Weekly Mulch: The Dirty Truth about Natural Gas and Energy Innovation

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

The argument against natural gas got a boost this week, when a congressional investigation turned up evidence that oil and gas companies were using diesel gas to extract gas from the ground.

Natural gas companies have insisted that their newly popular hydraulic fracturing (known as “fracking”) techniques are safe, but as Care2’s Kristina Chew reports, “environmentalists and regulators have become increasingly concerned that the fracking chemicals—including toluene, xylene and benzene, a carcinogen, which are all from diesel gas—are seeping out into underground sources of drinking water, in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act.”

The mix-up

The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting an inquiry into the environmental impacts of fracking, and some states are considering more stringent regulations of the practice, including disclosure of the chemicals that go into fracking fluid. Gas companies have argued that the blend of chemicals is a trade secret and must be kept private, but the findings of the congressional investigation suggest otherwise. Eartha Jane Melzer reports at The Michigan Messenger, “In a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson… Reps. Henry Waxman, Edward Markey and Diana DeGette reported that although the EPA requires permits for hydraulic fracturing that involves diesel none of the companies that admitted using diesel have sought or received permits.”

And, as Melzer reports, diesel is the only chemical used in fracking that’s currently regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. That companies have been sneaking it into the ground does not strengthen the industry’s case for independence.

Ensuring that natural gas companies do their work without threatening water supplies is becoming ever more crucial, as the fuel becomes one of the go-to replacements for coal. In Massachusetts, for instance, some legislators are pushing for a coal plant in Holyoke to start using natural gas or renewable energy, rather than being shut down, as Nikki Gloudeman reports at Change.org.

Supporting renewables

And although renewables are thrown in there as an option, right now the clearest way to replace the amount of energy generated by coal is natural gas. This year’s line on energy policy from Washington, however, is that the country should support innovations in clean energy.

Will Obama’s new direction on this issue go anywhere? Grist’s David Roberts has been arguing that any energy policy that leaves out climate change is missing the point.

However, Teryn Norris and Daniel Goldfarb (also at Grist), of Americans for Energy Leadership, a California-based non-profit, have a smart rebuttal. They argue that clean energy needs the boost in research and development that Obama is promising. Ultimately, they, write, “these investments will drive down the price of low-carbon energy and pave the way for stronger deployment efforts — perhaps even including a strong carbon price at some point — both here and in the developing world, where the vast majority of future emissions will originate.”

But, about climate change!

And to be fair, the federal government is trying to lead the way on investing in renewables. As Beth Buczynski reports at Care2, the Department of Energy is working on a $2.3 million solar energy project that would power its Germantown, Md., location.

Not every one is willing to wait for investments to take hold, however. On the National Radio Project’s show, “Making Contact”, Andrew Stelzer examines what climate activists are doing, post-Cancun, to push forward debates on climate change. Ananda Lee Tan, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alterantives argues, for instance, “Community-led climate justice in the U.S. has been winning. The largest amount of industrial carbon that has been prevented in this country has been prevented  by community-led groups, grassroots groups fighting coal, oil and incinerators.”

Cause and effect

Whether the solution comes from industry, government, or grassroots groups, the country’s energy policy will change over the next few decades. And what’s troubling is that it’s not clear what the impact will be. Take natural gas: Washington favors it right now because it’s thought to have lower carbon emission than coal. But any time humans introduce new factors into the environment, they can have unexpected consequences.

That’s not only true for the energy industry, too. In Texas, for instance, the government is trying to eradicate an invasive plant species, a type of giant cane called Arundo that is growing all over the Rio Grande Valley. As Saul Elbein reports for The Texas Observer, it’s been hard to eradicate:

There are three primary ways to control invasive plant species: Kill them with herbicides, clear them with bulldozers and machetes, or attempt to introduce a new predator. The least controversial approach, clearing the cane, is not going to work. There are thousands of square miles of the stuff, and Arundo cane is nearly impossible to cut out. Each stalk has a thick taproot that sends shoots in every direction. You can bulldoze or chop the cane down, and it will grow right back. Worse, any stress on the plant—say a machete blow—causes it to send out more root stalks. Every chopped-up joint of cane that floats downstream can sprout another stand.

But, Elbein reports, scientists have come up with a different solution: They’ve bred wasps that originate in the same region as the cane to come in and eat it. They’ve also taken precautions that the wasps won’t have their own adverse impact on the environment by ensuring that they can only survive on this particular type of plant. But even then, it’s a tricky business.

