Marine Vibroseis: A Safer Alternative to Seismic Airguns for the North Atlantic Right Whale

Kayla Bastolla, Pre-Veterinary Medicine

Jared Carson, Horticulture

Stacey Vogel, Natural Resource Conservation

The North Atlantic Right whale was almost hunted to extinction throughout the 17th to early 20th century. Biologist estimated that whalers hunted and removed 5,500 North Atlantic Right whales from the ocean due to high need for oil and baleen (Szabo, 2018). A single right whale yields 1,386 gallons of oil plus 647 pounds of baleen which was used for women’s corsets, buggy whips, and umbrella ribs (Ocean Portal Team, 2018;National Marine Mammal Laboratory, n.d.). In 1946, the International Whaling Convention (IWC) saw it fit to establish management to oversee the whaling industry globally. Even with regulations in place, this species was declining at a rapid speed.  Due to that immense decline, in 1986 the IWC banned whaling indefinitely which remains in effect today except for Japan and Norway who have never recognized the ban (Fitzmaurice, M., 1946). The United States enacted their own laws for the protection of marine mammals by passing a law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), in 1972 forbidding the killing, hunting, injuring or harassing of any species of marine mammals. In the following year Congress then passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a law protecting endangered species, both threatened or in danger of extinction as well as those that are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future, using the same parameters as the MMPA, for any species listed on the endangered species list (The Marine Mammal Center, 2019;Lang, 2002;The Marine Mammal Center, 2019). The North Atlantic Right whale is also protected in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) appendix I which is enforced by the United Nations (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], n.d.). CITES, protects the North Atlantic Right whale from international trade between countries involved in the United Nations as an endangered species (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES], n.d.). Thankfully due to this legislation we saved the North Atlantic Right whale from extinction, but their population is estimated at only 300-350 individuals which still categorizes them as an endangered species because there is less than 2,500 mature adults (World Wildlife Federation [WWF], 2019;Endangered Species Categories and Criteria, 2012). We now have to protect this species from a new threat, seismic airgun arrays. Continue Reading

Green Roofs: The Future of Combating UHI

Green roofs add a beautiful shade of natural green to a dull urban environment.

 

Skyler Hall – Plant, Soil, and Insect Sciences

Joseph Lyons – Building Construction Technology Sciences

Anthony Tiso – Pre-Veterinary Sciences

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

NATSCI-387

4.23.2019

HOOK!!!!! Located in Southern California, Los Angeles [LA] is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States and draws in millions of people annually. In 2016 alone, nearly 46 million people visited the city (CBS Los Angeles, 2016). LA is the second largest city in the America, rivaled only by New York City. According to Population USA (2019), in the most recent census survey, Los Angeles has a resident population size of roughly 4 million people and it is estimated that by the summer of 2019 it could potentially rise well over that number. It is predicted that by 2050, the population will have increased by 3.5 million people (World Population Review, 2019). This ever increasing population of the city has a significant impact on cities and the urban environment. Increased buildings lead to higher temperatures through trapped carbon emissions, lack of vegetation, and decreased albedo. All of these factors lead to the Urban Heat Island Effect [UHI]. The urban/city area is significantly warmer than the  surrounding suburban and rural areas. In some cases it was noted that temperatures in major cities could be as much as 22℉ hotter in the evenings compared to the surrounding areas (North Carolina Climate Office, 2019). Continue Reading

Will Oil Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge impact Arctic Ecosystems?

(Porcupine caribou majestically standing its ground against the dangerous oil drilling operations)

Authors: Matt Frey (Animal Science), Cameron Kononitz (Food Science),  Jess Sullivan (Animal Science), and Hannah McCollough (Earth Systems)

In 1980’s, Porcupine Caribou, a herd native to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), held its status as the 6th largest caribou herd in North America and it was projected to continue its vast growth (Clough, et al., 1987). However, those predictions couldn’t have been more wrong. In 1989, it was estimated that the Porcupine Caribou had a population size of 178,000, but since then they have been on a gradual decline dropping by 3.6% yearly from 1989 and 1998 and and show no indication of stopping. In 2001, it was estimated that there were only 123,000 caribou remaining (Griffith, et al., 2002). Continue Reading

Assessing and Combating the Enteric Methane Contributions of Ruminants

Authors: Melissa Bonaccorso (Natural Resource Conservation); Morgane Golan (Animal Science, Pre-Vet); Ben Phaneuf (Building Construction Technology)

In a new effort to better quantify the methane emitted by livestock, researchers are utilizing methane-collecting backpacks on cows.

Most of us have the best intentions when making decisions at the grocery store – we often try to choose what is best for our health, and many of us have environmentalism in mind, as well. It can be difficult to know what is best, and all the contradictory information out there can leave us frustrated and confused. It seems that every few months there is a new set of rules for how we are supposed to eat: vegan, vegetarian, antibiotic-free, gluten-free, cage-free, GMO-free; and when it comes to beef, grass-fed is now all the rage. Unfortunately, if environmental sustainability is your motive, grass-fed beef actually does more harm than good. Ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and goats, are animals that are able to subsist on plant matter because they have a stomach compartment, the rumen, in which microorganisms digest these cellulose products. However, this form of digestion, known as enteric fermentation, comes at a cost. The microbial ecosystem of the rumen generates methane as a byproduct of this fermentation, in a process called ruminal methanogenesis (Lassey 2006). Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas, and is of critical importance because it has a global warming effect that is 28-36 times that of carbon dioxide (EPA). Nearly half of all human-caused methane emissions come from agriculture, and livestock contributes nearly 70% of CH4 emissions from the agricultural sector (Vergé et al. 2008, p.132; Lassey, 2006; Wysocka-Czubaszek 2018). In the context of the US specifically, methane accounts for 10% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, and 26% of these methane emissions comes from enteric fermentation – the second-highest portion next to natural gas and petroleum systems (EPA). While its concentration in the atmosphere is much lower than that of CO2, methane is 20 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide is, and has the potential to contribute 18% of the total expected global warming up to the year 2050, next to carbon dioxide’s 50%  (Milich, 1999). Thus, while CO2 tends to get the most public attention for its contributions to climate change, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas, which calls for more significant consideration.

An average of 30 million animals per year are slaughtered for the beef industry in the US, and an average of 2 million animals, with an additional 3.4 billion pounds of beef, are imported to the US from Canada annually (ERS, 2015). In addition, about 9 million milk cows are active in the US in 2016 alone (statista.com). In all, approximately 20 billion pounds of beef is consumed in the US each year, accounting for approximately half of the American dietary carbon footprint (Waite, 2018). The amount of CH4 emissions from ruminants in 2016 was equivalent to 170 million metric tons of CO2 (Center for Sustainable Systems, 2018). To put these numbers into context, the effect of greenhouse gas emissions produced by annual US beef consumption is equivalent to that which would result from a car driving around the entire Earth 22,000 times (space.com; ewg.org). In response to the severity of methane output via enteric fermentation, the scientific community has become increasingly concerned with identifying resolutions that are considerate of productivity within the agricultural sector, as well as environmental efficiency.

Significant enteric methane production, and the overall increasing trend in GHG emissions by the beef and dairy industries, are symptomatic of a high demands for livestock products (Place, 2016). Many environmentalists and animal-rights activists advocate for a drastic decrease in or even total elimination of beef and dairy consumption in the American diet. Reduction in meat and dairy consumption is certainly linked to a lower personal environmental impact: the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the average meat-eater’s diet are about 1.5 to 2 times those of vegetarians and vegans, respectively (Scarborough, et al. 2014). But most people are resistant to altering their diet in such a radical way, due to a plethora of social and physical barriers; global demand for meat products is actually increasing at a rate faster than land availability can accommodate (Kwan, 2011; Jenkins, 2004; Verge, 2008). In fact, demand for beef and dairy products in the US is expected to increase 70% within the next 36 years (Place, 2016). Although veganism and vegetarianism can help reduce total greenhouse gas emissions, we simply cannot rely on everyone to adopt these lifestyles if we are to make significant changes with haste. In addition, campaigns to reduce meat consumption pose a threat to cattle farmers’ incomes. Harsh restrictions on the beef and dairy industries, or campaigns to reduce the consumption of these products across the nation and world, are both insufficient and would also pose a threat to those whose livelihoods depend on these industries. For these reasons, research teams including veterinarians, environmental specialists and other invested individuals, are collaborating to identify strategies for reducing ruminal methane emissions, without harming invested parties. To minimize the impact of ruminal methane emissions without negatively affecting animal welfare and the livelihoods of stakeholders, we propose the integration of dietary supplements into ruminal feed to naturally inhibit methanogenesis.

