Still trying to figure out what the big deal with fracking is? Hydraulic fracturing—fracking for short—is the controversial process that has fueled the new energy boom in the US, making it possible to tap reserves that had previously been too difficult and expensive to extract. It works by pumping millions of gallons of pressurized water, with sand and a cocktail of chemicals, into rock formations to create tiny cracks and release trapped oil and gas. It's been tied to earthquakes and has led to a number of lawsuits, including one that resulted in a settlement agreement that barred a seven-year-old from ever talking about it. At the same time, fracking has also created a glut of cheap energy and is helping to push coal, and coal-fired power plants, out of the market.
But for all the fighting about whether fracking is good or bad (and research has shown the more people know, the more polarized they become), many people don't understand what fracking actually is. The Munich-based design team Kurzgesagt has put together a video that explains why fracking—which has been around since the 1940s—just caught on in the last ten years, and why people are worried. The video, which was posted earlier this month, has gone viral, and racked up over one million views in less than 10 days.
The video gets a lot right, but critics have also taken issue with a few of its claims. For example, the video states that fracking companies "say nothing about the precise composition of the chemical mixture but it is known that there are about 700 chemical agents which can be used in the process." Energy in Depth, an industry group, has released a response noting that companies dodisclose some information about chemicals used in fracking. What that group doesn't mention, however, is that companies don't have to disclose chemicals that are designated as "trade secrets," which is a pretty serious exception.
Energy in Depth also quotes former EPA chief Lisa Jackson's testimony (among others) that "in no case have we made a definitive determination that the [fracturing] process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater." The key word here is "definitive"—there is a growing body of evidence that fracking can be linked to increased levels of methane, propane, and ethane in groundwater near fracking sites (likely due to faulty wells), and there are plenty of reasons to question whether pumping billions of gallons of toxic fluid into disposal wells is a good idea. (ProPublica has a couple of great, long pieces on injection wells.)
A geyser of floodwater shoots out of a sewer in Manitou Springs, Colorado, as storms dump rain over the Waldo Canyon burn scar.Michael Ciaglo/MCT/ZUMA
Heavy rains falling in the Front Range of Colorado this week have left at least three people dead, authorities say. Up to six inches of rain fell in 12 hours overnight on Wednesday and into Thursday morning, augmenting what had already been a rainy month in the area and leading to dangerous flash floods that are expected to continue through the weekend. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper called it “the largest storm that I can imagine in the state’s history.”
A spokesman from the US Geological Survey says the this is a 100-year flood, meaning that flooding at this level in the area takes place once every 100 years, according to the Denver Post—though others say it could even be a "a 500- to 1000-year event."
The rain brought the water, but wildfires in Colorado from recent years have made the flooding worse than it would have been otherwise, experts say. "When you have a dense forest with undergrowth, you have plants and things to trap moisture and rain," Kari Bowen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Boulder, told LiveScience. "But when it's gone, you have nothing to catch it."
The rain continued Thursday, making it difficult (and in some cases impossible) for rescuers to reach flood-stricken towns. In the video below, from CBS4 in Denver, rescue crews pull a man from a car that has been overturned near Lafayette, Colorado, where rock slides and flash flooding collapsed homes, put dams at risk, and forced hundreds of people to evacuate.
The graph below shoes water flowing from Fourmile creek over the past week in Orodell, Colorado, west of Boulder:
Below is the gage height of the same river, which reflects the amount of water flowing through it:
The University of Colorado-Boulder has evacuated more than 350 people from university housing and reports that 25 percent of the buildings on campus have sustained damage so far, according to the Weather Channel.
The outward statecraft of the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, was dominated by disagreements over Syria. But behind the scenes, leaders were busy agreeing on something they rarely find common ground on: climate change. Thirty-five nations and the European Union decided to curb hydrofluorocarbons, a set of powerful heat-trapping gases used in refrigeration, air conditioning, heat pumps, and insulation. This follows a deal earlier this year between China and the United States, in which President Obama and President Xi agreed to limit these greenhouse gases.
So, what are HFCs and why are they important to climate change?
Yes, carbon dioxide is the big culprit when it comes to climate change. HFCs represent only a small fraction of total greenhouse gases—and they are short-lived compared to CO2—but they pack a real punch in terms of what scientists call "global warming potential," which they rate as many hundred times more powerful than that of carbon dioxide.