“The wasps have to survive,” John Adamczyk, an entomologist running the project, told Elbein.  “They have to not all get eaten. Then it becomes a question of whether they can keep the cane in check.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Mulch: The Dirty Truth about Natural Gas and Energy Innovation

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

The argument against natural gas got a boost this week, when a congressional investigation turned up evidence that oil and gas companies were using diesel gas to extract gas from the ground.

Natural gas companies have insisted that their newly popular hydraulic fracturing (known as “fracking”) techniques are safe, but as Care2’s Kristina Chew reports, “environmentalists and regulators have become increasingly concerned that the fracking chemicals—including toluene, xylene and benzene, a carcinogen, which are all from diesel gas—are seeping out into underground sources of drinking water, in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act.”

The mix-up

The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting an inquiry into the environmental impacts of fracking, and some states are considering more stringent regulations of the practice, including disclosure of the chemicals that go into fracking fluid. Gas companies have argued that the blend of chemicals is a trade secret and must be kept private, but the findings of the congressional investigation suggest otherwise. Eartha Jane Melzer reports at The Michigan Messenger, “In a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson… Reps. Henry Waxman, Edward Markey and Diana DeGette reported that although the EPA requires permits for hydraulic fracturing that involves diesel none of the companies that admitted using diesel have sought or received permits.”

And, as Melzer reports, diesel is the only chemical used in fracking that’s currently regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. That companies have been sneaking it into the ground does not strengthen the industry’s case for independence.

Ensuring that natural gas companies do their work without threatening water supplies is becoming ever more crucial, as the fuel becomes one of the go-to replacements for coal. In Massachusetts, for instance, some legislators are pushing for a coal plant in Holyoke to start using natural gas or renewable energy, rather than being shut down, as Nikki Gloudeman reports at Change.org.

Supporting renewables

And although renewables are thrown in there as an option, right now the clearest way to replace the amount of energy generated by coal is natural gas. This year’s line on energy policy from Washington, however, is that the country should support innovations in clean energy.

Will Obama’s new direction on this issue go anywhere? Grist’s David Roberts has been arguing that any energy policy that leaves out climate change is missing the point.

However, Teryn Norris and Daniel Goldfarb (also at Grist), of Americans for Energy Leadership, a California-based non-profit, have a smart rebuttal. They argue that clean energy needs the boost in research and development that Obama is promising. Ultimately, they, write, “these investments will drive down the price of low-carbon energy and pave the way for stronger deployment efforts — perhaps even including a strong carbon price at some point — both here and in the developing world, where the vast majority of future emissions will originate.”

But, about climate change!

And to be fair, the federal government is trying to lead the way on investing in renewables. As Beth Buczynski reports at Care2, the Department of Energy is working on a $2.3 million solar energy project that would power its Germantown, Md., location.

Not every one is willing to wait for investments to take hold, however. On the National Radio Project’s show, “Making Contact”, Andrew Stelzer examines what climate activists are doing, post-Cancun, to push forward debates on climate change. Ananda Lee Tan, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alterantives argues, for instance, “Community-led climate justice in the U.S. has been winning. The largest amount of industrial carbon that has been prevented in this country has been prevented  by community-led groups, grassroots groups fighting coal, oil and incinerators.”

Cause and effect

Whether the solution comes from industry, government, or grassroots groups, the country’s energy policy will change over the next few decades. And what’s troubling is that it’s not clear what the impact will be. Take natural gas: Washington favors it right now because it’s thought to have lower carbon emission than coal. But any time humans introduce new factors into the environment, they can have unexpected consequences.

That’s not only true for the energy industry, too. In Texas, for instance, the government is trying to eradicate an invasive plant species, a type of giant cane called Arundo that is growing all over the Rio Grande Valley. As Saul Elbein reports for The Texas Observer, it’s been hard to eradicate:

There are three primary ways to control invasive plant species: Kill them with herbicides, clear them with bulldozers and machetes, or attempt to introduce a new predator. The least controversial approach, clearing the cane, is not going to work. There are thousands of square miles of the stuff, and Arundo cane is nearly impossible to cut out. Each stalk has a thick taproot that sends shoots in every direction. You can bulldoze or chop the cane down, and it will grow right back. Worse, any stress on the plant—say a machete blow—causes it to send out more root stalks. Every chopped-up joint of cane that floats downstream can sprout another stand.

