Category Archives: Energy

Germany and UK top “Dirty 30” pollution league

Neurath coal-fired plant, Germany, is one of Europe's worst polluters Image: Bert Kaufmann via Wikimedia Commons
Neurath coal-fired plant, in Germany, is one of Europe’s worst polluters
Image: Bert Kaufmann via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

A new report naming the 30 energy plants pumping out most greenhouse gases in the European Union shows that coal-fired facilities are undermining Europe’s long-term targets on emissions reduction.

LONDON, 22 July, 2014 − It’s not the sort of league table that anyone is proud of leading, but a new report on the European Union’s power sector lists the EU’s 30 most polluting energy plants – all powered by coal.

Germany and the UK tie for first place overall in “Europe’s Dirty 30” league, each having nine of the most polluting power plants, pumping hundreds of tonnes of climate-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In the individual polluting category, the mighty coal-fired Belchatow power plant in Poland tops the league, followed by two facilities in the north of Germany – one at Neurath, and the other at Niederaussen.

The report, which is based on 2013 statistics, is the work of a number of organisations, including Climate Action Network Europe, the World Wildlife Fund and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Low coal prices

The report says the EU’s coal-fired power plants – there are about 350 of them in total – are running at or near full capacity due to relatively low coal prices in Europe compared to other less polluting fuels, such as gas.

Although the EU’s use of coal for power generation has dropped significantly compared to 1990 levels, coal consumption in Europe’s energy sector has been increasing in recent years.

Much of the coal burned in Europe is lignite or hard coal – the most polluting kind. The EU has also been importing large amounts of coal, particularly from the US, where many power producers have been switching to fracked gas – less polluting and, in the US, a cheaper fuel.

The report says the price paid for electricity generated from coal does not reflect the damage it causes to the climate, air quality and human health.

“Europe’s coal addiction is bad for people’s health, bad for the environment, and has no place in our sustainable energy future,” says Christian Schaible, a senior policy officer at the EEB.

Arguing for exemptions

“Significant amounts of emissions could be prevented and reduced if operators would just use state-of-the-art techniques available, instead of arguing for exemptions.

“Environmental standards for power plants should serve to protect the people and the environment in Europe, and must be implemented swiftly to do so.”

The report’s authors point out that recent increases in emissions from the EU’s coal-fired power sector are not due to more coal-fuelled facilities coming on stream, but rather because existing plants are running at full capacity.

Some of these plants are due to be phased out under EU directives on pollution control. The study says this is vital if the EU is to meet its emission reduction targets, centred on cutting overall emissions of greenhouse gases by 40% on 1990 levels by 2030.

But there are signs that short-term economic interests are taking precedence over long-term goals on controlling climate change.

“Current developments in EU energy and climate policy may allow or even incentivise the prolonged operation of coal plants, and thus conflict with the EU’s own climate targets,” the report says. – Climate News Network

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

Bold pathways point to a low-carbon future

Brighter future? Sunrise over a wind farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens, UK Image: David Clare/Climate News Network
Brighter future? Sunrise over a wind farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens, UK
Image: David Clare/Climate News Network

By Alex Kirby

The positive message from a scientific report for the UN Climate Summit is that the tough task of cutting CO2 emissions to limit global temperature rise to below 2°C is definitely achievable by following a set of bold, practical steps.

LONDON, 11 July 2014 − Scientists often hesitate to give a cut-and-dried, yes-or-no answer when asked how serious climate change is going to be, and whether the world can still escape significant damage.

Surprisingly, perhaps, a report prepared for a UN conference in September is unequivocal. Yes, it says − the worst is not bound to happen.

The good news is that the world can keep climate change within what are thought to be acceptable limits. The less good news is that while it is possible, it certainly won’t be easy.

The report shows how the countries that emit the most greenhouse gases (GHGs) can cut their carbon emissions by mid-century to prevent dangerous climate change. Prepared by independent researchers in 15 countries, it is the first global co-operation to identify practical pathways to a low-carbon economy by 2050.

The Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project (DDPP) report is an interim version prepared for the UN Climate Summit to be held in New York on 23 September. The full DDPP report will be ready in the spring of 2015.

