The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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What the Frack?

I heard a few days ago that Pennsylvania had recorded its first earthquakes caused by fracking. I’ve been hearing for a while that fracking causing earthquakes and all sorts of other mean, nasty stuff, but I didn’t know exactly how. I figured this was a good opportunity to read up on the matter and write a neat little science-explainer post.

Except it turns out fracking doesn’t cause most of the earthquakes we’ve been hearing about. Fracking is bad, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that the situation is more complex.

The story in Pennsylvania is that there were a series of very small earthquakes almost a year ago. They were too minor to even notice without the help of instruments and nobody would have cared except that they were centered right next to  fracking operation. So, the authorities investigated and decided that yes, the fracking probably caused the shaking.

No, it didn’t, said the Daily Caller, a website about which I knew nothing and was frankly suspicious. I poked around on the site, and offhand, it looks to be a legitimate newspaper with a conservative, anti-environmental bias, but so far I haven’t seen anything too far off that wasn’t on the opinion page. More to the point, they’re almost right about fracking.

Fracking can cause earthquakes, but they are typically too small to feel, just as the quakes in Pennsylvania, were. The Daily Caller’s contention that the story is some kind of liberal media conspiracy seems off-base at best. But they are correct in noting that the US Geological Survey (USGS) says that fracking does not cause strong earthquakes.

As the USGS explains, induced earthquakes are caused by the injection of fluid into rock near faults capable of producing earthquakes, but how much fluid and when it is injected both matter a lot.

Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) means using water and chemicals (mostly acids, lubricants, and poisons–the poisons are used to kill microbes that might otherwise damage the equipment. And yes, you can look up these chemicals) to break up deep rock layers so that oil or natural gas can flow more easily into the well. Once the fracture occurs, it doesn’t have to be done again, not for that well. Extraction commences, and most of the fracking fluid comes back up, along with the oil or gas. Because the injection operation is brief, involves relatively little fluid, and normally occurs in rocks that have already had some of their oil extracted by conventional means (thus freeing up some space) the resulting earthquakes are small.

What causes the big earthquakes is wastewater injection.

When oil or gas are pumped out of the ground, water comes, too. It may be a little water or a lot of water–usually, the proportion of water increases as the well starts to empty out. Wells are often abandoned, not because there isn’t any more hydrocarbon down there, but because there is to much water and separating it out gets too expensive. The water can come from a number of sources. Some of it was pumped into the well as part of the drilling process (either for fracking or for other forms of drilling), and then withdrawn again along with the oil. The water picks up substances from the rock in the process an becomes salty and toxic. Water can also leak into a well when the bore hole passes through an aquifer–though drilling companies try to prevent those leaks because the water causes various expensive complications for them. Sometimes when oil or gas are pumped out of the rock, water from nearby flows in to take up the newly emptied space. But oil and gas pockets generally contain their own water as well, because the organic ooze that became the hydrocarbon and the sediment that surrounded it were wet. Some of that water is salty because it’s seawater. Sometimes it’s fresh. For some reason I find the idea of underground pockets of ancient seawater charming.

But no matter how the water gets in there, it’s not safe to drink when it comes back out. Water is very good at dissolving things, and while it’s underground, it usually picks up several different toxins or radioactive substances. There are various ways to dispose of this stuff (some places spray it on roadways to control ice and dust, a practice of questionable wisdom). Injecting it back underground is not a new idea, and has obvious advantages–if it’s injected into the space that used to contain oil, the water can prevent subsidence. But if the wastewater is injected into rock that hasn’t had anything removed, it can cause earthquakes. Serious ones.

Wastewater disposal involves a lot more fluid than fracking does, and it continues as long as the oil pumping. Its impact on the rock is therefore much greater. And yet, even then, most wastewater injection wells don’t cause earthquakes. For the rock to move, there must be a pre-existing fault capable of causing earthquakes either near the injection site or somewhere the water can flow to from the injection site–sometimes the earthquake is up to ten miles away. So, the take-home message is that injection can’t cause an earthquake in a place where no earthquake could happen otherwise, but it can make those earthquakes much more likely. Like, hundreds of times more likely, as is happening in Oklahoma, and will likely continue happening for years after the injection stops.

The other take-home message is if someone ten miles away agrees to put an injection well on their land, the earthquake might happen under your house.

But there is a connection between fracking and strong induced earthquakes.

