New Greenhouse Gas Data: Carbon Creeping Up and Methane Still Underestimated

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday released its annual report on greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s largest sources of pollution, revealing that we still have enormous progress to make in cutting carbon.

The big bombshell was that in 2013, greenhouse gas emissions actually increased.  That’s right, increased.  Not only that, but the increase was tied to increased coal burning.

It’s a shameful reminder of how the fossil fuel industry continues to dig our nation deeper into climate debt.  With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calling for a 40-70% reduction in carbon emissions below 2010 levels by mid-century, the last thing we need is an increase in emissions.  It underscores that the fossil fuel industry’s resistance to limiting its pollution needs to be countered more fiercely than ever if we have any hope of making progress.

This is especially the case with regards to methane.  Sure, the EPA yesterday hyped its claim that methane emissions from fracking have decreased 73% since 2011.  But as Bobby Magill at Climate Central noted, the agency’s report fails to fully account for methane leaks at oil and gas wells, which studies have found can approach 12% in some regions.

What’s more, EPA’s data relies on a faulty assumption that methane has a global warming potential of 25.  The global warming potential is a measure of how potent a greenhouse gas is compared to carbon.  Yet as we reported before, the latest findings from the IPCC indicate that over a 20-year timeframe, methane actually has a global warming potential of 86.

In other words, the world’s leading body of climate scientists say that one ton of methane equals 86 tons of carbon dioxide.

For EPA’s report, it means that estimates of carbon dioxide equivalency associated with methane are more than half a billion metric tons too low, an error of 70%.  The EPA may be correct that there was a reduction in methane since 2011, but with such grossly inaccurate emissions reported, it seems like the hole we’re trying to dig out of is just getting deeper (this is confirmed by the latest studies finding that more fracking for gas not only won’t reduce carbon emissions, but will also undermine renewable energy).

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Total methane emissions reported by EPA in 2013 and carbon dioxide equivalency based on a global warming potential of 25 and 86. The difference is more than half a billion tons of carbon.

Another bombshell is that underground coal mine methane emissions increased by nearly 25% between 2012 and 2013.  The industry reported methane emissions equal to 41 million metric tons of carbon in 2013 (of course, with a global warming potential of 86, it would actually be more than 141 million metric tons).

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Coal mine methane emissions increased by nearly 25% between 2012 and 2013.

No matter how you slice it, though, the data shows that coal mines are responsible for nearly 20% of all methane emissions in the U.S., a staggering figure.

In case you’re wondering, where these gassy coal mines are located, the majority are in Appalachia, but a few mines in the West–namely the San Juan mine in northwestern New Mexico, the Westridge mine in Utah, and Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in Colorado–made the top 20.  The top emitter, the Walter Energy mine in Alabama, reportedly released nearly 5 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.  That’s more than an average coal-fired power plant.   Here’s the full list of gassy mines >>  

More than anything, the latest greenhouse gas reporting data confirms that we can’t afford to delay carbon reductions.  It’s why last week, WildEarth Guardians joined a coalition of organizations in calling on the Obama Administration to stay firm in its commitment to curtail methane from oil and gas operations, and it’s why we’re digging in more aggressively than ever on our challenges to more coal mining and burning, and more fracking, in the American West.

We have major challenges ahead, but also major opportunities.  It’s time to step it up.

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The San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico is fueled by the San Juan coal mine, one of the top emitters of coal mine methane in the United States. WildEarth Guardians just filed an opening brief in federal court to stop an expansion of this mine.

Climate March Makes History; Fossil Fuel Ban is the Future

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Marching in front of the Museum of Natural History so that we can have a natural future.

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A bunch of smart kids that realize their future depends on what we do now on fossil fuels.

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Among the thousands of voices, Guardians made sure the role of public lands was part of the message.

On September 21st, 400,000 people marched in New York City to tell U.S. and world leaders that we want strong action to stop global warming, and we want it now. It was the largest political march in the U.S. in over a decade and by far the largest march on the climate issue ever.

 

In addition to its absolutely massive size, the march was unique for bringing so many voices together. Along with the rich and famous were peasants from Bangladesh and the impoverished from the Bronx. Climate was recognized as a gender issue, a class issue, a race issue, and an intergenerational equity issue.