Dangerous change

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, said the report tried to show how countries could help to achieve the globally-agreed target of limiting temperature rise to below 2°C. “Ambitious national action is critical to averting dangerous climate change,” he said. “This report shows what is possible.”

The report aims to help countries to set bold targets in the run-up to the UN climate talks to be held in Paris in 2015.

The work is led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), an initiative of Columbia University’s Earth Institute for the UN, and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), a policy research institute based in Paris.

Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the SDSN, said the world had committed itself to limit warming to below 2°C, but not to practical ways of achieving that goal.

He said: “This report is all about the practicalities.  Success will be tough – the needed transformation is enormous – but is feasible, and is needed to keep the world safe for us and for future generations.”

“The issue is to convince the world that the future is as important as the present”

Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, said: “The issue is to convince the world that the future is as important as the present. Paris 2015 may well be our last hope.”

Despite the global agreement to stay below 2°C, the world is on a path that, without action, will lead to an increase of 4°C or more. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its Fifth Assessment Report, known as AR5, that such a rise might exceed the world’s ability to adapt.

It said that a 4°C rise could endanger harvests and cause drastic sea-level rise, spread of diseases, and the extinction of ecosystems.

Some leading climate scientists − including NASA’s former chief climate scientist, Professor James Hansen, who is now at Columbia University − say that even a 2°C rise would be very dangerous. But many politicians regard it as an essential commitment.

The 15 national pathways examined in the report all show the importance of three factors for achieving radically lower carbon emissions.

The first is greatly increased efficiency and conservation in all energy use.

Renewable sources

The second factor is taking the carbon out of electricity by using renewable sources, “such as wind and solar, as well as nuclear power, and/or the capture and sequestration of carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning”.

Nuclear energy still attracts widespread and determined opposition, and carbon capture and sequestration (trapping CO2 emissions and storing them underground or beneath the sea floor) has not yet proved that it can work on a commercial scale.

The third factor involves replacing fossil fuels in transport, heating and industrial processes with a mix of low-carbon electricity, sustainable biofuels, and hydrogen.

The authors say their interim report shows the critical long-term importance of preparing national deep decarbonisation plans for 2050.

Emmanuel Guerin, the DDPP’s senior project manager, said the pathways were crucial to shaping the expectations of countries, businesses and investors. − Climate News Network

Critics refute assets claim by ‘Orwellian’ Shell

 

Clouded view? A Shell oil refinery in the UK Image: S Parish/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons
Clouded view? Sunset over a flare stack at a Shell oil refinery in the UK
Image: S Parish/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The world’s biggest oil company has been accused of ‘doublethink’ in claiming that its fossil fuel assets will continue to be highly profitable and in demand, while recognising the need for decisive action on climate change.

London, 9 July 2014 − Is investment in fossil fuels a prudent bet? For some time, critics have been warning major oil and gas companies that their reserves could soon be worthless if the world acts decisively on climate change.

The world’s biggest oil company, Shell, recently insisted that its reserves would remain in demand and would continue to sell at a profit, and that no global climate agreement would damage its profits.

But now two groups − the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) and Energy Transition Advisors (ETA) − have today published a response to Shell’s “stranded assets” statement.

The debate itself is warming up, with one critic dismissing Shell’s statement as “Orwellian doublethink”.

The thinktanks’ reply is based on a detailed technical analysis of Shell’s argument. They say they welcome the company’s engagement with the issue, but accuse it in effect of cherrypicking the arguments to suit its case.

Weaker demand

Shell’s approach, they say, is based on dismissing potentially weaker demand for its oil as a result of tougher climate policies, technological advances and slower economic growth.

They also say the company selectively applies different timelines to fit its business strategy, highlighting conventional projects with short lead times and lower capital costs, rather than its growing unconventional and deepwater resources portfolio. This will be more capital-intensive, have longer lead times, and extended payback periods.

Shell, they say, considers only its proven oil and gas reserves, equalling 11.5 years of production at current rates. Adding existing discoveries would extend that period to 25 years, and possibly longer.