Scientists have known for decades that wastewater injection can cause earthquakes under some circumstances. They’ve known that there are some places where these wells just shouldn’t go. But in recent years, the economics of exploiting certain very wet carbon deposits has simply gotten too good to pass up–and fracking and horizontal drilling together have made it so. The result is more injection wells where they’re not supposed to be. So far, Pennsylvania has not had many injection wells, which is part of why it hasn’t had many induced earthquakes, but that could change.

As long as large volumes of wet hydrocarbons are being exploited, there will be large volumes of wastewater to be disposed of, somehow. It may be difficult to restrict disposal wells to those places that are not going to cause earthquakes. And as bad as injection is, all the other forms of disposal seem to be worse.

So it comes down to a societal choice–how much are we willing to pay to have oil and gas? Ad are the people making the decisions really the same people who end up paying the cost?



And in Comes O’Malley

Martin O’Malley has just thrown his hat in the Presidential ring, a move that surprises no one who has been watching his career. His presence also makes the race a bit more homey for me, since he has just completed two terms as Maryland’s governor and that is my state. Unfortunately, he’s a relative unknown outside the state, and the buzz so far is that he’s not going much of anywhere this time around. A recent cartoon depicted the “O’Malley Bandwagon,” being drawn by a rocking-horse. But he’s young enough that he could easily try again, perhaps with a cabinet-level position in the meantime to round out his resume.

But how is he on climate change? What would it be like if he did win?

Martin O’Malley is like the other two Democratic hopefuls in that we don’t have to rely on his campaign promises to guess how he’d do on climate as President–he has already shown his colors as Governor of Maryland. And his colors are surprisingly green. He has been called a climate hawk, and his interest in the environment isn’t just political. It’s entirely genuine. He’s taken some heat from climate deniers of late, who pounced on his assertion that climate change is a “business opportunity,” as if he were some kind of opportunist. Of course, that isn’t what he meant–he meant that actually doing something about climate change is not only the the right thing, but also the profitable thing. And he’s exactly right–there’s nothing fiscally responsible about environmental disaster.

Under Mr. O’Malley’s leadership, Maryland really stood out on climate and related issues. He has set goals of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (from 2006 levels) by 25% by the year 2020 and by 80% by 2050. He brought the state into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a functional carbon pricing program that raises money for energy-efficiency programs that can lower residents’ utility bills. He released the Maryland Climate Action Plan, in 2008, championed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009, and started Maryland’s Zero Emissions Vehicle Program and got the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act passed, both in 2013.

Then there’s the goal of diverting 65% of our waste from landfills by recycling and composting, in order to reduce methane emissions. There’s the tree-planting program designed to deepen carbon sinks. There’s the expansion of rail lines in Baltimore and in Maryland’s D.C. (reduces car traffic and related emissions). Public buildings follow highest International Energy Conservation Code from the International Code Council. Residents who cut peak-time electricity usage get discounts on their bills. Mr. O’Malley held ClimateStat meetings every quarter, where he was genuinely enthusiastic about the proper presentation of data.

Has all of this worked?

So far, yes. Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions have gone down, and although much of the decrease was actually due to the Great Recession and other such factors, the state has done somewhat better than the country as a whole–even as its population grows faster than average.

How many of these programs will hold in the face of our new, pro-business, Republican governor, Larry Hogan, is anybody’s guess, but Mr. O’Malley could have taken steps to try to slow reversal of his policies; what many environmentalists see as his one major failing, his issuing of strict guidelines for fracking (as opposed to not considering fracking at all), can be seen as an attempt to make it harder for Governor Hogan to write his own, loose guidelines (in fact, Maryland remains under a moratorium on fracking, which Mr. Hogan agreed to not veto).

Mr. O’Malley does have a somewhat deserved reputation for verbal awkwardness (he’s a bit of a geek, though he also plays in an Irish rock band called O’Malley’s March) but he can talk the talk on climate change, too. He brought up climate change in his very first Presidential campaign speech and features the issue prominently on his website. He has publicly acknowledged that Maryland is feeling the effects of climate change already. He has unequivocally opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, in part on climate grounds. Of national energy policy, he has said “An all-of-the-above strategy did not land a man on the moon. This is a systems engineering challenge, as was landing a man on the moon,” and that reducing greenhouse emissions should be the explicit goal of American energy policy.