Bucking the general international trend in climate talks, there's actually a history of agreement about limiting these types of gases. When scientists discovered the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s, the world came together to sign the Montreal Protocol, phasing out the use of ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons; that treaty is now universally ratified, and the ozone layer is recovering. Their industrial replacements were HFCs, and while these gases didn't attack the ozone layer—Earth's precious protective shield—they still trap a lot of heat, adding to global warming. Scientists say that if HFCs aren't curbed in the same way as their CFC cousins, this whole family of gases—called halocarbons—could accelerate the next century’s expected warming by about 20 years.
Less than 1 percent of US power plants produce nearly a third of the energy industry's carbon emissions, according to a new report released Tuesday. "If the 50 most-polluting U.S. power plants were an independent nation," reads the report from Environment America Research & Policy Center, an independent nonprofit, "they would be the seventh-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, behind Germany and ahead of South Korea." The vast majority of the top 100 offenders—98 of them in fact—are coal plants.
The report, which comes in advance of a Environmental Protection Agency proposal on emissions standards for new power plants expected later this month, claims that cleaning up the biggest polluters could have an outsized impact on reducing greenhouse gases. A March EPA proposal suggested capping carbon production at 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour produced for new plants. That's well below the 3,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour the dirtiest existing plants produce. Standards for existing plants are in the works, too—the EPA's proposal is supposed to be submitted by June 2014 and finalized the following year. Even if the standards are weakened in the approval process, the average coal plant still produces more than twice as much carbon than allowed by the cap. That means new coal plants are "highly unlikely" to meet the EPA's target, according to the report.
Source: Environment America Research & Policy Center
Today, the 50 dirtiest plants in the United States—all coal-fired—account for 2 percent of the world's energy-related carbon pollution each year. That's equal to the annual emissions from half of America's 240 million cars. The 100 dirtiest plants—a tiny fraction of the country's 6,000 power plants—account for a fifth of all US carbon emissions. According to the report, curbing the emissions of the worst offenders in the United States "is one of the most effective ways to reduce U.S. global warming pollution…reducing the risk that emissions will reach a level that triggers dangerous, irreversible climate change impacts."
This story first appeared on the Gristwebsite and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
How do you prevent someone from wasting electricity? The same way you prevent them from picking their nose—make them think they are being watched.
Carnegie Mellon University researchers wanted to see whether the Hawthorne effect could be used to change energy-use patterns. The Hawthorne effect refers to the way people tend to alter their behavior when they sense they are being observed. The effect can be a pain in the ass for scientists trying to study human behavior, but it can also be a powerful tool for influencing that behavior.
The researchers sent postcards to a group of utility customers notifying them that their electricity usage was being tracked for one month as part of an experiment. The series of postcards offered no incentives or instructions to reduce energy use—they just let the customers know that they were being, in effect, watched. A control group of utility customers got no postcards.
The air quality in Beijing has grown so bad that it's begun to produce its own catch-22s. All that smog is starting to keep tourists away, but tourism is just the kind of less energy-intensive industry that China needs to develop. The city is hoping to ramp up its public bike-share system, in an effort to shift a majority of trips through the city center onto public transportation. But who would want to ride a bike in this atmosphere?
At least one perverse consequence could be helping. The pollution has gotten so awful that residents and officials long averse to addressing greenhouse gas emissions (at the expense of economic growth) are now clamoring for drastic solutions to its related problem: unbreathable air. As TheNew York Times reported over the weekend in a piece on the "silver lining" to China's smog:
"Air pollution was the perfect catalyst," said Wai-Shin Chan, director of climate change strategy in Asia for HSBC Global Research in Hong Kong. "Air pollution is clearly linked to health, and the great thing is that everybody—that's government officials and company executives alike—breathes the same air."
The Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland.Frank Paul/University of Zurich/NASA
This story first appeared on the Grist website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
The world's glaciers are wasting away at a cracking pace—but it's not just because the climate is warming.
Soot and other black carbon is settling on ice and snow, absorbing the sun's rays and causing frozen water molecules to melt. It can be hard to tell how much of the melt to attribute to warming and how much to soot.
But researchers have pinpointed a period shortly after the Industrial Revolution when black carbon alone appears to have caused glaciers to melt in the European Alps.