The analysis by CTI and ETA points out that while Shell recognises the need for urgent action, it argues that the world will fail to meet the internationally-agreed global warming target of no more than a 2°C rise in temperature.

“. . .as classic a case of Orwellian doublethink
as you are likely to find.”

Anthony Hobley, CEO of CTI, said: “Acknowledging the seriousness of the climate challenge whilst at the same time asserting no effective action will be taken until the end of the century is as classic a case of Orwellian doublethink as you are likely to find.”

The groups also say the company relies on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a panacea to combat climate change, although it has yet to prove itself at a commercial scale. CTI’s 2013 research showed that CCS could provide only a limited extension (14%) of the carbon budget − the amount the world can afford to emit − to 2050.

Shell’s response, the report’s authors say, selectively focuses on producing oil fields and projects nearest to completion. They point out: “Our analysis examines a broader range of its assets. . . Over the next 10 years, we estimate that Shell could invest some $77 billion in high-risk, high-cost projects (needing a market price over US$95 per barrel).

“If Shell invests the proceeds from its producing assets into resources such as these, it will be at a progressively greater risk to changes in demand caused by measures to cut pollution.”

Unlike Shell, they say, they believe that climate regulation and related environmental policy is gathering pace, while other economic forces such as efficiency are also affecting demand.

Mothballed projects

They believe there is a real risk that global oil demand will decline within the next 10-15years − even without a global climate deal. They say that the lead times of 15-20 years required to bring many newly-discovered resources to market will only compound the possibility that scarce pension fund money and other investments will be lost in mothballed projects.

Oil companies, they recommend, should examine and disclose risks to all potential future production, rather than restricting focus to proven reserves alone.

Shell should also provide more detail on the role its internal carbon price of $40 per tonne plays in hitting demand for its oil, and its $77 billion of potential capital expenditure (2014-25) on new high-cost oil production (above a market price of $95 per barrel) ought to be a focal point for engagement with investors.

To help shareholders to assess risk, oil companies should disclose estimated break-even oil prices (BEOPs) of all new projects, CTI and ETA argue. − Climate News Network

Nepal wins hearts and minds with biogas boom

 Sunita Bote operates a small biogas plant in her Nepalese village Image: Om Rastha Rai

Sunita Bote tends her own biogas plant in Nepal’s first model biogas village
Image: Om Astha Rai

By Om Astha Rai

Villagers in Nepal are increasingly being persuaded that small biogas installations using human waste to provide fuel are not only desirable but are also helping to reduce deforestation of the Himalayas and carbon emissions. 

KATHMANDU, 2 July, 2014 − Sunita Bote, a 30-year-old housewife from the small village of Kumroj in eastern Nepal, was far from convinced when energy specialists from the capital city, Kathmandu, talked about the benefits of constructing a small biogas plant near her house.

“At first, I shuddered at the thought of connecting my cooking stove with a toilet’s septic tank,” Sunita recalls.

But she was eventually persuaded – and now realises the multiple benefits of the biogas system. The plant not only produces enough energy for cooking for her family of seven, it also gets rid of both human and animal waste.

“It is no longer seems disgusting to me,” Sunita says. “Instead, it has eased my household chores.”

Most of Sunita’s neighbours feel the same way, and Kumroj has now been named by the government as Nepal’s first model biogas village, with more than 80% of households having their own biogas installations.

Frequent blackouts

Nepal, a landlocked country of just over 26 million people, has big energy problems. Its cities and towns, reliant on imported fossil fuels for energy, suffer frequent electricity blackouts due to ageing infrastructure and shortages of funds.

With its mountain ranges and many rivers, there is great potential for hydropower, but tight budgets mean there has as yet been little investment in these big, capital-intensive projects.

However, the energy outlook is slowly changing. Instead of building big hydropower plants, local groups − helped by NGOs and outside funders − are constructing micro hydro projects all over the country. So far, more than 1,000 such plants have been built. There has also been investment in developing solar power.

Meanwhile, thousands of biogas projects are being put in place in backyards and fields throughout the country.

Fuel needs

According to the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC), a government agency responsible for promoting renewable energy, there are now more than 300,000 biogas plants providing for the fuel needs of nearly 6% of Nepal’s households.

