Methane is leaking from natural gas infrastructure in Boston and the surrounding region at rates two to three times higher than government estimates, scientists at Harvard University and other institutions found.
Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week, the researchers' paper is the first peer-reviewed study that quantifies emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from natural gas installations in urban areas—including pipelines, storage terminals and power plants. The amount of methane lost over a year in the study area is worth $90 million, the authors wrote.
The research, which was supported by federal and private funding, is part of an ongoing effort to assess methane emissions during natural gas production, transportation and consumption. The answers are crucial to understanding how the current shale gas boom contributes to climate change. Earlier this month, the White House issued the first national regulations to curb methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.
The early years of the shale boom came with a widely held assumption that the vast quantities of natural gas liberated through high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would help slow climate change by displacing coal-fired power plants and speeding the transition to a clean-energy future.
But that notion was seriously challenged as scientists began studying the life cycle of natural gas. Although natural-gas power plants emit fewer greenhouse gases than coal plants, the process of extracting, processing and transporting natural gas releases unknown amounts of methane into the air.
Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, the shale boom's net impact on climate change remains unclear. That uncertainty has widened the rift between fracking supporters and opponents, and was cited as one of the reasons behind New York's recent fracking ban.
It has also prompted a slew of scientific studies, many of which are scheduled for this year.
Fracking's impacts on air quality took the spotlight this year, fueled by new research and broad media coverage.
The modern shale boom has created a massive influx of oil-and-gas wells, compressor stations and other infrastructure that spew toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the air. The consequences for public health and climate change are increasingly recognized as serious issues, on par with the water contamination concerns that once dominated debates over the pros and cons of fracking.
In mid-December, New York banned high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within its borders, effectively closing off the state's shale gas resources to producers. New York's decision was based on a public health review which cited various health risks including "air impacts that could affect respiratory health due to increased levels of particulate matter, diesel exhaust, or volatile organic chemicals."
The public got a rare glimpse into the covert and hardball strategies used by some oil and gas companies when a lobbyist's candid remarks were leaked to the New York Times and Bloomberg News last week. The leak made the lobbyist the victim of his own tactics.
The man was Richard Berman, president of the consulting firm Berman and Company, who pitched a roomful of energy executives in June to invest $2 to $3 million in an "offensive" campaign in Colorado called Big Green Radicals that seeks to discredit anti-fracking advocates.
"There is no sympathy for the oil and gas industry" and people don't like the word "fracking," Berman told his audience at the annual meeting of the Western Energy Alliance. So industry must go on the "offense" against environmental groups, destroy their credibility by airing the personal histories of "every single activist," diminish their moral authority and use humor to "minimize or marginalize" them.
The initial targets of the campaign were the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Food and Water Watch.
Berman said the influx of money would be a "game-changer" and promised "total anonymity" to anyone who contributed. Donations would be processed through nonprofit organizations that aren't required to disclose donors.
Pennsylvania regulators used flawed methodology to conclude that air pollution from natural gas development doesn't cause health problems. The revelation has further eroded trust in an embattled state agency.
The news was first reported Monday by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The paper cited court documents that show how air quality studies conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 and 2011 failed to analyze the health risks of 25 chemicals. The studies also didn't report some instances where high pollutant levels were detected.
The evidence came from statements of two DEP scientists who were deposed in a lawsuit.
Their depositions call into question the report's conclusion that the air sampling found no health risks from shale development.
The DEP "did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities," the study's executive summary said.
A high-stakes battle over the nation's ozone pollution rule reached a new milestone last week when the Environmental Protection Agency submitted its latest proposed rule to the White House for review.
For years, EPA science advisers have been urging the administration to tighten the ozone standard from 75 parts per billion to 60-70 ppb to protect public health. But they were repeatedly rebuffed: first in 2008, when the George W. Bush administration adopted the 75 ppb standard, and again in 2011, when President Obama abruptly halted a push from his own EPA to strengthen the rule.
Obama's move provoked fury from environmental and public health advocates who said he had caved to industry ahead of the 2012 elections. "This was the worst thing a Democratic president had ever done on our issues," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, at the time.
Now the administration is faced with the same decision: Earlier this year EPA scientists again recommended tightening the standard to 60–70 ppb, and on Oct. 8, EPA officials delivered the proposed rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The agency is under a court order to reveal the proposed standard to the public by Dec. 1 and finalize it next year.
While the climate community was fixed on global climate negotiations unfolding at the UN last week, one news organization was focused on educating people about the local damage that's already resulted from the world's inaction.
On Sept. 22, the online newsroom The Daily Climate launched a Kickstarter to raise $25,628 for "Climate at Your Doorstep." The project aims to build an online community of scientists, journalists and members of the public to discuss how climate impacts are already affecting people around the country and the world.
Organized around the hashtag #climatedoorstep, people will post questions, photos and observations on social media. The hash-tagged content will feed into a Daily Climate web page, and a panel of eight appointed scientific experts will respond to comments and questions.
The panelists include academic scientists, such as Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University and Marshall Shepherd at the University of Georgia, and TV meteorologist Jim Gandy.
A Canadian pipeline company's plan to bring more tar sands oil into the United States without waiting for a federal permit is drawing resistance from environmentalists who say it's skirting the law.
Last week, 18 green groups sent a letter to the U.S. State Department asking the agency to "take immediate action to halt this illegal increase in tar sands crude oil imports until it completes its ongoing environmental review." Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) expressed similar concerns in a separate letter to the agency.
The issue highlights uncertainties in the way international pipelines are regulated, and the growing opposition to tar sands oil, which releases 17 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional crude and is harder to clean up when it spills into water.
A decade into America's oil and gas boom, and scientists still know very little about how hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and shale development affect wildlife, according to a recent scientific study.
The knowledge gap is particularly glaring when it comes to the ecosystem impacts of fracking fluid and wastewater spills.
Scientists cannot yet begin to draw simple conclusions about drilling's effects on animals, plants and habitats because "basic data is missing" on issues such as fracking fluid chemistry, and because of limited access to well sites, said Sara Souther, the study's lead author.
"We're creating this ecological experiment from shale development—but we're not taking the data."
Souther was a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's botany department when she published the study with seven other conservation biologists in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. They were sponsored by the David H. Smith Fellowship program, which supports future leaders in conservation biology. Souther will join West Virginia Wesleyan College as a professor in September.
When residents of America's fracking communities want to know if a particular oil or gas well in their neighborhood has a good environmental track record, they usually face the cumbersome task of searching through state records, which can take hours.
Now, a new website called WellWiki is trying to eliminate that frustration by making user-friendly data just a click away. Created by Joel Gehman, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta's business school, WellWiki currently lists data on more than 250,000 oil and gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 1859.
But Pennsylvania is just the beginning. Gehman plans to expand the site, which was launched in March, to cover all North American wells drilled since 1859—about four million. He expects to add data about West Virignia, Ohio and New York by September.
The goal is for WellWiki to grow into "the Wikipedia of everything oil and gas-related," Gehman said.