A long-awaited study led by the University of Texas at Austin shows that methane emissions from natural gas drilling sites are about 10 percent lower than recent estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The research adds fresh fuel to the debate over whether natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal. Although natural gas power plants emit smaller quantities of greenhouse gases than coal-fired plants, the production and distribution of natural gas release large amounts of methane, creating uncertainty about the fuel's overall climate impact. Methane is 20 to 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
The new study is significant because the scientists had direct access to production sites, allowing them to measure methane emissions from hundreds of wells across the United States. Previous studies by independent scientists largely relied on data gathered on publicly accessible land close to company property.
The study had been viewed with skepticism before its release because 90 percent of the $2.3 million in funding came from nine energy companies, including Encana, Chevron and a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. The remaining 10 percent came from the Environmental Defense Fund, which, unlike many other environmental groups, has a history of working with the oil and gas industry.
The participating companies gave the researchers access to their facilities, but the scientists controlled the study design, data collection and analysis. The results were published today in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The distant rumbling starts about the time David Gallagher pours his first cup of coffee in the morning.
It's a signal that work crews from Enbridge Inc. are beginning another day of construction on an underground pipeline that will someday carry 21 million gallons of heavy crude oil a day just 14 feet from his Ceresco, Mich. home.
By the time Gallagher settles into his favorite chair and sets his cup on the living room table, the parade of bulldozers, backhoes and trucks is grinding past just a few feet from his picture windows. The trembling sets off little seismic waves in his coffee.
A handful of U.S. utilities have discovered they can save money by encouraging small rooftop solar projects—the same projects utility industry leaders have insisted were too expensive and unreliable to be practical.
The Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) in New York, for instance, is paying developers to build solar panels on top of buildings in tiny towns that are experiencing population booms but don't have enough electric grid infrastructure to bring in the electricity they need. The pilot initiative will allow the utility to avoid spending more than $80 million to build new transmission lines and grid equipment.
"It's actually cost-effective to add renewables" this way, said Michael Deering, LIPA's vice president of environmental affairs.
The program reflects some utilities' changing relationship with distributed generation, or DG, the name for small-scale energy generators like solar systems and micro wind turbines that produce electricity close to where the power is used.
Jeffrey Wiese, the nation's top oil and gas pipeline safety official, recently strode to a dais beneath crystal chandeliers at a New Orleans hotel to let his audience in on an open secret: the regulatory process he oversees is "kind of dying."
Wiese told several hundred oil and gas pipeline compliance officers that his agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA), has "very few tools to work with" in enforcing safety rules even after Congress in 2011 allowed it to impose higher fines on companies that cause major accidents.
"Do I think I can hurt a major international corporation with a $2 million civil penalty? No," he said.
Because generating a new pipeline rule can take as long as three years, Wiese said PHMSA is creating a YouTube channel to persuade the industry to voluntarily improve its safety operations. "We'll be trying to socialize these concepts long before we get to regulations."
Wiese's pessimism about the viability of the pipeline regulatory system is at odds with the Obama administration's insistence that the nation's pipeline infrastructure is safe and its regulatory regime robust. In a speech last year, President Obama ordered regulatory agencies like PHMSA to help expedite the building of new pipelines "in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people."
A funny video that calls on the World Meteorological Organization to name hurricanes after climate deniers in Congress has struck a chord, or a nerve, with people around the world—going viral in the two weeks since it was first posted on YouTube.
"We are knocking at the door of 2 million views of the video in around one week—more than we could have hoped or expected for," Daniel Kessler, media campaigner for 350.org Action Fund, the climate activist group behind the viral video, said last week.
But the video has done more than generate views and cause a laugh. It has sparked over ten thousand comments on YouTube and other social sites debating the scientific evidence about climate threats and the merits of poking fun at climate science doubters—with slightly more than half favoring the video.
In the five months since ExxonMobil's Pegasus oil pipeline burst in Arkansas, two things have become clear. Flawed, 1940s-era welding techniques used when the Pegasus was built set the stage for the rupture, and an internal pipeline inspection failed to spot the problem just weeks before the spill.
The most critical question of all, however, has yet to be answered: What caused the pipe's long-dormant flaws—assumed to be J-shaped 'hook cracks,' in this case—to awaken and grow undetected until catastrophe struck?