One of the most promising methods of reducing ruminal methanogenesis without posing a threat to the industry or the animals is through supplementation of the animals’ diets. Since feed efficiency and methane production are intrinsically linked, ruminants reared on cellulose-based diet, such as those destined to become the beloved “grass-fed” beef, will produce more methane, and for a longer time than they might otherwise, since the cellulose-based diet is not conducive to optimal growth of the animals (Tirado-Estrada et al., 2018). Experts in the field have acknowledged that completely altering the diet of every ruminant on earth is not feasible: grain-based diets can be costly and are often inaccessible (Tirado-Estrada et. al., 2018). It is possible and cost-effective, however, to improve the digestibility of the livestock diet by replacing some of the fiber content with protein-rich concentrates, while still utilizing the typical pasture-based diet. Increasing the digestibility of the diet of dairy and beef cattle can reduce methane emissions in two ways: first, by helping these cows reach market weight sooner, thereby limiting the amount of methane that each cow can produce throughout its life, and second, by inhibiting the process of methanogenesis in the rumen. Any compound with a high protein/low fiber content would be a fine contender for the improvement of the ruminal diet, but those that are naturally sourced, readily available and less costly are most ideal for the animals, the environment, and stakeholders. An excellent option which meets this criteria has been identified: mangosteen peel powder (MSP). Mangosteen peel powder, or Garcinia mangostana, is very highly regarded among animal nutritionists, because it does not negatively affect the crucial microbial populations of the rumen, but can reduce the population of methanogens, the microorganisms most responsible for methane production, by up to 50% in a safe manner (Polyorach et. al., 2016). The utilization of MSP in feed has been found to significantly reduce methane production between 10-25% (Wanapat et al. 2015; Manasri et al 2012; Polyorach et al. 2016). Aside from reducing the population of methanogens, protein-rich plant concentrates present in mangosteen peels, called saponins and tannins, have also been found to minimize the growth and activity of methane-producing protozoa in the rumen, without inhibiting their function entirely (Wallace et al, 2002, Patra 2011). Supplementing the diet with naturally derived plant compounds such as this effectively reduces methane production, and does so without causing significant consequences to the animal’s microbial system or putting the animal at risk for ruminal disease (Patra, 2010).

Dietary additives are already widely used to supplement cattle feed, which makes further supplementation feasible once high-protein supplements, like MSP, are made readily available in the national market. For example, Rumensin is a feed additive that has been used in the cattle industry for over 4 decades (Greenfield et al., 2000). The active ingredient in Rumensin is a coccidiostat, meaning that it is an antibiotic specifically geared at killing coccidiosis bacteria in the animal body. Rumensin is an attractive product because of its prevention and control of disease, as well as its capacity to improve feed efficiency by 4% (“Data on Dairy Science”, 2012). Because of the traction and popularity associated with this feed supplement, which improves productivity while also combating a severe public health crisis, there is potential for MSP to be utilized in a similar manner, with the intent to mitigate the impending public health crisis of climate change.

In anticipation of concerns among farmers and other food animal industry leaders that dietary supplementation would be too costly, it is important to emphasize that methane reduction and productivity are not mutually exclusive; in fact, quite the opposite is true. Dietary manipulation, as a means by which to decrease methane emissions, may also have the attractive quality of improving feed efficiency and animal productivity (Lovett et al., 2003). Protein rich, plant-based supplements are capable of improving milk production and composition, daily weight gain, and feed conversion efficiency (Khan et al., 2015). In other words, with the use of dietary supplements, animals can be brought to their goal weight more quickly while producing higher-quality meat. The inclusion of such methane-inhibiting concentrates has been found to correspond directly with more rapid animal development and increased body weight while potentially reducing enteric methane by up to 40% (Benchaar et. al., 2001, Lovett et al., 2003). The investment in dietary supplements may therefore ultimately result in money saved that would otherwise be spent on longer rearing times to get animals to their goal weight. The inclusion of protein-rich plant concentrates also has the potential to not only decrease enteric methane production but also increase the fat content in milk when included in the diets of dairy cows (Tirado-Estrada et. al., 2018). Integration of protein-dense supplements into the diet may be the most feasible option for increasing productivity while decreasing enteric methane production by dairy and beef cattle. For this reason, dietary supplementation of this sort is considered the most appealing and cost-effective option to motivate farmers to adopt more sustainable practices (Patra, 2010).

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Green Weed, Green Planet

Tyler Clements (Environmental Science), Rudy Marek (Geology), Mitch Maslanka (Natural Resource Conservation), Olivia Santamaria (Horticulture)

In 1996, California voted to become the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use. Fast forward to today, and the legalization of marijuana is now a seemingly unstoppable movement that is sweeping across the United States. With recreational and medicinal use being rapidly legalized all over the country, 29 states have already legalized marijuana medicinally and 9 have recreationally (Robinson, Berk, & Gould, 2018, para. 2). From the start of California legalizing marijuana, this new industry with seemingly endless potential was given the green light to begin at the commercial level. As of 2017, the industry has grown from $6.73 billion to $9.7 billion in North America (Borchardt, 2017, para. 1; Robinson, 2018, para. 6; Zhang, 2017, para. 2). The entrepreneurs of the country began to think of ways to create and expand a marijuana based business and one of the most important aspects of this process was how the marijuana itself was going to be grown. Continue Reading

Hydraulic fracturing: A hope for climate change reduction or a curse?

 

Since the industrial revolution, a substantial percentage of our society relies on energy sources to carry out daily activities. Though energy can now come from renewable sources (e.g., wind, hydro, solar, etc.), the most common way of obtaining energy is through the burning of fossil fuels (e.g., gasoline, coal, oil, and natural gas) in combustion reactions resulting in the production of carbon dioxide, a powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gas (Ophardt, 2000). Greenhouse gases are needed to keep Earth’s atmosphere’s temperature balanced, but if excess gases accumulate in the atmosphere then it increases the temperature of Earth. Since the industrial revolution, increase in human activities have led to exceedingly large carbon dioxide emissions which is now accumulating in our atmosphere warming the planet rapidly. Models have shown that if steps towards climate change are not taken, the Earth could warm up to 2 degrees Celsius which will negatively affect Earth life to a great extent (IPCC, 2013).

While there are different options to obtain energy sources, some of them have harmful effects to our environment. One of the most popular ways to obtain energy is through the burning of coal. Coal based energy production accounts for more than 48% of domestic energy generation in the United States (Bligen, 2014 p. 893). The coal industry in the United States produced 782.4 million tons of coal in 2016 (EIA, 2017, page vii). From mining, to transportation to electricity generation, coal releases a lot of toxic pollutants into the air, water and land. The detrimental effects of coal use range from water pollution to health risks but the broader problem scientists observe is the impact to climate change due to the substantial carbon dioxide emissions. Coal-fired power plants are responsible for one-third of America’s carbon dioxide emissions-about the same as all transportation sources–cars, SUVs, trucks, buses, planes, ships and trains–combined (EPA, 2017, page ES-11). Coal is an important source of energy but it adds a significant amount of carbon dioxide per unit of heat energy more than the combustion of any other fossil fuel. In fact, coal combustion emits more than twice the climate changing carbon dioxide per unit of energy than natural gas production (EIA, 2017, Table #1).

At one point in their lifetime, the average American has used oil as an energy source, indirectly or directly. In addition to coal, the burning of oil has a large impact on our environment. About 40% of the energy consumed in the United States is supplied by petroleum (Bligen, 2010, p. 893). Since the amount of petroleum used varies depending on economics, politics and technology, estimates of carbon dioxide emissions are difficult to predict with certainty. Nevertheless, data has shown that the amount of carbon dioxide released from burning gasoline and diesel fuel was equal to 30% of total U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions (EIA, 2017). In addition to CO2, oil powered plants can also emit particulates NOx and SO2 which are strong gases with direct impact to public health. The economic impact of emissions from oil combustion to public health, including illnesses, premature mortality, workdays lost and direct costs to the healthcare system is equal to 13 cents per kWh (Machol & Rizk, 2013, p. 76).  