“At first, people were wary about getting energy from their toilet septic tanks,” says Professor Govinda Pokharel, vice-chairman of the government’s National Planning Commission and, until recently, a director of AEPC.

“In some cases, those who installed biogas plants
were even ostracised by their neighbours”

“It was human faeces that caused the trouble. People, especially those who were not educated and were living in remote villages, were against the idea of using their faeces for cooking food. In some cases, those who installed biogas plants were even ostracised by their neighbours. But attitudes have changed. When animal dung is mixed with human faeces, greater power is generated.”

Traditionally, wood has been the main source of fuel for cooking and heating. But deforestation – with the resulting landslides and floods – has been a big problem.

Trees saved

The Biogas Sector Programme, a Kathmandu-based organisation that promotes the use of biogas, says every biogas plant can save 1.25 trees each year, That means that, due to biogas, nearly 400,000 trees a year throughout the country are saved from being chopped down.

Biogas not only replaces wood for fuel, it can also help reduce carbon emissions. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) calculates that a standard biogas plant saves greenhouse gas emissions of between three and five tons each year, compared with other energy sources such as wood.

The AEPC says that Nepal, through the use of biogas and by not cutting tree cover, is helping to reduce the country’s overall emissions by more than one million tons a year. “It may not be a huge contribution at the global level, but it is not negligible either,” Prof Pokharel says.

There are plans to install at least 26,000 biogas plants around the country each year. “The more we install, the more we save trees,” Prof Pokharel says, “And the saving of each tree is important in combating climate change.” – Climate News Network

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

UK doctors vote to end fossil fuels funding

Unhealthy view: fossil fuel industries will not be funded doctors Image: Peter Gordois/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons
Clean break: fossil fuel industries will no longer get funding from the UK medical profession
Image: Peter Gordois/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The British medical profession’s influential national organisation has sent out a strong message about climate change by deciding to withdraw its funds from the fossil fuel industry and to support renewable energy instead.

LONDON, 1 July, 2014 − The body that represents doctors in the UK has voted to end its investments in fossil fuel companies − making it the first national medical organisation in the world to do so.

A motion passed at the annual representatives’ meeting of the British Medical Association (BMA) − in effect, its annual general meeting − marks its commitment to withdraw financial support for fossil fuels and to pursue instead a corresponding increase in its investments in renewable energy.

This is in keeping with the statement by the recent Lancet Commission that climate change “could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”.

The BMA motion is understood to have been passed by a majority of about two-thirds, as part of a broader motion calling for a switch to renewable energy and the creation of a new alliance of health professionals focusing on the health effects of climate change.

Growing support

Tabled by members of the BMA’s Retired Members’ Forum and several of its local committees, the motion is part of growing support for the fossil fuel divestment movement, both internationally and in the UK.

Supporters of disinvestment argue on two main grounds. They say avoiding the worst impacts of climate change demands a rapid move away from fossil fuels; and if world leaders agree to do this, they say, most oil and gas will have to be left in the ground as unburnable, becoming “stranded assets”.

There were some dissenting voices during the debate on the BMA motion, but most of those who opposed it questioned how affordable and achievable it was likely to be, rather than expressing misgivings about what it set out to do.

The clause that called for divestment passed as a “reference”, meaning that the spirit and intent are kept but the BMA’s Council is not required to adhere to the exact wording. However, BMA watchers insist that it does represent a clear commitment to divest.

During the debate, the BMA’s Chair of Council and its treasurer said the Association would seek to divest “carefully and properly”, and not “only if [they] feel like it”.

An editorial published in the British Medical Journal in March called for divestment from fossil fuels because of the “scale and immediacy of the threat to human survival, health and wellbeing” posed by unmitigated climate change.

“The decision of the BMA adds momentum to a growing
divestment movement . . . around the world”

The health charities Medact, the Climate and Health Council and Healthy Planet UK, which represent health professionals and medical students, have since called on other UK health organisations to divest from fossil fuels.

Sir Andy Haines, professor of public health and primary care at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told the Climate News Network: “The decision of the BMA adds momentum to a growing divestment movement, including universities, cities and theological institutions and foundations around the world.

