Category Archives: Energy

Health alert over fracking’s chemical cocktails

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

By Tim Radford

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

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

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

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

Household use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real story

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

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

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

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

Mystery over Kazakh nuclear power plans

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

By Komila Nabiyeva

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

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

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

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

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

Experimental reactor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Site ambiguous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expand capacity

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

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

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

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

Sending a signal

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

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

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

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

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

Top 20 oil projects put investors’ billions at risk

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

By Alex Kirby

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

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

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

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

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

Economic justification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Projects shelved

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tar oil pipeline’s hidden pollution danger

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

By Alex Kirby

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

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

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

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

Emissions increase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil prices

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

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

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

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

Norway fails to tap new Arctic oil and gas

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

By Alex Kirby

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

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

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

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

Dry reservoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old partner

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

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

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

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

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

US climate change debate heats up

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

By Kieran Cooke

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

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

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

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

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

Long overdue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adamantly opposed

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

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

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

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

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

New rules could block biofuel’s alien invaders

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

By Alex Kirby

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

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

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

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

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

White list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada puts oil exploitation before forests

A plane drops a water bomb on a forest fire in Ontario, Canada Image: {Per via Wikimedia Commons
A plane drops a water bomb on a forest fire in Ontario, Canada
Image: Per via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Having repudiated the Kyoto Protocol on reducing fossil fuel use, Canada is still exploiting tar sands for oil − despite accepting that climate change is destroying its forests.

LONDON, 9 August, 2014 − Detailed evidence that Canada’s vast natural areas are undergoing major changes because of climate change is produced in a new report by Natural Resources Canada.

The government body describes problems with disappearing glaciers, sea level rise, melting permafrost and changing snow and rainfall patterns. One of the country’s most important natural resources, the forests that cover more than 50% of its land area, is under pressure because of pests, fire and drought.

There may, the reports says, be some pluses for Canada in climate change − at least in the short term − because some staple cereal crops will also be able to be grown further north because of warmer weather, assuming that the soil is suitable.

The report, Canada in a Changing Climate, concentrates on impacts and adaptation, but does not mention the causes, or the fact that Canada is now an international pariah in the environmental community because of its exploitation of tar sands for oil.

The country does attempt, for economic reasons, to be more energy efficient, but has repudiated the Kyoto Protocol and international efforts to curb fossil fuel use. The country had accepted a target of cutting emissions on 1990 levels by 5% by 2012, but the government backed out in 2011.

Highest emissions

Average greenhouse gas emissions for oil sands extraction and upgrading are estimated to be 3.2 to 4.5 times as intensive per barrel as for conventional crude oil produced in Canada or the US. If Alberta, where the oil is produced from tar sands, was a country and not a merely a province of Canada, it would have the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

The only mention the report makes of tar sands extraction is the problem caused by its large use of water, and it makes the point that the industry is recycling as much as possible.

A tar sands mine at Mildred Lake, Alberta Image: TastCakes/Janitzky via Wikimedia Commons
A tar sands mine at Mildred Lake, Alberta
Image: TastyCakes/Janitzky via Wikimedia Commons

Mitigation is not on the agenda, as the country’s politicians are intent on exploiting as much of the country’s oil and gas as possible.

A study of forests says that 224,410 people are directly employed in the sector, although it makes up only 1.1% of GDP. About 5% of the forests are damaged annually because of outbreaks of pests and fire. Temperatures in the forest areas have risen far more sharply than on the rest of the planet, with far-reaching consequences for the future, the report says.

In 2009, over three million hectares of forest were destroyed by fire in a single year. The number of fires is expected to increase, with the area being burned being three to five times as much in Western Canada by the end of the century. Large fires are raging again this year, but the quantity of the damage has yet to be assessed.

Severe outbreaks

One of the pests moving north and devastating mature trees is the mountain pine beetle. The beetle is endemic, but is killed by winter temperatures below minus 35˚C, thus limiting its numbers from year to year. However, winter temperatures in many areas now fail to drop below this level, leading to larger and more severe outbreaks of the pest.