Since energy is essential for modern economic and social development, it is crucial that the energy sector look for processes that reduce the negative impacts to our climate. Due to the increased concern over carbon dioxide emissions, natural gas production has increased over the past decade. Natural gas, a combustible gaseous mixture of methane and other hydrocarbons, is used extensively in residential energy; more than half of American use gas for home heating. Natural gas is seen as more climatically beneficial and energy efficient than coal or oil because its combustion produces more energy per carbon dioxide molecule formed than coal (170%) and oil (140%) (Karion et al., 2013, p. 4393).

Conventional natural gas extraction involves retrieving gas from large pools by using natural pressure from wells to pump the gas to the surface (British Columbia). However, conventional gas reservoirs have been depleting, therefore the industry relies on unconventional methods to extract gas from shale rock formations.  Unlike conventional gas, shale gas remains trapped the original rock that formed from the sedimentary deposition of mud, silt, clay, and organic matter on the floors of shallow seas (UCS). Methods of extracting said gas include horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is a process which is used to create cracks in shale rocks to allow air flow.

The rise of shale gas development can be traced back to the 1840s but the first experiment labeled as hydraulic fracturing occurred by late 1940s. By the 1960s companies such as Pan American Petroleum commercialized these techniques. In 1975, former president Gerald Ford promoted the development of shale oil resources as part of the overall energy plan to reduce foreign energy imports (Manfreda, 2015). The increase cost and climatic disadvantages that the oil and coal industry pose led to the sudden boom in the hydraulic fracturing industry. In 2000 shale gas represented 2% of United States natural gas production. By the end of 2016, it topped 60% (Brown, 2014, page 121; EIA, 2017)

Moreover, hydraulic fracturing also poses advantages to the economy in the United States. On average, the cost of gas extracted using hydraulic fracturing is two to three American dollars per thousand cubic feet of gas. This is 50-66 percent cheaper than production from other energy industries (Sovacool, 2014, page 253). Since conventional gas extractions have become more difficult because of depleting sources, natural gas prices could be 2.5 times higher in 30 years if unconventional gas extractions didn’t exist (Jacoby et al., 2012, p. 46). In addition, shale gas development has been proven to increase employment, revenue and taxes in production areas. Production on the Marcellus Shale brought 4.8 billion US dollars in gross regional product, created 57,000 jobs, and generated $1.7 billion in local, state and federal tax collections (Sovacool, 2014, p. 254). These benefits have prompted the United States to promote hydraulic fracturing as the new standard in the energy industry.

The process of hydraulic fracturing is presented to give a better understanding of how hydraulic fracturing works. The first step in hydraulic fracturing is finding a location with a shale rock formation that will produce natural gas. A shale rock formation is made up of fine grade sedimentary rocks that are are compressed into a clay, the shale that is used in fracking is black shale that is rich in organic matter. The  organic matter will undergo heat and pressure and some of it will transform into natural gas. Once the location is found the drilling begins. The drilling is broken into two parts the vertical drilling and the horizontal drilling. The workers first have to drill vertically to a depth around 1,000 feet underground when this is finished a steel casing is inserted into the well so the risk of pollutants won’t spread through the earth’s bedrock and won’t affect groundwater. After the vertical drilling is complete, the horizontal drilling extends out to about 1.5 kilometers through the shale rock formation. After the drilling of the well is completed a specialize performing gunshot is shot which in return creates small holes in the shale formation completing the drilling part of the well (Nacamulli, 2017).

Contrary to popular belief, hydraulic fracturing is not the process of drilling but rather a method used to extract gas after a hole is completed. It is a process that involves injecting water, sand and chemicals at a high pressure into a tight rock formation via a well to stimulate and boost gas flow (Schneising et al., 2014). The propellant in the liquid then goes into the small fractures which keeps them open and allows either the gas or oil to escape from the earth and go up the well and be collected (Schneising et al., 2014). After a well is drilled liquids, such as water and acid, and sand are pumped down the well at high pressures to crack rocks and stimulate shale gas flow. After the shale rock is cracked, the liquid is pumped back to the surface to retrieve the natural gas, this process is known as flowback (Allen et al. 2013). After natural gas is retrieved, the fracking liquid is either pumped back into a separate well and then the well is closed; transported to a water treatment facility or re-used for the stimulation of another well. Recycling the same chemicals with fluid used in new operations contaminates the fluid and creates a more harmful emission the next time around (Nacamulli, 2017). The last step of hydraulic fracturing is the abandonment and plugging of the well. This is done by plugging the well with cement.  

While natural gas does decrease carbon dioxide when used as fuel, there is a concern that the process of fracking leads to massive methane escapes, which is concerning since methane is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). GHGs are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. GHGs from human activities are the most significant driver of observed climate change since the mid-20th century (IPCC, 2013). The problem lies in the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere; if too much is in our atmosphere, then more heat is trapped which leads to the planet warming at an unbalanced state. Models have shown that if society doesn’t take the necessary precautions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Earth could warm up by 2 degrees Celsius which substantially impact Earth life as we know it (IPCC, 2013).

As mentioned before, methane is potent strong greenhouse gas with severe environmental impacts; it has a global warming potential (GWP) of 34 (IPCC, 2013). GWP for a gas is a measure of the total energy a gas absorbs over a particular time period compared to carbon dioxide. The larger the GWP, the more warming the gas causes. Methane has a GWP of 34 meaning that it will cause more warming than carbon dioxide. Methane, however, has a shorter life-time in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide. Atmospheric lifetime refers to the amount of time a gas stays in the atmosphere before it is released into space. Methane stays in the atmosphere for a decade, carbon dioxide however is more difficult to measure because there is a myriad of biological processes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere therefore carbon dioxide can actually stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Carbon dioxide is the focus on climate change reform because of its long atmospheric lifetime but some scientists claim that there is no way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in time. Even with major carbon dioxide reductions, Howarth argues that the planet could reach 1.5 degrees in 12 years and 2 degrees in 35 years (as cited in Maggill, 2016). Since the planet responds much more rapidly to methane, a reduction in methane emissions could potentially slow global warming. In order for hydraulic fracturing to provide a net climatic benefit, methane emissions must be lower than 3.2% (Alvarez, Pacala, Winebrake, Chameides, and Hamburg, 2012, page 6437.  However, studies have shown that methane emissions from operating shale gas formations emit higher percentages of methane than 3.2% (Alvarez et al., 2012; Caulton et al., 2014 ; Karion et al., 2013; Schneising et al., 2014). Methane emissions will continue to increase as fracking grows in popularity therefore reform in technologies need to be made in order to create cost and climatic benefits in energy production.

While fugitive methane leakages at fracturing sites are a recognized concern for climate change, methane emissions and leakage are challenges because they occur at various locations during gas extraction and processing. During flowback, we experience the largest amount of  methane emissions are exhibited. As the fracking liquid comes back to the surface, it brings methane released from the shale. During the flowback period, as much as 3.2% of the total natural gas extracted is emitted into the atmosphere (Howarth, Santoro & Ingraffea, 2011 , p. 681). The methane is either captured by emission control devices or emitted into the atmosphere (Allen et al. 2013). Research has shown that methane emissions from shale gas development might be a result of drilling through coal beds which are known to release large amounts of methane. Popular fracking sites, such as the Marcellus Shale formation, are located over coal beds. Another way methane can leak into the atmosphere is through the transportation of natural gas. As natural gas is transported from the well to the storage containers methane leaks through equipment, typically wells have 55 to 150 connections to equipment and make up nearly 90% of methane emission from heaters, meters dehydrators, compressors and vapor-recovery apparatus. (Howarth et al., 2011, Pg. 683) Researchers observed this by examining the unaccounted gas, which is measured by comparing the volume of gas at the wellhead and the amount of gas that was purchased. The estimate of leakage during this time is estimated at 2.5% of emissions (Howarth et al., 2011 Pg. 684-685). Even though it is difficult to trace methane leakage from hydraulic fracturing to just one stage, all of these leaks could be reduced by improving the equipment used. Research performed has shown that the cement used to prevent leaks from well equipments into the atmosphere fails due to installation and material problems (Ingraffea, Wells, Santoro, & Shonkoff, 2014). Since methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing need to be lower than 3.2%, it is crucial that the industry implement reforms to innovate fracking equipment.