But, Elbein reports, scientists have come up with a different solution: They’ve bred wasps that originate in the same region as the cane to come in and eat it. They’ve also taken precautions that the wasps won’t have their own adverse impact on the environment by ensuring that they can only survive on this particular type of plant. But even then, it’s a tricky business.

“The wasps have to survive,” John Adamczyk, an entomologist running the project, told Elbein.  “They have to not all get eaten. Then it becomes a question of whether they can keep the cane in check.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

You Can Do Better, Senator Brown

I learned last week that Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is floating the idea of stopping EPA’s work to reduce carbon dioxide pollution for at least one year.

To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. I have known and admired Senator Sherrod Brown for years, and I respect his track record on defending the environment.

Sherrod’s consideration of undermining the EPA’s ability to keep our air free from pollution doesn’t jibe with his past positions or with what’s good for Ohio’s economy and for its residents’ health.

And it certainly doesn’t match up with what I know of Sherrod Brown’s leadership.

I first met Senator Brown when he was in the House and I worked for another member of the Ohio delegation. Both members served on the Energy and Commerce Committee. During the long committee hearings, members often left to attend other events, but Hill staffers had to stick around to listen. Staffers aren’t allowed to speak at committee meetings—only members can—so when we would hear witnesses making inaccurate statements or exaggerating the facts, we felt powerless to correct the record.

That was until we realized we could turn to Sherrod Brown. He was one of the few members who would sit through the bulk of hearings, and we could always trust him to correct the record when the speaker was off the mark, we could count on him to challenge falsehoods—especially when it came to environmental issues.

More recently, Senator Brown has been a supporter of clean energy—something that has been very good for Ohio. In fact, Ohio is the best in the Midwest when it comes to green job growth. Toledo and Cleveland have led the way by transforming struggling auto-parts factories into manufacturing centers of solar panels, wind turbines, and advanced batteries.

These opportunities led Senator Brown to play an active roll drafting comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation that would have cut global warming pollution and brought as much as $5.6 billion in investment revenue and 67,000 new jobs to Ohio.

Unfortunately, that legislation never made it to the floor. So why would Brown want to put put on hold the only chance we have right now for cutting carbon dioxide pollution?  The only thing likely to be different a year from now is that one more year of pollutants will be in our air and businesses will have suffered through another year of renewed uncertainty about the standards they will have to meet.

And EPA has not put in place some Draconian plan.  All that’s being required is that new plants, or plants undergoing major changes install the latest, affordable equipment.  Why would we want new plants to be dirtier than they have to be?

We shouldn’t stop work already underway to clean up our air and tackle climate change while we wait for Congress to get its act together. And Congressional “delays” tend to be extended year after year.  Before we know it, America will be four or five years further behind in confronting the worst environmental, economic, and national security challenge of our time.

That isn’t something the Brown I know would want. And it’s not something the people of Ohio should want.  Ohio has one of the best clean energy stories to tell in the nation. Confronting climate change and shifting to more sustainable energy will bring more jobs to your state and make the hard-working families of Ohio healthier.

When your children are sick, you don’t stop giving them the medicine they need because a better product might be available someday.  Heck, you don’t even wait for your kids to GET SICK if you can take pre-emptive action to avoid it.

Sherrod Brown can stand up for the health and welfare of Ohio’s families by working WITH the EPA to make sure implementation of the Clean Air Act is successful in bringing standards up-to-date to  protect public health and drive innovation.  That is the leadership we need.

This blog was originally posted on the NRDC Action Fund blog, The Markup.

 

 

Weekly Mulch: Coal Ash in Our Stockings

Editor’s Note: Due to the holidays, the Weekly Mulch will appear on Thursday afternoon both this week and next week. We’ll resume regular Friday morning posts in 2011.

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

It’s the naughty children who get coal in their stockings, and it seems like Americans must have been naughty this year. Because across the country, we’re awash with coal, carcinogens, and other toxins. And our government is not doing to much to change that.

Waste not

After the massive coal ash spill in Tennessee two years ago, the EPA began working on more stringent regulation of the waste, a byproduct of coal mining. But, as Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones, the industry has been pressuring the administration to adopts weaker regulations than it could.

“Two years after the largest toxic spill in the nation’s history, there is still no regulation of deadly coal ash dumps—nor is there clear direction from EPA on the timing or content of a final rule,” Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, told Sheppard.  “For the communities enduring damage from aging ponds and leaking landfills, time has run out. There is no reason on earth that their health should be compromised by such an easily avoidable harm.”