A report in 2012 concluded that 18.1 million hectares of forest dominated by mature Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) had been affected. Scientists conclude that productivity of the forests will decline rapidly in British Columbia, and thousands of jobs will be lost. Meanwhile, the beetle is continuing to move north and east.

One advantage of the increased temperatures in Canada is that trees can grow further north and higher up mountains than previously, and there is a longer growing season.

Trees that live 100 years cannot migrate fast enough to take advantage, so local governments are going in for assisted migration.

This involves planting the seeds of suitable species 100 to 200 metres above the existing tree line on mountains, and in some cases two degrees of latitude northwards (about 100 miles) of the existing forests into what is currently tundra or scrub. – Climate News Network

Hydropower illuminates a piece of history

Cragiside mansion, which pioneered the use of hydroelectricity in 1878 Image: National Trust
Cragside mansion, which pioneered the use of hydroelectricity in 1878
Image: National Trust

By Alex Kirby

A British conservation charity has turned to technology thousands of years old – the Archimedes screw − to provide electricity for lighting one of the historic mansion houses it looks after. 

LONDON, 31 July, 2014 − Hydropower is making its return to one of the UK’s grand houses, which almost 140 years ago pioneered the use of water to provide electricity.

A modern version of an ancient device, the Archimedes screw, has been installed at the Cragside mansion, in north-east England, to harness the power of a stream in the grounds and provide lighting for the house − which in 1878 became the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, provided by a turbine.

The new system, a galvanised turbine 17 metres long, will produce enough energy to light the 350 bulbs in Cragside, although not enough to power its computers, freezers, fridges and heaters. It will generate about 12kw of electricity − enough, over a year, to provide the property with around 10% of its electricity.

Cragside was built by the 19th-century inventor and innovator, Lord Armstrong, who used the lakes on his land to generate hydroelectricity. It is now in the care of the National Trust, the charity responsible for conserving historic houses and countryside across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (a separate body does the work in Scotland).

Sculptural sight

Andrew Sawyer, the Trust’s property curator at Cragside, said: “It is a very visual demonstration of the way hydropower works, an almost sculptural sight in the landscape.

“Hydroelectricity is the world’s most widely used form of renewable energy, so we are looking forward to sharing this very special part of its heritage.”

The Trust is committed to reducing its energy use by 20%, halving fossil fuel consumption, and generating 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. This will enable it to cut its energy costs by more than £4m annually, releasing more money for conservation.

Installing the modern Archimedes screw at Cragside Image: North News and National Trust
Installing the modern Archimedes screw at Cragside
Image: North News and National Trust

Earlier this year, it installed at one of its Welsh properties, Plas Newydd, a marine source heat pump, which uses sea water to provide all the heating the house needs.

At Cragside, water from the lowest of the five lakes on the estate will feed through the Archimedes screw and into the stream below. As the water passes down through the spiral blades, the device uses its energy to turn the screw. The energy is then converted into electricity by a generator.

Power-saving potential

The Trust has replaced all 350 lightbulbs in Cragside with LED bulbs, whose low electricity consumption improves the scheme’s power-saving potential.

But despite the screw’s ability to cope with a wide range of flow levels in the lake, fed by a stream that rises in nearby moorland, there will be some times of year when the water level is too low to produce any power.

Sarah Pemberton, regional head of conservation for the Trust, said: “The technology is easy to maintain due to the simple mechanics, and because it works at low speed, it’s possible for fish to pass through the turbine unharmed.”

The Trust is working with a 100% renewable electricity supplier, Good Energy, to provide clean energy at 43 more of its historic properties. − Climate News Network

Boom-or-doom riddle for nuclear industry

Doubling up: solar panels at a nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic. Image: Jiří Sedláček (Frettie) 
Doubling up: solar panels at a nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic.
Image: Jiří Sedláček (Frettie) via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

The nuclear industry remains remarkably optimistic about its future, despite evidence that it is a shrinking source of power as renewables increasingly compete to fill the energy gap. 