Fortunately, methane leaks from fracking are not impossible to stop, and some states have already implemented stricter regulations in order to minimize them. In 2014 Colorado became the first state in the country to place limits on methane emissions from oil and gas operations (Ogburn et al., 2014). Most methane that is lost from fracking comes from leaks in the well infrastructure as well as leaks in the transportation process. In an effort to reduce methane emissions from fracking, Colorado adopted rules which required operators detect and fix leaks and install devices to capture 95 percent of methane emissions (Marmaduke, 2016). It was believed that nearly every step of the methane harvesting process resulted in some amount of methane leakage. In 2016 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed a rule that was based off of the rule that Colorado had already passed two years earlier. The EPA estimates that theses rules will cut methane emissions by 510,000 tons by the year 2025, which is equal to the amount of greenhouse gases generated by 11 coal fired power plants (Marmaduke, 2016). In the state of Colorado alone, the chief of health estimated that the new rules could cut overall air pollution by 92,000 tons, which is the equivalent of taking every car in the state of Colorado off the road for an entire year (Kroh, 2013). Colorado made significant changes to their emissions standards by requiring all fracking companies to install maximum achievable control technology (MACT). MACT is a set of standards set by the EPA for over 100 categories of different sources of air pollution (West Virginia, 2014). This means that for each of the sources of the pollution the EPA has observed they have set a standard for that source that the company needs to meet. In most cases these standards involve having to install new equipment and machinery that allows less leaks (West Virginia, 2014). In order to install the MACT technology, oil and gas companies will need to be prepared to devote serious financial resources to making it happen. Implementing MACT would force companies to upgrade technology by installing pollution controls, including activated carbon injection, scrubbers or dry sorbent injection, and upgrade particulate controls (Bipartisan, 2013).

The cost of implementing MACT will be high but the costs of climate change are even higher. The cost to implement the technology to meet these standards would be roughly 10.9 billion dollars per year for energy companies that are forced to comply (Bipartisan, 2013). This money would be made up by increasing utility for all customers of companies affected. The EPA estimates that rule would result in an electricity price increase of 3.7 percent and natural gas prices would increase by an average of 0.6 to 1.3 percent (Bipartisan, 2013). This would mean the average natural gas customer would see their yearly bill increase by between $5.95 and $12.90 and the average yearly electrical bill would increase by $49.98 (EIA 2016; Shannon, 2016). By increasing the prices of their customers the companies would be left with a small fraction of the actual cost of the technology and would therefore not have to take on such a financial burden.

The information provided has given use concrete examples and facts about the amount of pollution that’s being emitted into the earth’s atmosphere from fracking. We need to understand   that we need to find a way to make natural gas the great clean energy source that is wanted by many people. Some methane emissions are essential to regulate because of their threat to climate change now and in the future, as we look more for the use of natural gas energy. By understanding the negative impacts of the extraction of natural gas is very important to know how we need to fix the problem of fracking to make fracking clean er and less pollutant. Overall we need to take some emissions present and reduce them to produce natural gas the green energy that is supposed to be. We have seen significant improvements in Colorado act to clean up the methane emissions from fracking.

AUTHORS

Andrea Vázquez – Animal Science

Noah Marchand – Environmental Science

Shawn MacDonald – Geology

 

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Drilling in the ANWR and the Arctic Porcupine caribou problem

Alaska, Caribou, North Slope oil fields, Rangifer tarandus, Porcupine herd, moving past Prudhoe Bay Arctic Drilling Rig, North Slope, Alaska, 1978

The Arctic porcupine caribou has traversed the same migration path for the past 27,000 years. Surviving the last two major glaciations, the Arctic caribou once stood alongside Mastodons, Wooly Mammoths and Sabre-Tooth Tigers, but today they are being threatened (Maher, P., 2017). Chevron, British Petroleum, Arco and Exxon have begun to fight for the land the caribou have called home for decades. These companies want oil. Under the Arctic porcupine caribou, lies huge reserves of crude oil. Completely oblivious of the multi-billion dollar companies vying for the land beneath their hooves, the Arctic caribou teeters on the edge of disaster.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) established in 1960 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, protects the Arctic’s “unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values” (US Fish and Wildlife Service, 2014). The ANWR expanses 19.64 million acres on the northern coastline of Alaska (National Park Service, n.d.). In 1980, this area’s future was solidified as President Jimmy Carter expanded the protection, designating much of it as “protected wilderness” under the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) (“A Brief History of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”, 2017). Protected wilderness, defined as the “wildest of the wild”, is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” (“Why Protect Wilderness”, n.d.). It contains no roads or other kinds of human development. It is the highest level of conservation protection offered by the federal government.

Within ANILCA, Section 1002 mandated a comprehensive assessment of natural resources on the 1.5 million acres of the refuge’s Coastal Plain. This assessment included research into fish, wildlife, petroleum, and the potential impacts of petroleum and gas drilling on the region. Because the ANWR Coastal Plain is discussed in Section 1002 of ANILCA, it is now referred to as the 1002 Area (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, [USFWS] 2014)

Much of what we know today about animal species in the ANWR comes from the ANILCA natural resource assessment. The ANWR is home to an array of 250 species of wildlife, including polar bears, Arctic caribou, grizzly bears, and various species of waterfowl (Alaska Wilderness League, 2017). The ANWR is the only national conservation area where polar bears regularly den and has become increasingly important as polar bear habitat is lost to climate change (Refuge Association, 2017). Birds from the ANWR migrate to every US state and territory, and can be found on 6 continents. The porcupine caribou herd, the largest caribou herd within the ANWR, returns every spring to the Coastal Plain to calve and raise their young (Refuge Association, 2017).

The ANWR porcupine caribou herd is one of the largest caribou herds in the world, with approximately 197,000 members (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2016). The ANWR is the only place on Earth that someone can find a porcupine caribou. The ANWR, home to a network of plains, waters and mountains, provides an environment unlike almost anywhere else. Its unique ecological composition makes it the perfect place for the porcupine caribou to live, raise their young and migrate throughout (“Frequently Asked Questions”, n.d.).

In the spring, the caribou leave their southern habitat and move north to the Coastal Plain of the ANWR. This is the preferred calving, or birthing, ground of the herd. Members of the herd travel anywhere from 400 to 3,000 miles to get to this area. After the caribou give birth in June, the herd remains on the Coastal Plain and forages until mid-July, allowing time for the calves to grow strong enough to journey south (Refuge Association, 2017).

The Coastal Plain is the preferred calving habitat of the porcupine herd for multiple reasons. The Plain has a small population of predators such as brown bears, wolves, and golden eagles. This gives calves a greater chance of survival in their youngest stages. The Coastal Plain also has an abundance of vegetation preferred by Arctic caribou. Vegetation thrives during the caribou calving period, providing pregnant and nursing caribou with the nutrition needed to survive the harsh conditions (Refuge Association, 2017). The ANWR Coastal Plain is the only place that the caribou could raise their young.

For thousands of years, the Gwich’in or “caribou people” of the ANWR have depended on the migrating arctic porcupine caribou for food, clothing, shelter and tools. The Gwich’in culture is so “interwoven with the life-cycle of the herd” that their survival as a people is completely dependent on the caribou (Albert, P., 1994). One fundamental Gwich’in belief is that “every caribou has a bit of the human heart in them; and every human has a bit of caribou heart.” Paul Josie, a member of one of the 13 Gwich’in villages, describes any “threat to the caribou is a threat to us… to our way of life” (Maher, P., 2017). Not only does the caribou satisfy these indigenous people’s spiritual needs, but the hunting and distribution of the caribou meat enhances their social interaction with other tribes in the area. The caribou has become a vital component of the indigenous people’s mixed subsistence-cash economy (Maher, P., 2017).

But the lives of both the porcupine caribou and the Gwich’in people are at risk. Oil development in the ANWR is threatening the migratory and birthing habits of the caribou, which in turn jeopardizes the Gwich’in way of life.

       If the ANWR was to be developed for oil production, it is estimated that 303,000 acres of calving habitat, or 37% of their entire natural calving habitat would be lost to human development (US Department of the Interior, p. 120). Furthermore, studies indicate there is a direct correlation between human development and a decrease in animal habitat quality of the ANWR. In areas within 4 km of surface development, caribou use of the land declined by 52% (Nelleman & Cameron, 1996, p. 26). There is an estimated 1,000 meter disturbance zone around oil wells and a 250 meter disturbance zone around roads and seismic lines (Dyer et al., 2001, p. 531). The most consistently observed behavior in response to these petroleum developments among calving caribou is avoidance of the petroleum infrastructure (Griffith et al., 2002, p. 34). Because the ANWR is currently undeveloped, drilling development would need to be widespread and has the potential to take up huge amounts of land. Roads, barracks, storage structures, well pads, and pipelines would all have to be created. The negative impacts on the caribou from human development would be amplified and enormous.

