modified C. bescii looks promising. In experiments, it has converted switchgrass to fermentation products that are 70% ethanol.

It is also versatile. The Georgia team reports that it has also been used to make other fuels, such as butanol and isobutanol.

“This is really the beginning of a platform for manipulating organisms to make many products that are truly sustainable,” Prof Westpheling said. – Climate News Network

US gets tough at last on CO2



Dying breed: a coal-fired power plant in Virginia, US Image: via Wikimedia Commons

Passing clouds? Smoke billows from a coal-fired power plant in Virginia, US
Image: via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The Obama administration has announced what could be its biggest move to tackle climate change − with major emissions cuts on the way in what is seen by some as a policy game-changer for the US

LONDON, 3 June − The US administration led by Barack Obama has promised much and delivered little so far in the battle against climate change.  But that’s all about to change with this week’s announcement by the heavy hitters at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that existing power plants will, for the first time, have to make substantial cuts in their CO2 emissions.

Under the EPA proposal − termed the Clean Power Plan − the US’s 1,900 power plants will have to reduce their emissions by 25% on 2005 levels by 2025 and make a 30% reduction by 2030.

States and their utility companies have one year to submit plans on how they will go about implementing emissions cuts. If such plans are not forthcoming, the EPA has the power to impose its own emissions reduction schemes.

“Climate change, fuelled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy and our way of life,” said Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, announcing the proposal.

“By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe, while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids. We don’t have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment – our action will sharpen America’s competitive edge, spur innovation and create jobs.”

No restrictions

Power plants account for about 30% of total US CO2 emissions. Although there are restrictions on the amount of sulphur dioxide, arsenic and other toxic substances the power utilities can emit, there have been no restrictions until now on CO2 emissions.

Other countries − particularly fast-developing China and India − have frequently criticised the US for calling for cutbacks in global CO2 pollution, while doing little to limit its own emissions.

Emissions of CO2 in the US have been falling in recent years – not due to any new regulations, but rather to the switch by many energy companies from coal to the less polluting shale gas.  Only about a third of US power utilities now use coal to fuel their operations.

In Europe, the European Union has set binding targets of reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 over 1990 levels, and by 40% by 2030.

The EPA proposal sets various pollution reduction targets for different states, depending on their present levels of CO2 emissions. Some states, such as Illinois and Ohio, are heavily dependent on coal for their electricity supplies. They will be allowed to pollute more than others in the short term, but will have to make big cuts in the years ahead.

As part of a comprehensive package aimed at reducing overall emissions, states and power companies can earn money by trading credits on an ever more active US carbon market.

Fierce opposition

Politically powerful and well-financed groups of climate change sceptics are likely to mount fierce opposition to the EPA proposals. Sections of corporate America have already denounced the plans, saying the proposals will seriously hurt the US economy.

The Obama administration seems ready to counter the critics. Last month, it released its National Climate Assessment, warning that global warming had “moved firmly into the present”.

And President Obama used much of his weekly radio broadcast to the nation last weekend to talk of the dangers of a warming world.

“As President, and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he said.

“The shift to a low carbon economy won’t happen overnight and it will require tough choices along the way. But a low carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come.”  – Climate News Network

US companies doze as climate change threatens


Corporate America is npt keeping up with fast changing economic and scientific reality, the researchers say Image: Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

Corporate America is not keeping up with fast-changing economic and scientific reality, the researchers say
Image: Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

US business is failing to react fast enough to the rapidly-changing realities imposed by the facts of both scientific and economic life, researchers say.

LONDON, 5 May – If corporate America attended climate change college, the report card would read: “Modest progress but has to try much harder.” That’s the conclusion to be drawn from the latest report on US corporate action on environmental sustainability and climate issues.

The report, produced by Ceres and the Sustainalytics group, two organisations specialising in sustainability issues in the business sector, looks at the environmental activities of 613 companies in the US with combined assets of many billions of dollars, together representing nearly 80% of the total market capitalisation of all public companies in the country.

“The scientific and economic realities facing corporations today have shifted substantially from even just a decade ago”, says the report.

“From the risks posed to operations and the supply chain due to a changing climate, to an increasingly resource-constrained world with a growing population, to mounting human rights abuses – finding solutions to these business challenges will require collaboration, innovation and transformation.”

The report does note some progress compared with the findings of a similar survey two years ago. More companies are actively engaging investors – and their employees – on sustainability issues.

Corporate America is also being more pro-active in addressing human rights and other workplace problems, particularly in companies supplying goods to them.

There’s also been a modest improvement, says the report, in corporate commitments to increase renewable energy use, with 37% of companies surveyed having a renewable energy programme in place.

Insufficient progress

Yet, at the same time, very few companies have set specific targets for energy use: at present only 10% of those surveyed receive 5% or more of their energy from renewable sources.

“We are still not seeing the speed of change that is required – or the scale of innovation that is possible”, says the report.

“Incremental progress in tackling global climate change and other sustainability threats is simply not enough.”

As with energy, so too with greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). While more than two-thirds of companies surveyed say they are taking steps to reduce GHG emissions, only 35% have established target dates for achieving such reductions.

The report also found companies reluctant to share details of their GHG reduction policies: more than 80% of those surveyed did not provide enough information to assess whether their GHG emissions were, in fact, declining.

“The bottom line is clear: company efforts to establish comprehensive programmes to reduce GHG emissions through energy efficiency and renewable energy sourcing are lagging far behind what’s needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

Perhaps not surprisingly the oil, gas and refining sectors are among the worst performers on GHG emissions: the report says only 13% of oil and gas companies (4 of 30) and 9% of energy service companies (2 of 23) have adopted formal, time-bound GHG reduction targets.

Water ‘taken for granted’

Energy companies are also continuing to invest billions in exploiting new reserves of oil, gas and coal. A study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimated that 200 of the world’s largest publicly-quoted fossil fuel companies spent $674 billion in 2012 to develop new reserves: less than half that amount was invested in developing clean energy sources over the same year.

Disappointing results were also found when it came to corporate policy on water use.

Water, says the report, is not only becoming an endangered resource in many parts of the world – water scarcity is also becoming a major business and economic risk. Yet relatively few companies are actively engaged in the issue: in the US and Canada large amounts of water are being used by the fracking industry in areas already under severe water stress.

“Prolonged drought conditions in states such as California and Texas should be a wake-up call for any company that takes water for granted.”

The report says companies can profit by pursuing more enlightened policies on such issues as GHG emissions. A recent study by Deutsche Bank found that companies which integrate sustainable practices into their activities achieve a better standing in the market – and have increased access to capital sources.

Frozen assets

Investor groups are becoming more involved in assessing corporate environmental behaviour. Investors might be concerned about the future of the planet – they’re also worried about the value of their share portfolios.

Investors in the energy sector are particularly vulnerable to what’s known as carbon asset risk.

An energy company’s net worth is assessed not only on its performance and turnover but also on the value of assets it might hold underground.

Those assets could become frozen as the world moves to a low carbon future. That, for investors, would mean the value of their shares is under threat. – Climate News Network