Mr. O’Malley is the real deal on climate, and he is a careful, strategic politician. Whether he manages to be a serious contender for the White House this time around or not, he will be one in the future. Speaking strictly as the author of a single-issue blog on climate change, I am very much ok with that.





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Solutions that Aren’t

Occasionally, we hear nuclear power, natural gas, or even cold fusion advanced as solutions–or at least partial solutions–to the climate crisis. It is true that each of these has the potential to give us energy with much lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal or petroleum products. It’s also true that each has obvious drawbacks–existing forms of nuclear power plant blow up occasionally, natural gas is fracking awful, and cold fusion might not even exist. But, proponents assure us, all these are surmountable problems and we shouldn’t hesitate to use all available tools when the climate is on the line.

Yes, I’m being flippant on purpose.

But as obvious as the drawbacks are, the argument for giving all available options a try does have a certain merit; the drowning should not question the life-preserver, after all. As usual, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous, because it allows two conflicting arguments to each be framed in terms that appear to make complete sense.  That’s why I want to go into detail about all the various reasons why these solutions aren’t really solutions at all–and what the real solution is.

Nuclear Power

Yes, nuclear power plants–technically, nuclear fission plants, because their energy comes from atomic nuclei breaking apart–do sometimes blow up. They don’t do so very often, so there is an argument to be made that the small risk of catastrophic failure is worth the certainty of low-carbon energy. The counter-argument is that even a small risk of catastrophe is too high. We can leave that debate to philosophers, because even a perfectly functioning nuclear power plant produces radioactive waste that nobody really knows what to do with. In other words, there’s going to be a disaster even if the plant functions perfectly–it will just be a slower and less dramatic disaster.

Perhaps more importantly for this discussion, nuclear power isn’t free of greenhouse gas emissions. While it’s true that a plant in operation produces only heat, steam, and nuclear waste (the steam spins turbines, generating electricity), virtually every other step in the process, from mining uranium to building and eventually de-commissioning the plant, releases greenhouse gasses. Estimates of how much nuclear power plants actually add to the greenhouse effect vary a lot,  though the extremes on either side suffer from clear methodological problems. 66 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour (gCO2e/kWh) is a reasonable, middle of the road figure. That’s about a tenth of fossil fuel alternatives, but it’s not nothing.

True, as long as fossil fuels power most industry and transportation no power installation of any type is greenhouse-free, but wind farms only have about 10 gCO2e/kWh. That’s one sixth of nuclear’s figure, and wind farms  never blow up.

And on top from the shortcomings nuclear has in the abstract, the practical limitations of the real world create two more serious problems. First, uranium, like fossil fuel, is not a renewable resource. Eventually, we’ll run out of it. As supplies start to run low, the nuclear industry would find itself in the same position the fossil fuel industry is now–forced to exploit ores of poorer quality or that are harder to get to.  The harder ore is to mine, and the more ore must be processed for the same amount of energy, the higher the carbon footprint of nuclear power will be.

Second, switching from fossil fuel to nuclear fission would involve building a lot more nuclear power plants., something like a new plant every week for decades on end. Since 12% of a nuclear plant’s carbon emissions come from its construction alone (not counting mining and processing its initial supply of fuel), it’s not at all clear that building all those plants that quickly would really reduce our collective carbon footprint much. More importantly, building a nuclear plant is incredibly expensive and time-consuming–a new 1,000 megawatt facility takes ten years and three billion dollars. And that’s after the plant’s owners have  found a location willing to host a political hot potato that could blow up. These things are not good investments. Nobody is going to build enough of them to replace fossil fuel any time soon.

Natural Gas

Natural gas, which is mostly methane, has been touted as a bridge fuel, a lower-carbon option that we can use until we can get off fossil fuel entirely. It is true that burning methane produces much less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels do, but its carbon footprint is still pretty big–six times that of nuclear, for example. Methane is also itself a greenhouse gas, and as such is much more powerful than carbon dioxide. Exploiting natural gas inevitably results in some of the stuff leaking–in fact, about a tenth of the United States’ current methane emissions come from leaks at a single cluster of facilities. I don’t know whether anyone has figured the greenhouse effect of leaked methane into the carbon footprint of natural gas, but it’s a good bet this fuel is not the panacea it’s claimed to be. And then there is fracking, the dominant technique for acquiring natural gas, which carries its own high environmental cost.