“There is a growing body of evidence that many policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can improve health in the near term as well.

Principled position

“Undoubtedly, the principled position of the BMA will encourage other institutions to do the same and increase the likelihood that a strong agreement on climate change can be negotiated by the end of 2015.”

Isobel Braithwaite, a medical student who is the co-ordinator of Healthy Planet UK, told the Network: “In a sense, this vote is symbolic, because unless an organisation has billions to invest it can’t by itself make a huge difference.

“But we think that the leadership the BMA has shown will help to encourage other health organisations, in the UK and elsewhere, to follow suit.”

David McCoy, a doctor who chairs Medact, said: “In the same way that ethical investors choose not to profit from tobacco and arms sales, the health community worldwide is correctly calling for divestment from another set of harmful activities.” − Climate News Network

Campaigners spy signs of concern among frackers

 

A mother and children walk to join the Balcombe anti-fracking protest Image: Jiri Rezac/Greenpeace
A mother and children walk to join the Balcombe anti-fracking protest
Image: Jiri Rezac/Greenpeace

By Caroline Lucas

Does the NATO Secretary General really believe that Russia is secretly the puppet master behind efforts to stop shale gas extraction in Europe, or is it – asks UK Green Party MP Caroline Lucas − just an indication of the growing effectiveness of anti-fracking campaigns? 

LONDON, 25 June, 2014 − Arriving at the beautiful village of Balcombe last August, ready to take part in the growing protests against Cuadrilla’s plans to start fracking deep in the Sussex countryside in southern England, my biggest concern – as I weaved my way through families with children and dogs, stepping over people picnicking on rugs on the grass verge − was whether we’d escape without rain.

I have to confess that looking out for Russian spies was not high on my list of preoccupations. Yet if Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary General, is to be believed, perhaps it should have been.

Stunned audience

Speaking at a Chatham House conference in London last week, Rasmussen stunned his audience by asserting that Vladimir Putin’s Russian government was behind attempts to undermine projects using hydraulic fracturing technology in Europe.

He said: “. . . I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engages actively with so-called non-governmental organisations, environmental organisations working against shale gas – obviously to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas. That’s my interpretation.”

This is a pretty mind-boggling assertion − and it is one for which absolutely no evidence at all was adduced.

“The fact that these are the views of the man in charge of
the biggest nuclear alliance on Earth is positively terrifying”

If this had been the “interpretation” of a fellow Balcombe protester who had turned to their homemade cider a shade early on in the proceedings, it would simply be odd. But the fact that these are the views of the man in charge of the biggest nuclear alliance on Earth is positively terrifying.

The allegation is, quite simply, ludicrous. I’ve met a good many anti-fracking campaigners over the years, and I have never heard anything so absurd. Indeed, Greenpeace gave the proposition admirably short shrift, saying: “The idea that we’re puppets of Putin is so preposterous that you have to wonder what they’re smoking over at NATO HQ.”

Quite. But Rasmussen’s assertion is also deeply worrying.

First, it besmirches the motivations of many thousands of sincere protesters who campaign in good faith against a technology that causes serious pollution to water, soil and air, and which will lock us into ever greater fossil fuel dependence at precisely the time when climate scientists are warning that we urgently need to invest in renewables instead.

It is a technology, moreover, that will not deliver the much-vaunted European energy independence claimed for it, since even under the most optimistic scenarios, shale gas is projected to meet just 10% of European gas demand by 2030. Most commentators agree that 2%-3% is a more realistic estimate (International Energy Agency: World Energy Outlook 2012). Even in the best case scenario, the volumes of EU shale gas will be too small to impact meaningfully on EU security of supply concerns.

Second, it raises serious questions about the judgment of one of the most powerful men in the world. The head of NATO must be dangerously deluded if he genuinely believes his own rhetoric. And if his assessment is in such serious doubt over this, on how many other issues is his judgment falling short?

Growing campaigns

Perhaps one thing this episode does show, however, is how effective the growing anti-fracking campaigns are becoming, and therefore how much of a threat they pose to those shale gas enthusiasts who still believe − flying in the face of the evidence − that it will offer a low-cost, low-carbon energy future. Fracking is already banned in five of the 14 EU Member States with estimated reserves − including in France, which has the second largest resources after Poland.