The human development would force calving caribou to move to other, less nutrient rich grounds outside of the Coastal Plain, but this would be disastrous. Caribou calf survival has been shown to be much lower in areas outside of the Coastal Plain (Johnson et al., 2005). In the late 90’s, snow cover reduced access to the foraging grounds of the Coastal Plain, forcing the Porcupine caribou herd to nearby Canada. When this happened, the calf survival rate of the herd dropped 19% (Griffith et al., 2002, p. 34).

Whether it is a good or bad thing, oil and gas are rooted in Alaskan society; oil drilling built Alaska. Much of what we know today about oil in Alaska comes from the same ANILCA research that looked into the porcupine caribou. Seismic exploration conducted to assess petroleum resources, determined that there are approximately 10.6 billion barrels of petroleum lying beneath the ANWR (U.S. Geologic Survey [USGS], 1998). For context, Alaska’s second largest oil field, Prudhoe Bay, contains only 2.5 billion barrels. (Harball, E. 2017). If drilling were to commence today, the ANWR would contribute about 2% of the total US daily oil production by 2020. By 2030, it would account for more than 10% of the US’s daily oil production. Between the years 2018 and 2030, the US would save $202 billion on foreign oil importation (Harball, E., 2016).

The impact of oil production on Alaska has been massive. Taxation on the North Slope has generated over $50 billion for the state. 80 percent of Alaska’s revenue comes from oil production. Statewide, the oil industry accounts for a third of all jobs, and is currently Alaska’s largest non-governmental industry (Alaska Oil and Gas Association [AOGA], 2017). Oil and gas generate 38% of all Alaskan wages. Even those who do not work in the oil industry benefit from Alaskan oil production. Today, Alaska’s citizens receive anywhere from $1000 to $2000 a year from the Alaska Permanent Fund. The Alaska Permanent Fund, created to ensure “all generations of Alaskans could benefit from the riches of the state’s natural resources” has paid out $21.1 billion to Alaskan residents since 1976. Oil has fueled Alaska’s meteoric rise to prominence, even catapulting the Alaska median household income to the second highest in the country (“Oil Payout”, 2015). If there was no oil, Alaska would be crippled.

A state already facing a $3 billion budget deficit, needs oil to function. With production from the North Slope already on the decline Alaska needs more oil. Alaska needs the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Trans Alaska Pipeline, built to carry crude oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez (the northernmost point in America free of ice), stretches 48 inches in diameter. It was built this way to accommodate the large flow volumes from Prudhoe Bay, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where drilling was expected to begin shortly. At its peak, the pipeline would push almost 2 million barrels of oil a day. Today the pipeline is far below its optimum daily flow, averaging only about 515,000 barrels a day (Brehmer, E,. 2017). Around 1990, the North Slope, which supplies the bulk of the state’s oil production, peaked. Since then, oil production has been steadily decreasing and the flow through the Alaskan pipeline has been falling by 5 percent each year (Wight, P., 2017). With oil production slowing at Prudhoe Bay, the pipeline, and Alaska’s economy is in jeopardy.

With potentially ten billion barrels of oil in the 1002 region, pro-oil politicians throughout America and throughout Alaska call for the necessity to drill. They believe more drilling is the most immediate and easiest solution to the dwindling Alaskan oil production. Lisa Murkowski, the state’s senior senator and the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee responsible for America’s use of natural resources, argues that oil is what has allowed for the development and upkeep of Alaskan “schools and roads and institutions”. She argues that in order to stay relevant and “to stay warm” in the face of a dwindling oil supply, drilling needs to occur in the ANWR (Friedman, 2017).

Murkowski, hoping to work around Section 1002, advocates for using Section 1003 of ANILCA which states “production of oil and gas from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is prohibited and no leasing or other development leading to production of oil and gas from the [Refuge] shall be undertaken until authorized by an act of Congress” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [USFWS], 2014). Section 1003 basically states that ANWR can only be opened for drilling through an act of Congress.

In June, President Donald Trump announced his intention of withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, which is an international treaty focusing on fighting global warming and climate change. While other nations take steps to combat climate change, America’s current presidential administration has committed itself to fossil fuels. Donald Trump, with hopes of lessening America’s oil dependence on foreign governments, has taken up the call to open the 1002 area. The current administration has encouraged legislation that supports domestic energy expansion and has made it clear that they would like to continue America’s tradition of reliance on fossil fuels (Liptak, K., 2017).

Senate discussions led by Senator Murkowski, lean very heavily in favor of opening up the area to drilling. A referendum on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that was recently passed through Senate, authorizes the sale of oil and gas leases in a section of the ANWR. Soon, energy companies will be able to search for, and extract oil and gas from the frozen tundra (Meyer, R., 2017). Murkowski and the Trump administration has made ANWR drilling an almost guaranteed occurrence. With this approval of both the President and the committee chair responsible for natural resources in America, environmentalists need to recognize the real threat.

Environmentalist’s need to shift their focus from not drilling at all, to how drilling can be done in an environmentally conscious way. A practice that has the possibility to satisfy these criteria by reducing the environmental impact of oil drilling is Extended Reach Drilling (ERD). ERD is the practice of drilling non-vertical, very long horizontal wells. Extended reach drilling is a more advanced way to extract oil and is more efficient than traditional vertical well boring. Studies show that the ERD horizontal reach extends twice as far as standard vertical drilling methods (Bennetzen et al., 2010). Whereas standard reach drilling sites can only reach 4 km horizontally, an 8 km well is now considered standard depths for ERD (Finer et al., 2013). With distances of over 8 km being the norm, drill pads can be distanced at 16 km away from each other.  (“Average Depth of Crude Oil and Natural Gas Wells”, 2017) ERD wells reduce the area required to set up and drain oil reserves due to the drills extended radius. There is no need to build large amounts of drill pads to extract every oil reserve within a small area (Finer et al., 2013). Using extended reach drilling can drastically reduce the amount of land disruption caused by vertical drill wells. Habitat fragmentation, normally common around drilling sites, will be drastically reduced. Arctic caribou migration will not be affected as drastically as it would have been with standard reach drilling.

Studies from the Western Amazon have shown that half the drill pads normally used for standard reach drilling will be needed for ERD. Platforms were planned to be placed 8km away from each other, however ERD is capable of doubling that distance. All wells within a 16 km radius, were eliminated from the plan (Finer et al., 2013). The original plan consisted of 66 platforms, but 31 could be eliminated with extended reach drilling (Finer et al., 2013). Implementing ERD sites over standard platforms can save huge expanses of land from being disrupted, which directly translates to lessened environmental impacts to the ANWR.

Reducing infrastructure by using ERD sites will immediately reduce disruption of the land. Each new drilling platform requires approximately 5 to 11 acres of land, with an additional 14 acres for production phase processing stations. For example, Block 67, an area of land in the Western Amazon planned to use non-ERD sites consisting of 3 processing stations and 21 drilling platforms. This would require an environmental footprint of over 1 square kilometer. After implementing ERD sites into this scenario, 18 drilling platforms and one processing facility were eliminated, reducing land disruption by over 75% (Finer et al., 2013). ERD could preserve many acres of land for foraging caribou in the ANWR.

One concern for oil companies is the economic feasibility of using ERD platforms. Because it is a new technology, many companies are wary of its practicality. But Exxon Mobil, a leader in the world of oil production, understands it’s unique benefits. In their Russian Sakhalin-1 Project, Exxon uses ERD because they recognized the importance of the technology. To date, Exxon has drilled 43 of the world’s 50 longest-reach wells (“Extended reach technology”, n.d.). In the California OCS Santa Maria and Santa Barbara-Ventura basins, oil companies are considering using ERD to tap into 16 billion barrels of oil that lies off the California coast (California State Lands Commission [CSLC]). These oil companies would utilize ERD as an “economically and environmentally acceptable alternative” to traditional drilling sites. Fewer wells, reduced noise and air emissions, and the elimination of many new platforms incentivize these companies to use ERD. The long reach would significantly reduce the impact to the marine biology and habitats along the coast (“Oil and Gas Leases”, 2015). There would be minimal adverse effects on the environments, with most of the damage occurring in the marine survey and pre-development stage. When comparing EDR to traditional drilling, the economic benefits are enormous (Bjorklund, 2007).