What’s in the water?

Coal ash is one of those pollutants that clearly poses a problem. It looks dangerous. But not all pollutants are so obviously dangerous. This week, for instance, the Environmental Working Group, an environmental health non-profit group, released a report showing that much of the country’s tap water is contaminated with the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, with levels high enough to pose a risk to human health.

“Exposure in tap water has been linked to cancers of the stomach and gastrointestinal tract in both animals and people,” Rebecca Sutton, a scientist for the Environmental Working Group, wrote at AlterNet. Thirty-one of the 35 cities that the group examined had dangerously high levels of the contaminants in the tap water.

How did this happen? As Sarah Parsons explains at Change.org, “The reason so much chromium-6 winds up in tap water is that industries spew it into waterways, utilities fail to test for the substance, and the EPA doesn’t regulate it in drinking water.”

What the EPA does do, Parsons reports, is limit the total chromium in drinking water, “the combined amount of hexavalent chromium and trivalent chromium.” She explains, “The problem is that trivalent chromium is actually good for you—in fact, it’s necessary for metabolism. Hexavalent chromium, on the other hand, is a noxious carcinogen.”

Moving forward

These prevalent toxins are just two reminders that, for all their successes in recent decades, environmentalists still have much work ahead of them. How should they approach that work? Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark, considering lessons from the 1980s-era environmental leaders, who focused on moving toward the center and working within the confines of D.C. politics, offers this thought: “The new leaders of 2010 say what we need is less focused group messaging and inside-the-Beltway maneuverings, and more heartfelt spirit and energy directed encouraged at the grassroots. I hope their instincts are right. Because at this point I don’t think we can wait another 25 years to figure this stuff out.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Mulch: Coal Ash in Our Stockings

Editor’s Note: Due to the holidays, the Weekly Mulch will appear on Thursday afternoon both this week and next week. We’ll resume regular Friday morning posts in 2011.

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

It’s the naughty children who get coal in their stockings, and it seems like Americans must have been naughty this year. Because across the country, we’re awash with coal, carcinogens, and other toxins. And our government is not doing to much to change that.

Waste not

After the massive coal ash spill in Tennessee two years ago, the EPA began working on more stringent regulation of the waste, a byproduct of coal mining. But, as Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones, the industry has been pressuring the administration to adopts weaker regulations than it could.

“Two years after the largest toxic spill in the nation’s history, there is still no regulation of deadly coal ash dumps—nor is there clear direction from EPA on the timing or content of a final rule,” Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, told Sheppard.  “For the communities enduring damage from aging ponds and leaking landfills, time has run out. There is no reason on earth that their health should be compromised by such an easily avoidable harm.”

What’s in the water?

Coal ash is one of those pollutants that clearly poses a problem. It looks dangerous. But not all pollutants are so obviously dangerous. This week, for instance, the Environmental Working Group, an environmental health non-profit group, released a report showing that much of the country’s tap water is contaminated with the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, with levels high enough to pose a risk to human health.

“Exposure in tap water has been linked to cancers of the stomach and gastrointestinal tract in both animals and people,” Rebecca Sutton, a scientist for the Environmental Working Group, wrote at AlterNet. Thirty-one of the 35 cities that the group examined had dangerously high levels of the contaminants in the tap water.

How did this happen? As Sarah Parsons explains at Change.org, “The reason so much chromium-6 winds up in tap water is that industries spew it into waterways, utilities fail to test for the substance, and the EPA doesn’t regulate it in drinking water.”

What the EPA does do, Parsons reports, is limit the total chromium in drinking water, “the combined amount of hexavalent chromium and trivalent chromium.” She explains, “The problem is that trivalent chromium is actually good for you—in fact, it’s necessary for metabolism. Hexavalent chromium, on the other hand, is a noxious carcinogen.”

Moving forward

These prevalent toxins are just two reminders that, for all their successes in recent decades, environmentalists still have much work ahead of them. How should they approach that work? Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark, considering lessons from the 1980s-era environmental leaders, who focused on moving toward the center and working within the confines of D.C. politics, offers this thought: “The new leaders of 2010 say what we need is less focused group messaging and inside-the-Beltway maneuverings, and more heartfelt spirit and energy directed encouraged at the grassroots. I hope their instincts are right. Because at this point I don’t think we can wait another 25 years to figure this stuff out.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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