"It is the extension of the hook cracks that is the key to this failure," said Patrick Pizzo, a professor emeritus in materials engineering at San Jose State University. "You have to get those cracks in motion in order to lead to a leak or a fracture."
Pizzo and several pipeline failure experts who reviewed the publicly available Pegasus reports say the pipe's cracks probably grew because of large swings in the pressure inside the pipe. So-called 'pressure-cycle-induced fatigue' is one of the top four threats in pipelines that—like the Pegasus—were built from pre-1970 pipe that is predisposed to cracking and corrosion problems along lengthwise seams.
But there could be other factors, too, including problems associated with the type of product the Pegasus was carrying—an oil-like substance called bitumen that is mined in Canada and diluted to form diluted bitumen, or dilbit.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Central Arkansas Water is fully aware that its push to relocate the compromised Pegasus pipeline out of its watershed will likely become a NIMBY issue.
But that hasn't stopped the utility from continuing its bulldog-like push for ExxonMobil to remove 13.5 miles of mostly buried pipeline from the northern edge of Lake Maumelle. The man-made lake provides 67 million gallons of water per day to 400,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in and around Little Rock.
"We want zero risk," said John Tynan, the utility's watershed protection manager. "That's why we're asking for the relocation. Our question is, how do we make this a reality?"
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Is it too little, too late?
That's the question Mayflower residents are asking now that the state is finally offering them access to free health assessments five months after a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline emptied 210,000 gallons of heavy crude into their city 25 miles northwest of Little Rock.
Since the March 29 spill, many people have continued to suffer from dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting—classic symptoms of short-term exposure to the chemicals found in crude oil.
While 22 homes in the Northwoods subdivision were evacuated on that Good Friday afternoon, people who lived nearby were allowed to remain in their homes. If the smells or symptoms were too overwhelming, they could leave their homes voluntarily, they were told.
"Five months out is a little late, but people are still sick," said Ann Jarrell, who wasn't evacuated and is still suffering from respiratory problems. "I'll continue to scream from the tallest tree that we need help."
This is Part 2 of a series looking at the people and scenery along the route of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline, which spilled an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the town of Mayflower, Ark. Read Part 1.
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—At sunset one evening, Ryan Senia, a displaced former resident of the Northwoods subdivision, walks around his side yard, and into a wide orange clayscape. This area used to be backyards, until crude oil swamped it and Exxon's crews stripped away trees and exhumed tons of earth.
"This is all new dirt," Senia says over the thrum of a generator powering a tall light. He walks behind a neighbor's empty home where the remnants of a former yard—a bike, a hose, a lawnmower, a propane grill, part of a birdbath—clutter the back porch. "Come up over here, you can see they've dug up under the slab," he says. "You can see how deep they've dug it. So you know the oil is underground."
Senia turns to another home's foundation. There, in a grey puddle a foot beneath the brick, floats a glossy black blob the size of a fried egg. "It's eye-opening to see the oil right there," he says. "I know it's not a large amount, but that's only what you can see. The oil's under the house."
This is Part 1 of a series looking at the people and scenery along the route of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline, which spilled an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the town of Mayflower, Ark. Read Part 2.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—The oil that erupted in the town of Mayflower back in March began its trip in an Illinois hamlet named Patoka, 90 minutes east of St. Louis. It shot down ExxonMobil's 20-inch Pegasus pipeline, under farms and forests, over the Mississippi River via a state highway bridge, through the Missouri Ozarks, across the Arkansas state line and, a few miles later, near the workplace of one Glenda Jones, whom you can find on a summer Saturday at her bar job, watching the Cardinals thump the Cubs.
The other bartender here at the Rolling Hills Country Club in the town of Pocahontas is named Brenda, so anyone visiting the golf course in far Northeast Arkansas is bound to meet one of the Endas, as they're known around the club. At 5 p.m. it's quiet in the 10-table lounge but for a Fox broadcaster making Jones's day: "Molina deep ... back to the wall ... it's gone!" Jones, the proud Enda and part-time house cleaner who refers to the Cardinals as "we," hollers, "Yes, finally!"