 

WildEarth Guardians was there to make sure people understand that global warming is also a public lands issue. One-quarter of the fossil fuels produced in this country, coal, oil, and gas, comes from our public lands, including National Forests and National Wildlife Refuges. Yet scientists tell us that we need to lock down two-thirds or more of the remaining fossil fuels; to burn them would destroy our future. The best place to start that lock-down process is on our public lands and the way to do that is to end all future federal leasing of public lands fossil fuels to the coal, oil, and gas industries, both onshore and offshore. It is our carbon and we need to keep it in the ground. That would represent real leadership and is just what we need right now.

Tim Ream is WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Campaign Director.                  Follow him @ourcarbon.

Decorative Coal Landscaping? Anyone?

Coal is mined for one reason:  to be burned.

It’s not used for decorative landscaping.  It’s not used for building material.  It’s certainly not used for jewelry.  Whether it’s for power (the primary use) or industrial purposes (steel, cement, etc.), the bottomline is, coal is mined to be burned.

So it was curious, if not utterly bizarre, to see the U.S. Interior Department’s latest response to concerns over the environmental impacts of authorizing more coal mining in northwestern Colorado.  That response?

“Combustion of the coal is too speculative.”

Too speculative.  In other words, according to the Interior Department, even though coal is mined for one reason and one reason alone–to be burned–it is too speculative to conclude that more coal mining will lead to more coal burning.

This has to be the most purposefully incompetent, willfully ignorant, and deliberately reckless responses to public concerns over coal burning.

And sadly, it gets worse.

The decision at issue is a new coal lease for Peabody Energy’s new Sage Creek coal mine in northwestern Colorado.  As I’ve blogged about before, Sage Creek is intended to fuel Xcel Energy’s nearby Hayden power plant.  Peabody is gunning for a federal coal lease to lock in the mine as a long-term source of coal for Hayden and potentially even for export to Europe.

Last fall, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency charged with managing federal coal, proposed to auction off a new coal lease for Peabody to complete its Sage Creek mine.  Before doing so though, the agency had to analyze the environmental impacts of the new coal lease and solicit public input.

WildEarth Guardians responded.  And, of course, we called on the Bureau to address the fact that the coal from the Sage Creek mine would not only be burned in the nearby Hayden power plant, but fuel more coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and possibly abroad, leading more greenhouse gases and other harmful air pollution.

It goes without saying that more coal leasing means more coal mining, which of course means coal burning.  So, it also goes without saying that the Bureau of Land Management has a duty to address these impacts and perhaps temper its decision to better protect our health and the environment.

At least, that’s what we thought.

Because when the Bureau finally responded to our comments, it wasn’t a thoughtful analysis of environmental impacts or a meaningful effort to, perhaps, minimize the global warming impacts of its coal leasing decision.  No, it was this:

“Combustion of the coal is too speculative.”

Read for yourself on page 63 of their Environmental Assessment (or see the bottom of page 25).

The disconnection from reality is stunning.  Even Peabody has said coal from Sage Creek is intended to be a long-term fuel source for the Hayden coal-fired power plant, and has invested millions to make it happen and is locking in contracts as I write.

We know the U.S. Interior Department refuses to admit that its coal leasing and mining decisions have any greenhouse gas implications, but this latest claim–that combustion of Sage Creek coal is speculative–takes the cake.

This isn’t just an agency that’s avoiding responsibility, it’s an agency that’s demented.

Because if coal from the Sage Creek mine in Colorado isn’t burned, perhaps the Interior Department thinks it’s going to be used for decorative landscaping.  Or maybe building material.  Or maybe jewelry.

We can only hope.

In the meantime, that’s f-ing crazy.
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Coal mining…for decorative landscaping?

ClimateWest Podcast: Reaching out from the Rhetoric

Listen to the first ClimateWest podcast by WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Program Director, Jeremy Nichols.  Click below:

It’s unfortunate.  Apparently an anti-environmental front group called the Western Colorado Jobs Alliance, which apparently was founded by Jon Anderson, an attorney at Holland and Hart in Denver, is running ads like the one below in western Colorado newspapers:

I don’t even know where to begin with this ad, except to say, really?  Making money by closing off forests?

The reality, though, is that this front group’s ad campaign isn’t about stoking robust discussion about facts or reality, it’s about scaring people with made up stories.  These ones are borderline comedy and could almost be mistaken as an Onion article.  Despite the outlandishness, they have prompted some calls.