With the passage of the Tax Cuts and Job Acts by the American senate and Alaska’s fossil fuel reliance, America has to prepare itself for drilling in the ANWR. America needs to understand and familiarize itself with the needs and necessities of the Arctic porcupine caribou. The caribou’s safety and livelihood must stay at the forefront of all drilling development conversations. Drilling needs to occur in the least consequential and most environmentally sustainable way possible. Extended Reach drilling is the answer. By reducing land disruption by 75%, and minimizing habitat fragmentation, ERD is the drilling practice that must be utilized to save the Arctic porcupine caribou. Alaska needs oil and the porcupine caribou need ERD.

AUTHORS

Justin Bates – Geology

Caitirn Foley – Environmental Science

Andrew Rickus – Building and Construction

 

REFERENCES

A brief history of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (2017). Alaskawild.org. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from http://www.alaskawild.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Arctic-Refuge-history-fact-sheet.1-25-17.pdf

Albert, P (April 1994). The Caribou Issue in Canadian-American Relations, Porcupine Caribou Management Board. Retrieved 1 December 2017, from http://arcticcircle.uconn.edu/ANWR/anwralbert1.html

Average Depth of Crude Oil and Natural Gas Wells. (2017). Retrieved November 28, 2017, from https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_crd_welldep_s1_a.htm

Bennetzen, B, Fuller, J., Isevcan, E., Krepp, T., Meehan, R., Mohammed, N., . . . Sonowal, K. (2010). Extended-reach wells. Retrieved November 14, 2017, from https://www.slb.com/~/media/Files/resources/oilfield_review/ors10/aut10/01_wells.pdf

 

Bjorklund, T. (2007). The Case for Using Extended Reach Drilling to Develop California OCS Reserves from Onshore Locations. AAPG Database Inc., Retrieved from http://www.searchanddiscovery.com/documents/2007/07027bjorklund/

 

Brehmer, E., (2017). For the Alyeska team, it’s 40 years down and 40 to go. Alaska Journal of

Commerce, alaskajournal.com. Retrieved on December 1 2017, from

http://www.alaskajournal.com/2017-01-26/alyeksa-team-its-40-years-down-and-40-go#.Wh8cHrT80fF

 

Dyer, S., O’Neill, J., Wasel, S., & Boutin, S. 2001). Avoidance of industrial development by woodland caribou. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 65(3), 531-542. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3803106

Extended reach technology. ExxonMobil. Retrieved on December 2 2017, from http://corporate.exxonmobil.com/en/technology/extended-reach-technology/about/overview

Facts and Figures. (2017). Alaska Oil and Gas Association, aoga.org. Retrieved 14 November 2017, from https://www.aoga.org/facts-and-figures

 

Finer, M., Jenkins, C. N., & Powers, B. (2013). Potential of best practice to reduce impacts from oil and gas projects in the Amazon. PLoS ONE, 8(5), e63022. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0063022

 

Friedman, L. (2017, November 1). An Alaska Senator Wants to Fight Climate Change and Drill for Oil, Too. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/climate/murkowski-alaska-anwr.html?_r=1

Frequently asked questions. Wilderness.nps.gov. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from https://wilderness.nps.gov/faqnew.cfm

Griffith, B., Douglas, D.C., Walsh, N.E., Young, D.D., McCabe, T.R., Russel, D.E.,…Whitten, K.R. (2002). The Porcupine caribou herd. U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, Biological Science Report USGS/BRD/BSR-2002-0001.

Harball, E (2017). Alaska’s 40 Years Of Oil Riches Almost Never Was. npr.org. Retrieved on November 29 2017, from https://www.npr.org/2017/06/24/533798430/alaskas-40-years-of-oil-riches-almost-never-was

Harball, E., (2016). How much oil is really in ANWR?. alaskapublic.org. Retrieved on November 30, 2017, from https://www.alaskapublic.org/2016/12/07/how-much-oil-is-really-in-anwr/

Johnson, C., Boyce, M., Case, R., Cluff, H., Gau, R., Gunn, A., & Mulders, R. (2005). Cumulative effects of human developments on Arctic wildlife. Wildlife Monographs, (160), 1-36. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3830812

Liptak,K., (2017). WH: US staying out of climate accord. CNNpolitics, Retrieved on December 1 2017, fromhttp://www.cnn.com/2017/09/16/politics/trump-paris-climate-deal/index.html

Nellemann, C., & Cameron, R. (1996). Effects of petroleum development on terrain preferences of calving caribou. Arctic,49(1), 23-28. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40511982

Management of the 1002 Area within the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain – Arctic – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2014). Fws.gov. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from https://www.fws.gov/refuge/arctic/1002man.html

Meyer, R., (2017). The GOP Tax Bill Could Forever Alter Alaska’s Indigenous Tribes. The Atlantic, theatlantic.com. Retrieved on December 2 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/12/senate-tax-bill-indigenous-communities/547352/

Oil and Gas Leases. (2015). California State Lands Commission, slc.ca.gov. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from http://www.slc.ca.gov/Info/Oil_Gas.html

Oil Payout: Alaskans find out how much they get (2015). Cbsnews.com. Retrieved on December 1 2017, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/alaskans-eager-to-learn-amount-of-upcoming-oil-payout/

Maher, P (June 2017). Alaska’s Porcupine Caribou Herd – and the People it Helps Sustain. Retrieved on December 1 2017, from https://www.newsdeeply.com/arctic/articles/2017/06/09/alaskas-porcupine-caribou-herd-and-the-people-it-helps-sustain

US Department of the Interior (1987). Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, Coastal Plain Resource Assessment. pubs.usgs.gov, pg 120. Retrieved from https://pubs.usgs.gov/fedgov/70039559/report.pdf

Why Protect Wilderness | Wilderness.org. Wilderness.org. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from http://wilderness.org/article/why-protect-wilderness

Wight, P., (2017). How the Alaska Pipeline Is fueling the push to drill in the Arctic Refuge. Yale Environment 360, e360.yale.edu. Retrieved on December 2 2017, from http://e360.yale.edu/features/trans-alaska-pipeline-is-fueling-the-push-to-drill-arctic-refuge

 

*The arguments/opinions expressed in this entry do not necessarily reflect the opinions/align with the author(s) own views.

What the Frack? Fracking Threatens the Environment With Methane Leakage

(University of Michigan, 2013)

Wellsboro, a rural Pennsylvania town of roughly 3,200 residents, wasn’t doing very well economically (Hurdle 2010). Local farms were heavily in debt, motels frequently had occupancy under 40% outside of the tourism season, and many residents earned $12,000 less each year than the state average (Hurdle 2010). All of that started to change in 2008, when farmers started to receive checks of $375,000 or more, catapulting them back into financial solvency (Hurdle 2010). Then the railroad started to pick up, breaking out of more than 20 years of stagnation and doubling its yearly revenue (Hurdle 2010). Following the increase in rail traffic was a similar increase in traffic on the roads, so much so that residents were concerned the roads wouldn’t be able to take it (Hurdle 2010). Motels regularly filled up during the normally quiet winter and other businesses saw a similar increase in customers (Hurdle 2010). What could have caused an economically insignificant town like Wellsboro to experience such a reversal of fortunes? The answer was simple: fracking.

“Fracking”, a common nickname for hydraulic fracturing, is a relatively new form of unconventional gas production (EPA 2017). By injecting a solution of water and various additives into a wellbore at high pressure, surrounding rock formations are fractured, allowing trapped oil or natural gas to escape (EPA 2017, Allen et al., 2013, p. 17768). Once the initial injection is complete, the naturally pressurized gas flows back to the wellbore (EPA 2017). With the gas comes some of the injected fluid, which may now contain naturally occurring materials such as brines, metals, radionuclides, and hydrocarbons (EPA 2017). This returning liquid is known as “flowback”, and is a waste product that is collected for recycling or disposal (EPA 2017). The flowback is contained to prevent the aforementioned materials and some of the methane gas from escaping into the environment (Allen et al., 2013, p. 17769). After the flowback is dealt with, the natural gas escaping from the wellbore can be captured and later sold. Fracking has allowed the extraction of gas from previously inaccessible rock formations such as tight sandstone, shale, and some coal beds (EPA 2017). Wellbores can be vertically drilled hundreds or thousands of feet underground, and can include additional horizontal drillings that extend thousands of feet to help reach the gas dispersed throughout the rock formations (EPA 2017).