To be clear, burning methane for energy is not always a bad thing. Once methane is at the surface and about to be released into the sky, burning it is the best thing to do, since that converts the methane to carbon dioxide, which is a weaker greenhouse gas. Electricity generated by burning landfill gas, which is what my husband and I buy, actually has a carbon footprint of less than zero as a result. Also, methane produced by decomposition recently–biogas or landfill gas, not natural gas–generally doesn’t change the planet’s carbon budget much because those carbon compounds were in circulation already (there are exceptions, of course). Methane has a place as a fuel in a post-petroleum world. It is only its fossil fuel form–natural gas–that doesn’t.

The big problem with natural gas is not even fracking or the details of its carbon content. The big problem is that the more natural gas we harvest, the cheaper it will get. Low costs drive more consumption. We could end up burning more fossil fuel than we otherwise would, offsetting the value of a switch from coal to natural gas. Investing in new natural gas infrastructure would also make it harder and more expensive to switch to renewable fuel later. As a bridge fuel, it’s a bridge to nowhere because using natural gas makes switching to renewables less likely.

Cold Fusion

Cold fusion is a form of nuclear power in which energy is harvested from the combination of small atomic nuclei, rather than the splitting of large ones, as in standard fission power plants. The trouble with it as a power source, is that fusion needs very high temperatures in order to get going–like the inside of a star or a hydrogen bomb. Cold fusion involves somehow persuading this reaction to occur at more reasonable temperatures (not necessarily cold by human standards) so we can put it inside a power plant. Science fiction writers have long assumed that someday this puzzle will be solved and we will then have cheap, abundant energy with no pollution or radioactive waste forever.

Whether the technology is anything more than a sci-fi trope hasn’t been clear. Every few years, a team announces it has a cold-fusion device, but none actually pan out.

All that could be changing. Cold fusion (sometimes referred to by other names) has received more attention from researchers in recent years, with some apparent success. So cheap, abundant energy with no pollution of any kind might really be a thing soon. That’s great, right?

Maybe not.

The problem is that at least part of the issue with fossil fuel is precisely that it is a cheap and abundant energy source, and altering the energy balance of a complex system (like the biosphere) always alters the way that system functions and not always in a good way. Most if not all of our current environmental problems are a direct result of our species having an energy budget out of proportion to our other resources, like arable land, potable water, and the various mineral ores. More energy means we can use resources faster, which in the short term provided the illusion of having more resources. Our population ballooned into the billions and the lucky among us became the wealthiest people the world has ever known. In the longer term, faster resource use has come with a huge cost in terms of habitat destruction, pollution, soil exhaustion, and everything else.

Here is an analogy.

Let’s say you have a large pasture with a stream running through it in which you want to keep horses. The number of horses you can keep is limited by the amount of grass your pasture can grow. Fine, but you want more horses, so you buy hay to supplement your grass. Now, your pasture can hold more horses and you like that, so you keep adding more hay. If you add an infinite amount of hay, can you have an infinite number of horses? No, because growing grass wasn’t the only thing your pasture was doing–it was also providing your animals with drinking water and room to move around, plus recycling their feces and urine into fertile soil. If you keep adding horses and more hay, at some point your pasture is going to get overwhelmed and stop providing its other services. Your animals won’t starve, but they’ll end up standing knee-deep in their own waste, with nothing but sewage to drink and hardly any room to move around.

Adding more energy to the human economy is like adding more hay to the horse pasture–by removing one limitation, we free ourselves to exceed the other limitations that are still there. Global warming is the most obvious sign that fossil fuel is destabilizing the planet, and it is possible to imagine alternate energy sources, like cold fusion, that don’t change the climate. But those alternatives will almost certainly destabilize the system in some other way, because that is what adding cheap, abundant energy does.

So, What Can We Do?

The thing is, we can imagine inventing social and economic structures that would allow us to use cold fusion safely. We can imagine nuclear fission plants designed so that they do not blow up and do not create nuclear waste. We can imagine natural gas installations that do not leak. All of the drawbacks for all of these energy sources could, in theory, have work-arounds such that they can live up to their promises, but those developments are in the future if they are anywhere at all.

There is only one solution that requires no additional technology and has been proven 100% effective already; use less energy.

Yes, we’ll need some infrastructure changes, and some new inventions would be useful for letting us keep at least some aspects of our comfortable lifestyles. But, basically, we could stop warping the sky tomorrow by just turning the machines off. Every day we put off that decision is a day we change the climate.