But what’s really heartening about all this is that WildEarth Guardians has received more positive feedback from folks in western Colorado in response to these ads.  It seems like every time one of these ads runs, we get more positive e-mails and phone calls from folks telling us to keep it up.  We’ve even gotten a few new members out of this.  Take this little bit of encouragement I recently received from someone in Delta County:

I thought I’d send a message as well-KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK! I don’t think for a minute that you are costing anyone any jobs, but you are obviously causing some wingnut discomfort, so in my book you must be doing something right.

But while you just have to shake your head at how low some attorneys can get, I say why not take advantage of the opportunity to reach out to folks.  Like the guy who called me today (the nice one).

Look, I’m not on a mission to convince everyone that I’m somehow right.  I’d just like to at least take the opportunity to try to convince some folks that I’m someone who cares about things just like they do.  We may disagree on the best way to protect our clean air, water, wildlife, or even disagree about our energy future, but can’t we at least put rhetoric aside for a minute and actually talk about how to solve problems?   The way I see it, at least we could have enough respect for each other as human beings that we could actually have a reasonable discussion.

We’ll see how things shake out.

In the meantime, this latest ad has to be one of the most confusing given that the timber industry in Colorado just got a massive break.  Several companies were recently allowed to simply walk away from unprofitable timber contracts with the Forest Service.  The reason?  The Forest Service wants to make it easier for them to log in Colorado.

Of course, this raises all sorts of questions–like is it smart to throw so much taxpayer money away for the timber industry, or will letting logging companies out of their contracts actually do anything to boost their bottomline, or will logging even have an impact on the beetle infestation in Colorado?  But these are questions for another blog altogether.

Suffice to say, I don’t think “radical environmentalists” are much of a problem for the timber industry or Colorado’s forests.

Clean Air to be Protected from Drilling

At long last, the EPA rolled out its proposed rules to curb air pollution from oil and gas drilling nationwide, promising major improvements for public health, the environment, and major progress toward protecting the climate.

In a few words, they’re a drastic improvement and a major milestone.  Check out the highlights:

  • The proposed rules would generate a net savings of $30 million annually due to increased recovery of methane, otherwise known as natural gas.  In other words, the rules would not only cost nothing to implement, but they would actually make money.
  • The proposed rules would reduce volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions by 540,000 tons, an industry-wide reduction of 25%.  VOCs react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog and contain other toxic compounds.
  • The proposed rules would reduce methane emissions by 3.4 million tons, which is equal to 65 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, a reduction of about 26%.   This will be like eliminating the carbon dioxide emissions of 15 coal-fired power plants.  That is huge progress for the climate.
  • The proposed rules would reduce toxic air pollutants, such as benzene, a known carcinogen, by 38,000 tons, a 30% reduction.

The rules are long time coming and actually only came about after WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit over the EPA’s failure to review and update these rules as required by the Clean Air Act (you can read the full 600 page set of proposed rules here, enjoy!).

You see, federal regulations set an important floor for environmental protection in this country.  States, who implement the Clean Air Act, have to ensure their safeguards are as strong federal rules.  In this case, rules limiting air pollution from the oil and gas industry were last adopted as far as back as 1985.

The latest proposal is sorely needed and promises to raise the floor of federal protection considerably from Wyoming to West Virginia and everywhere in between.  The proposed rules not only strengthen limits on toxic air pollution, but ensure that the hydraulic fracturing of wells–which is a major source of VOC emissions–is fully regulated.

There are shortcomings.  The rules do not explicitly regulate methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  WildEarth Guardians and others estimated that a full suite of methane controls could save more than $1 billion annually.  Still, even with the VOC controls, the rules would reduce methane emissions by more than 20% from the oil and gas sector, which itself is the largest source of methane in the United States.  That’s amazing news for the climate.

And of course, let’s be clear that cleaner natural gas is not the solution to our nation’s energy needs.  However, if we start to make progress toward exposing the clean air impacts of drilling and to at least hold industry accountable to protecting our health and well-being, we can make some major strides to ensure renewable energy and other cleaner sources of energy comes out ahead as the most desirable solution.

In the meantime, we can all start to breathe a lot more easily.  The EPA really did its job on this one and for that, I’d like to extend a big thanks.

Check out the video we put out when reached our settlement with the EPA.  Our hopes came true, they came through for clean air!