LONDON, 26 July, 2014 − The headline figures for 2014 from the nuclear industry describe a worldwide boom in progress, with 73 reactors presently being built and another 481 new ones either planned or approved.

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) official website paints a rosy picture of an industry expected to expand dramatically by 2030. It says that over the period 1996 to 2013 the world retired 66 reactors, and 71 started operation. Between now and 2030, the industry expects another 74 reactors to close, but 272 new ones to come on line.

This represents a much larger net increase in nuclear electricity production than the basic figures suggest because most of the newer power stations have a bigger capacity than those closing down.

Pipe dream

Detractors of the industry say that these projections are a pipe dream and that nuclear power will not expand at that pace, if at all, and that solar and wind power will grow much faster to fill the energy gap.

Which projection is correct matters enormously because the world is both short of electric energy and needs to replace fossil fuels with low carbon sources of power to save the planet from dangerous climate change. Nuclear energy and renewables such as wind and solar are in competition to fill the gap.

The figures show that nuclear production is currently in decline from a peak in 2006, and is now producing less than 10% of the world’s electricity needs.

World solar capacity, on the other hand, increased by 35% in 2013, and wind power by 12.5% − although, added together, they still do not produce as much power as nuclear.

All the evidence is that wind and solar will continue to grow strongly, and particularly solar, where technological advances and quantity of production means that prices have dropped dramatically.

Costs of producing energy are hard to compare because solar is small and local and dependent on sunshine, while nuclear is large and distant and must be kept on all the time. However, research suggests that solar is already producing cheaper power per kilowatt hour than nuclear, the costs of which have not come down.

Commercial market

Both costs and time seem to be major factors in deciding which technology will gain market share. Nuclear stations are expensive and a long time passes before electricity is produced, making them almost impossible to finance in a normal commercial market. Solar panels, in contrast, can be up and running in days, and wind turbines within weeks.

Historically, nuclear power plants have always been built with government subsidy – a pattern that is continuing across the world. For example, the two countries with the largest number of reactors under construction − China, with 29, and Russia, with 10 − have populations with no democratic say in the matter.

Critics of the WNA figures say that while the claims for reactors planned and proposed might be real, the chances of most of them actually being built are remote.The US is said to have five reactors under construction, five more planned and 17 proposed – but with existing nuclear stations closing because they cannot compete with gas on price, it is unlikely that all of these will be completed by 2030.

The UK, which has a government keen to build nuclear stations, is said to have four stations planned and seven more proposed. The first of these stations was due to be opened by 2017, but work has not yet been started. The earliest completion date is now expected to be 2024, and the rest will follow that.

The delay in Britain is partly because the subsidies offered to French, Chinese and Japanese companies to build the UK reactors are under investigation by the European Commission to see if they breach competition rules.

Massive subsidies

Martin Forward is from the English Lake District, where one of the four nuclear stations is planned, and runs Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment. He said: “I cannot see how nuclear has any future in Europe because of cost. Nuclear needs massive subsidies to be financially viable, but these are currently illegal under European law, so it is unlikely that the British ones will be built.

“Even if the government can get over that hurdle, there are many problems to overcome − for example, the designs of the stations have to be finalised. The process could take years, by which time wind, solar and other renewables will have expanded so much it will make nuclear redundant.”

The industry does not accept this, pointing to the US, where utilities hope that all five plants currently under construction will be producing power by 2019.

Siobhan O’Meara, a senior analyst at Nuclear Energy Insider, is one of the organisers of an annual “nuclear construction summit”, the sixth of which is taking place in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October.

She said: “With nuclear new build taking off once again across the globe, it’s never been more critical to finance, plan and deliver your construction programmes on time and budget.”

Time will tell who is right. – Climate News Network