The reality is that one doesn’t need to fantasise about possible Russian attempts to discredit fracking. The evidence is doing that very effectively on its own. The bigger conundrum is why, in a country with such plentiful renewable resources as the UK, we have a government intent on locking us into yet more fossil fuel dependence.

Judging by the bewildering lack of ministerial commitment in the UK to cheaper, more plentiful renewables − which, alongside a serious investment in efficiency and conservation, really could deliver energy independence − perhaps we should check whether the Russians have infiltrated the Department for Energy and Climate Change as well. If so, they seem to have been remarkably effective. – Climate News Network

  • Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green Party Member of Parliament, was arrested at a protest against fracking in southern England last year. She was found not guilty of the charges the police brought against her – for wilful obstruction of a public highway and breaching an order under section 14 of the Public Order Act (relating to public assemblies).

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. 

Hot rocks are a core asset

Bright future: a geothermal power plant near Iceland's Krafla volcano Image: Asgeir Eggertssonj via Wikimedia Commons
Bright future: a geothermal power plant near Iceland’s Krafla volcano
Image: Asgeir Eggertsson via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

New engineering techniques mean that hot rocks in the Earth’s crust are second only to hydroelectric schemes as the most productive source of renewable energy, with huge potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions

LONDON, 15 June − Many countries with volcanoes have long used hot rocks and steam to generate electricity, but new engineering methods promise a boom in geothermal energy.

The deeper you drill into the Earth’s crust, the hotter the rocks get − and the heat that is radiating upwards from the core of the planet is constantly replaced. Japan, Iceland, Italy, New Zealand and the US, among other nations with volcanoes and hot underground water, have long exploited this for generating electricity and heating.

But now engineers have found that they do not need to look for naturally-occurring hot water. They can inject cold liquids into the hot rocks and bring it back to the surface through a second borehole to generate electricity. Unlike other renewables that can be variable, the hot rocks produce constant power 24 hours a day.

Drilling techniques

The temperature increases by 30ºC for every kilometre further underground. At a depth of between 3km and 10km, which can be reached with modern drilling techniques, temperatures exceed 150ºC, depending on location. This is hot enough to power a geothermal power station.

France, Australia, Japan, Germany, the US and Switzerland are already building experimental plants using what is called enhanced geothermal technology. An Atlas of Geothermal Resources of Europe shows that there is potential in 28 countries in Europe to develop plants.

One study just published in Spain by Platforma SINC, using information from the atlas, shows that the country could in theory produce five times the electricity it needs solely from geothermal. A report by the University of Valladolid (UVa), in the journal Renewable Energy, says that while Spain has no geothermal plants at present, the technology could provide all the nation’s needs.

Enhanced geothermal systems involve fracturing hot rocks by injecting cold liquids into them, causing rapid expansion similar to the force of an explosion. Afterwards, the liquid is brought back to the surface and the heat is used to generate electricity.

Once the system is operating, the water or other liquid is cooled on the surface and is then re-injected back into the rock in a closed loop.

Enormous potential

César Chamorro, one of the authors of the study, said the hot rocks in Spain “are distributed widely and uniformly, meaning they have enormous potential and could supply significant power in the medium or long term, 24 hours a day, constantly”.

If Spain used 10km-deep boreholes, Chamorro says, the 700GW of electricity indicated in the study “represent approximately five times the current electrical power installed in Spain, if we add together fossil fuels, nuclear and renewable power”.

The potential for power is reduced considerably for shallower boreholes – 190GW for boreholes 7km deep and 30GW for between 3km and 5km – but this is still the equivalent of 30 large power stations.

A life-limiting factor for the technology is that the constant injection of cold liquid into hot rocks gradually cools them, despite the constant heating from below. This is estimated to be 10ºC heat loss over a 30-year period, which might render the station uneconomic after that time.

If less hot water was extracted, allowing the heat of the rocks to regenerate, the system could be sustainable, although it would produce less power. – Climate News Network

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