Fracking is only a problem insofar as it is an imperfect solution to a larger issue. That larger issue is how to generate energy without further increasing our contribution to climate change. This desire for cleaner fuel sources has made natural gas more attractive, and the increased demand has been met by wider use of fracking. The demand is so great that 91 to 273 additional wells have to be drilled every year just to maintain current production of natural gas (Stephenson et al., 2011, p. 10760). The economic and environmental benefits provided by fracking have been the driving force behind the increased popularity of fracking.

Fracking provides many two main economic benefits: creating jobs and economically producing natural gas. From 2007 to 2012, employment in the U.S. private sector grew by a measly 1%, while the oil and natural gas sector grew by a whopping 40% (U.S. EIA, 2013). This amounted to a total of 725,000 jobs nationwide, cutting unemployment by half a percent during the recession (Reuters, 2015). Most of these jobs were created near where the gas was extracted, at a rate of roughly 2.5 jobs per million dollars of gas extracted (Reuters, 2015). The majority of these jobs were within 100 miles of new natural gas production, with some directly involved in producing the gas, and some indirectly assisting (Reuters, 2015, U.S. EIA, 2013). Jobs for drilling wells increased only marginally, with most of the overall increase being in the areas of extraction and support (U.S. EIA, 2013). As shown by the data, fracking has a significant impact on employment, making it a promising source of energy.

The increased production of natural gas caused by fracking has had many positive economic effects. One of the most stunning effects is that the U.S. now produces 97% of its natural gas needs (U.S. EIA, 2017). This has resulted in net imports of natural gas declining by roughly 3 trillion cubic feet from 2005 to 2016 (U.S. EIA, 2017). In fact, the U.S. is expected to export as much as 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year by 2025 (Sieminski, 2014). For now, the natural gas produced by the U.S. is used domestically, mostly for power generation and in the industrial sector (Sieminski, 2014). This is particularly visible in the Northeastern United States, where electricity generation from natural gas has increased by more than 10 million kWh in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey (U.S. EIA, 2017). With domestic natural gas prices in 2017 being almost universally lower than they were in 2011 (U.S. EIA, 2017), it’s only logical that bulk users of fuel like power plants would switch to take advantage of the sudden windfall. While normally the decrease in operating costs for power plants caused by fracking would be solely of benefit to the economy, this also benefits the environment.

Prices of natural gas in the U.S. are heavily dependent on how much gas can be extracted from shale formations economically (U.S. EIA, 2012). In 2005, near the start of the fracking boom, natural gas prices began to decline rapidly (U.S. EIA, 2012). This trend continued into 2016, with prices plummeting to half of what they were in 2011 (U.S. EIA, 2012). There can be no doubt that fracking is responsible for the current glut of natural gas, with two locations exemplifying this; The Barnett shale in Texas and the Marcellus shale in the Northeast United States. The trends in these areas are mirrored across the U.S., with natural gas from shale and tight formations making up at least 50% of national natural gas production in 2010 (Sieminski, 2014). In Texas horizontal drilling in the Barnett shale has exploded from less than 400 wells in 2004 to over 10,000 by 2010 (U.S. EIA, 2011). These horizontal wells are responsible for roughly 90% of the natural gas production of the entire Barnett shale, despite only making up 70% of productive wells in the region (U.S. EIA, 2011). In the Northeast U.S. the Marcellus shale has provided so much cheap gas that power plants have increased their use of natural gas by 20%, making natural gas responsible for 41% of power generation in the region by 2016 (U.S. EIA, 2017). This has mostly come at the expense of coal, which in New York and Connecticut has seen a 90% decline from 2006 levels (U.S. EIA, 2017). In addition to the increased availability of natural gas, environmental policies such as tax credits and mandates to reduce CO2 emissions have made natural gas increasingly attractive compared to coal (U.S. EIA, 2017). Despite prices in 2012 being 30% lower than the previous year, the only coal that increased in production was high-sulfur coal that is compatible with CO2 reducing scrubbers (U.S. EIA, 2013). Similarly, in 2012 cheap natural gas was so abundant that carbon dioxide emissions from coal burned for power generation decreased to levels not seen since 1984 (U.S. EIA, 2013). While electricity sales declined by only 1% nationally from 2006 to 2016, total CO2 emissions from energy generation fell by roughly 10% (U.S. EIA, 2013, U.S. EIA, 2017). This is due to the fact that the main component of natural gas is methane (CH4) (Teasdale et al., 2014), and methane releases roughly 50% as much carbon as coal when burned (U.S. EIA, 2017). By replacing carbon intensive coal with cleaner natural gas in the energy sector, less total carbon has been emitted despite overall production remaining roughly the same (U.S. EIA, 2013, U.S. EIA, 2017). In 2015 when emissions from coal and natural gas in the energy sector were nearly equal, natural gas produced 80% more electricity than coal, clearly cementing natural gas as the less carbon intense fuel (U.S. EIA, 2017). By providing more energy at a similar or even lesser cost to coal, natural gas is paving the way for an energy-secure future with less carbon emissions.

While natural gas has been shown to cause less carbon dioxide emissions than the coal it is replacing, it brings with it a new problem, that of methane leakage.  Methane emissions are a concern because methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas.  Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. The overall impact each gas has on global climate change depends on the the amount of time it stays in the atmosphere, overall quantity of it in the atmosphere, and how strongly it absorbs energy (EPA, 2017). Using these factors, greenhouse gases are compared using a unit of measurement known as the Global Warming Potential (GWP) (Forster, 2007., p. 210). GWP is standardized to be comparative to carbon dioxide, so a gas with a GWP of 2 has twice the effects of an identical amount of carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere (Forster, 2007., p. 210). The GWP of methane is 72 for a period of 20 years, and 21-25 for a period of 100 years (Forster, 2007., p. 212), so we can see it has a much larger impact on trapping heat than carbon dioxide. While methane only has a lifetime of 12 years, the indirect effects it can have on other compounds allow it to do damage long after its initial release (Forster, 2007., p. 212). With natural gas and petroleum systems making up the largest energy-related methane emissions source in the U.S., something needs to be done to control their emissions (EPA, 2017).  

For overall emissions coming from fracking, Allen et al. (2013) found that natural gas production emits about 2.3×1012 grams of methane, which comprises of 0.42% of gross gas production (Allen et al., 2013, p. 17772).  Of the total emissions, Omara et al. (2016) compared methane emission rates from conventional (vertical drilling for reservoirs that have high permeability) and unconventional (horizontal drilling for low-permeability sources, such as shale) natural gas extraction wells.  The authors found that unconventional wells (850 to 9.29×104 g/h) generally emitted higher amounts of CH4 than conventional wells (20 to 4480 kg/h) (Omara et al., 2016, 2102).  Considering natural gas’s comparatively massive GWP, total leakage from fracking systems must be less than 3.2% to have net environmental benefits over coal, a notoriously dirty fuel (Alvarez et al., 2012, p. 6437). Consensus in scientific literature shows that fracking in the United States has leakage rates between 3% and 17%, meaning we have likely already passed the point where natural gas provides benefits (Caulton et al., 2015, pg. 6240, Jiang et al., 2011, p. 7, Karion et al., 2013, p. 4396).  Coupling the rise in demand of fracking with the rapid decrease of well productivity after the first year (Stephenson et al., 2011, p. 10760), new wells are constantly needing to be drilled.  This means methane emissions from fracking will continue to increase, and we will continue to stray further from the environmental benefits fracking was originally thought to have if nothing is done about these emissions (Schneising et al., 2014).

Fracking can be broken into four phases: pre-production, drilling, fracturing, and well completion (Jiang et al., 2011).  Of all the stages, well completion has the greatest methane emissions.  During this process, methane can be emitted through flowback, the recovery of the liquids, if it is not sent to emission control devices (Allen et al., 2013, p. 17769).  Allen et al. (2013) measured a range of about 1.0×104 grams to 1.7×107 grams in methane emissions, with a mean of 1.7×106 grams.  Emissions this high should be addressed.