Yet in 1865, more than 40 years before temperature records started showing warming in the Alps, the region's glaciers began a retreat that has continued until this day, marking the end of a 500-year ice age.
A chart from the PNAS paper tracking the expansion and decline of five glaciers in the Alps since the first measurements. PNAS
Scientists used ice cores and computer simulations to calculate that heat absorbed by polluted snow would have been enough during the second half of the 19th century to melt the snow and expose glaciers to sunlight, kicking off their decline.
"The end of the Little Ice Age in the European Alps has long been a paradox to glaciology and climatology," wrote Kaser and his coauthors. "Radiative forcing by increasing deposition of industrial black carbon to snow may represent the driver of the abrupt glacier retreats."
Andreas Vieli, a glaciologist who was not involved with the research, told Nature that the study offers "a very elegant and plausible explanation" for the glacial melt. "It appears that in central Europe soot prematurely stopped the Little Ice Age."
US refineries on the Gulf that had been anticipating a boom from Canada's Alberta tar sands via the planned Keystone XL pipeline are becoming apathetic about the mired pipeline's future, according to Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. As the domestic US oil boom has kept refineries busy and rail and new pipelines have filled the shipping gap that Keystone would have filled, the refineries on the Gulf that had been waiting to process the Canadian heavy crude "increasingly doubt that the controversial Keystone XL pipeline expansion will ever be built" and "don't particularly care." But does that mean that the 830,000 barrels of heavy crude that would have streamed through the XL pipeline have become irrelevant? Not quite. The pipeline is still the best hope for Canadian tar sands to make it to refineries. Without it, Alberta's surging industry might find itself choked with no way to move all the oil it produces.
According to the Wall Street Journal:
Railroads are carrying soaring amounts of crude from Canada down to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast, reducing the need for the TransCanada Corp. project, which is still awaiting approval from the U.S. government after two years of delays.
Meanwhile, a rival pipeline company, Enbridge Inc., is expanding existing pipes to carry Canadian crude south—and it doesn't need federal permission because it's using existing pipeline rights of way. In addition, so much oil is sloshing around the U.S. from its own wells that refiners don't need lots more heavy crude from the north to keep busy.
"Keystone XL has been back-burnered for so long that any relevant parties have been able to make plans as though the project never even existed in the first place," says Sam Margolin, an analyst at Cowen & Co.
The domestic oil boom from sources like North Dakota's Bakken region and the sudden glut of tar sands oil coming out of Alberta have overwhelmed existing pipelines, creating bottlenecks and forcing oil companies to find other ways to move oil from wells to refineries. Between 2011 and 2012, shipments to refineries by truck rose by 38 percent, barge transport increased by 53 percent, and rail shipments quadrupled.
The hitch is that Canada is still staring down a massive planned increase in tar sands production—and without Keystone XL being built, it might not be able to move the oil out of Alberta fast enough to keep pace with production. Canadian tar sands produced 1.8 million barrels per day in 2012, and are hoping to crank that up to about 5 million per day by 2030. In fact, Alberta could pass that milestone as soon as 2016.
In 1996 Colorado received a very unwelcome—and hungry—house guest, the mountain pine beetle, whose voracious appetite for pine has since killed off millions of acres of trees there. A few years later, the beetles came knocking in British Columbia and have now knocked out over half the province's pine timber. The full-bore invasion of these critters, each no bigger than a grain of rice, is now one of the most pressing ecological disasters in the West, and their spread, scientists believe, is driven by climate change.
The beetles aren't alone: Rising equatorial temperatures have pushed a menagerie of pests north at an alarming rate of nearly 10,000 feet every year since 1960, according to a new survey out today in Nature. Researchers led by biologist Dan Bebber at the UK's University of Exeter combed through databases hosted by the non-profit CABI, which aggregates scientific and trade literature on agriculture, for the first documented appearance of over 600 kinds of pests (including insects, fungi, viruses, and bacteria), over a 50-year period in the Northern Hemisphere. They found, averaged across 14 taxonomic groups, a distinctive northward migration, wherein species first noticed at southern latitudes were, at a later date, discovered anew at northern latitudes.
The chart below, from the paper, shows the distribution range of the different pest groups Bebber examined, with the vertical axis indicating distance from the equator (positive distances indicate north; negative distances indicate south) and the horizontal axis indicating time, from 1960 to the present. Overall, the groups show a gradual northward migration over time (up and to the right):