Further compounding the problem is the fact that inventory estimates of methane leaks are almost universally undervalued (Goetz et al., 2015, Caulton et al. 2015). This is partially due to the difficulty of locating the sources of these leaks (Teasdale et al., 2014). Having official estimates of leakage rates chronically lower than actual rates presents a false picture to the public, making continued fracking seem more viable than it may actually be. More than with almost any other energy source, accurately measuring leak rates and continuously working to reduce them is a critical part of making fracking an economically and environmentally viable energy source. Because of these higher emissions, many environmentalists believe fracking should be gotten rid of altogether.  However, as mentioned previously, when fracking is done right with technology controlling its methane emissions, it has the potential to be a more environmentally friendly source of energy than coal by emitting less carbon dioxide (U.S. EIA, 2013, U.S. EIA, 2017).  This, and the fact that it provides jobs (Reuters, 2015, U.S. EIA, 2013) and lowers the cost of natural gas (U.S. EIA, 2012) is enough reason as to why we should not disregard fracking.

There needs to be solution to fracking’s methane emissions, so that it can meet its potential as an energy source.  Allen et al. (2013) measured methane emissions significantly lower than the EPA’s measurements from the national emissions inventory because 67% of the wells that were in the study sent methane to control devices rather than releasing it to the atmosphere, which brought their emissions significantly down (p. 17770).  One of the most efficient methods to stop the problem of methane leakage from a fracking site is the vapor recovery unit, better known as VRU. VRUs work with the storage tanks, which store emissions from flowback, on a franking site. Storage tanks on fracking sites without VRUs vent approximately 21 billion cubic feet of gas per year (Harvey, 2012). The storage tanks are used to store the natural gas that has been collected throughout the fracking process. VRUs work to remove methane vapors that build up in the tank. Without VRUs methane can be get lost in the atmosphere when the gas is added to the tank, and when the gas is being removed from the tank (Harvey, 2012). The VRU system works by analyzing the pressure in the tank and when it reaches a set point the gas goes through a gas vent line and into the VRU machine .Within the VRU machine the gas is filtered through a scrubber where the liquid trapped is returned to the liquid pipeline system or to the tanks, and the methane recovered is pumped into gas lines (Changnet, 2008).

VRUs may be the answer to the methane leakage problem, as they can capture up to 95% of methane that would have leaked into the atmosphere from the storage tanks of a fracking site that does not use one (Harvey, 2012). The gas company Encana has a site in Wyoming that installed a VRU in order to reduce methane emissions. The VRU machine has shown to reduce 80% emissions in the past four years (Sider, 2014).

Using this machine will not only reduce most of the methane released, it could also save gas companies thousands of dollars in the long run. The methane gas that is filtered into the VRU can potentially be harvested and used for profit.  Anadarko Petroleum Corporation reported that at peak capacity their VRU were able to capture 25 million cubic feet of gas per day. At this rate the company was able to make $18,262 off the VRU alone in one year (Harvey, 2012). Gas companies that are using VRU systems have reported that they have been extremely beneficial when it comes to the payback. The gas producing company ConocoPhilips had installed a VRU system onto 9 tank batteries on one of their sites. This in total cost the company $712,500, however it did not take long for that money to be worth the investment. In just four months the VRU were able to bring the company enough profit to refund this payment. After that every month the VRU brought the company $189,000 (Harvey, 2012).

In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, which mandates reductions in various harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC). The act covers many aspects of VOC emissions, but fracking sites continue to emit methane which is harmful to the environment. This brings us to our proposal. If the EPA implemented stricter regulations on methane emissions in the Clean Air Act, companies would be forced to adopt various technologies, VRUs being one of them, in order to meet EPA regulations. In turn, the nation could stay away from relying on coal while minimizing harm to the environment from fracking. Methane emissions from fracking are indeed an issue, and something needs to be done to reduce them.

Certain drilling sites in Montana, Colorado, and Utah have already adopted this technology (EPA, 2014). This is the result of competition between fracking companies who aim to make their sites less harmful to air quality (Biello, 2010). In fact, mandatory Stage I and Stage II vapor recovery systems are a direct result of the Clean Air Act. These systems can be found at gasoline dispensing facilities (GDF), known to all of us simply as the gas stations that dot various roadways. Whenever gasoline is transported or pumped from one container to another, VOCs naturally escape into the atmosphere. Since GDFs can be found in many locations, harmful amounts of VOCs can be emitted into the atmosphere due to the frequency of oil tankers delivering fuel to GDFs and consumers refueling their automobiles. Stage I vapor recovery systems refer to when oil tankers deliver gasoline to various GDFs, and Stage II refers to when consumers refuel their automobiles. When consumers refuel their automobiles at GDFs, VOCs that would normally escape into the atmosphere are returned to the underground gas reservoirs at these GDFs. When oil tankers refill these reservoirs, the trapped VOCs are returned to the oil tankers (PEI, 2017). These regulations have invariably had an incredible impact on VOC emissions in the following years. The EPA shows that since 1970, VOC emissions have dropped from approximately 12 grams per vehicle mile travelled, to 2 (EPA, 2017). This shows that on a federal level, technology can be successfully and widely adopted in order to improve air quality at the expense of energy companies. If it can be done for petroleum, why can’t it be done for natural gas?

In order to reduce humanity’s impact on climate change, we should take the necessary steps to reduce GHG emissions.  While hydraulic fracturing is not the largest source of methane emissions, any chance to reduce emissions should be taken advantage of. There are a wide variety of ways one could reduce emissions from fracking, but not all of them are realistic. Flaring is already a common practice in the industry, but why burn off a useful gas when you can harness its potential? When a solution such as VRUs is readily available, why not utilize it?  They have a high efficiency of reducing emissions, and provide an opportunity for companies to profit from the captured methane.  We see VRUs already being implemented at certain sites across the country, and government-mandated implementation of vapor recovery technology is already present in gas stations, so it seems reasonable to do the same for fracking sites. And with the ever growing need for energy in our industry-driven world, and a steadily decreasing amount of natural gas, shouldn’t we harness all that we can, and protect our world while we’re at it?

AUTHORS

Hillary Wilcox – Animal Science Major

Mikhaela Flynn- Environmental Science Major

Sean Mulvaney – Natural Resource Conservation Major

Winsten Chen- Natural Resource Conservation Major

 

REFERENCES

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Dealing with Coal Mining Effects

In an area of lush green wildlife and rolling mountains, disaster plagues the lives of many who live in the Adirondack area. Not only does mountaintop removal destroy the beautiful landscape that many residents treasure, but it leaves these people with alarming conditions everyday. Maria Gunnoe of Bobwhite, West Virginia, raised by a coal mining family and left land to raise her own family on, lives in constant fear of a disaster waiting to happen. Due to a mountaintop removal project launched in 2000, Maria’s property flooded 7 times in 3 years, even washing away the access bridge to her street and the family’s dog. Because of the threatening conditions, Maria has stated that her children go to sleep prepared to be ready at a moment’s notice to leave their house whenever heavy rain ensues. Now living in a community wrecked by land degradation and poverty, Maria cannot afford nor find anyone to buy her property and cannot provide her family with simple resources, such as clean water (Palone, 2013). Rather than fleeing and giving her community over to the coal companies, Maria is a leader in the movement to end mountaintop removal and organizes to strengthen legislation that is supposed to protect her rights. “This is absolutely against everything that America stands for. And I know that we have better options than this. We do not have to blow up our mountains and poison our water to create energy. I will be here to fight for our rights. My family is here, we’ve been here for the past 10 generations, and we’re not leaving. We will continue to demand better for our children’s future in all that we do” (Mountain Heroes: Maria Gunnoe, 2012, p. 1).

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The Effects of Offshore Oil Drilling in the Arctic on Marine Ecosystems and Wildlife

Kalynn Kennedy – Sustainable Horticulture

Keegan Burke – Natural Resources Conservation

Gabrielle Green – Pre-Veterinary Science

Annie Le – Pre-Veterinary Science

Fish products and crude oil exportation are multibillion dollar industries in the United States. Within the month of August of this year, the United States generated approximately 657 thousand barrels of crude oil on a given day (US Energy Information Administration, 2016, figure 2). While drilling is highly important in creating exportation revenue and domestic supply, it also harms marine ecosystems through means of biodegradation, the breakdown of material in the environment. The fate of marine wildlife, the animals and plants that rely on the sea for their survival, is at the hands of oil-drilling companies. Continue Reading