Time for EPA to Come Clean on Methane

It’s only Wednesday and it’s already been a busy week on the issue of methane, a  greenhouse gas that’s like carbon on steroids and is released extensively in the production of fossil fuels:

  • There’s been ongoing coverage of our court victory last Friday overturning Arch Coal’s plans to expand its West Elk mine and in the process vent massive amounts of methane.  That ruling invalidated a U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management approval of Arch’s plans on the basis that the costs of carbon pollution, including the costs of venting methane gas, were ignored, a big victory for the climate.
  • And this week, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that newer gas wells being drilled into Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale are leaking more methane than wells drilled into other formations.  The study has major implications for shale oil and gas drilling and fracking across the nation, which is fast taking hold as the predominant form of oil and gas development.  Indeed, we just commented this week on the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to allow 5,000 wells to be drilled into the Niobrara shale formation of eastern Wyoming.

DSCN0711

Methane venting well at Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in western Colorado (click to see more pictures of what methane venting at coal mines looks like, including this video of methane venting in action)

There’s a lot going on around methane, but what’s disturbingly not being discussed is how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (and apparently other federal agencies, for that matter) are downplaying, if not covering up, the climate impacts of methane emissions.

Certainly, everybody recognizes that methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but what seems to be obfuscated is exactly how potent it is.

The measure of a greenhouse gases potency is also called its global warming potential.  In the case of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency has for many years universally presumed a global warming potential of 21, meaning that for one part of methane equals 21 parts of carbon dioxide.  But studies are consistently confirming that this estimate is too low, particularly when assessing the short-term climate impacts of methane emissions.

In fact, while studies are finding that over a 100-year period, the global warming potential of methane is more than 30 times that of carbon dioxide, they’re finding that in the short-term, methane may be as much as 105 times more potent than carbon as a greenhouse gas.

More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (often referred to as the IPCC), probably the most authoritative (even if somewhat cautious) scientific body that is synthesizing climate information for policymakers and the public, reported methane global warming potentials under two scenarios:  the first, where climate carbon feedback is not accounted for the second, where it is.  The climate-carbon feedback factor refers to the fact that as carbon creates more warming, more greenhouse gas emissions are released.  For example, as permafrost melts, more methane is released from Arctic tundra.

Taking into account climate-carbon feedback (which is more reasonable and accurate given the very real feedback impacts of greenhouse gas-fueled warming), the IPCC reported in their most recent synthesis of climate science that methane’s global warming potential is 34 over a 100-year period and 86 over a 20-year period (you can download their report at climatechange2013.org at p. 714).  Below is the table showing the IPCC’s reported global warming potentials.

Global Warming Potential Over 20 Years Over 100 Years
Without Climate-Carbon Feedback

28

84

With Climate-Carbon Feedback

34

86

In spite of these findings, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to assume that methane’s potency is only 21 times that of carbon dioxide.

For instance, in the agency’s latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks in the United States, which was released in April and presents 2012 data, they rely on a global warming potential of 21 (see their Executive Summary at p. ES-3).  In doing so, they report that coal mines and oil and gas operations (the fourth and first largest sources of methane in the U.S., respectively) release the equivalent of 222 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (total of 10.57 million metric tons of methane).

Yet, based on a global warming potential of 86, total carbon dioxide emissions due to methane from coal mines and oil and gas operations is actually more than 900 million metric tons, a more than four-fold difference.  

The table below shows the differences between EPA’s estimate of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from coal mines and oil and gas operations, based on the outdated global warming potential of 21,  and estimates based on the IPCC’s global warming potential factors.

Methane and carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (in million metric tons) from oil and gas operations and coal mines, based on EPA’s 2012 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks, released in April 2014, and IPCC global warming potential factors.

methane and co2e emissions

What this shows is that the climate impacts of methane are being significantly underestimated, in turn giving the impression that methane emissions from coal mines and oil and gas sources are not significant sources of carbon.  In fact, just based on methane along, this data shows that oil and gas and coal mines are the fourth and fifth largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., right behind power plants, transportation, and industrial fossil fuel combustion.

Certainly, the Environmental Protection Agency has not outright discounted the significance of methane emissions from oil and gas operations, but they have refused to acknowledge that methane from coal mines is worthy of any agency attention.

And although the agency last fall officially raised the global warming potential of methane from 21 to 25, this is a far cry from reflecting the real short-term climate impacts of unchecked methane emissions.  Furthermore, in doing so, the agency rejected establishing a global warming potential based on a 20-year timeframe, essentially turning its back on the fact that methane’s climate impacts are more significant over the short-term, rather than the long-term.

By downplaying the climate impacts of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency is undermining the urgency that should be driving efforts to cut emissions of this potent greenhouse gas.  The result is that other federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management notable among them, continue to drag their feet in acknowledging the need for methane reductions and the cost of delaying action.

With President Obama himself calling for methane cuts nationwide, it’s critical that the Environmental Protection Agency get it right in curbing this potent climate threat.

Colorado Coal Welfare at its Worst

Arch Coal is poised for big breaks in Colorado, even as this giant coal company is sliding toward failure and facing an increasingly uncertain future.

The latest handout comes from the U.S. Forest Service, which last week finalized a plan to give Arch and other coal companies a special “exemption” to mine into Colorado’s backcountry.

There’s no beating around the bush on this.  The plan expressly sacrifices publicly owned wild forest lands (that means owned by all Americans) purely for Arch Coal’s financial benefit.  It’s a sad giveaway, especially given that these untrammeled wild places are truly one of a kind and really reflect what makes Colorado so special.

Like the Sunset Roadless Area, which skirts the iconic West Elk Wilderness.  Although WildEarth Guardians has been able to keep this area safe from Arch’s coal mining, the Forest Service’s giveaway ensures its destruction.

And as if the public lands giveaway wasn’t enough for Arch, the company’s also poised to get a break on its royalty payments.

Royalties of course, are what Arch pays you and me for the privilege of mining publicly owned coal.  Under the company’s latest request, the federal government would lose $3.1 million while Colorado would lose $1.75 million.

To boot, the request comes as Arch recently raised its CEO’s salary by 58%.  So not only are we losing money, we’re subsidizing a CEO pay increase.

Yet, in spite of these handsome handouts, Arch’s profits are still sliding downward.  Tumbling is how it was described in The Wall Street Journal.  And to top it all off, the coal giant was just stung by a Standard and Poor’s downgrade, from B+ to BB-.

The reason?  Declining demand for coal.

All the bailouts in the world can’t cover up the fact that coal is dying.  As Arch continues to tumble toward failure, one can only hope that these latest welfare payments in Colorado–our public lands and our public revenues–amount to nothing in the end.

The thought of subsidizing a giant coal company’s profits is bad enough.  But the thought of footing the bill for a coal company’s failure is outrageous.

DSCN2084

Adding insult to injury, Arch Coal vents more than $10 million worth of methane gas into the air every year from dozens of wells drilled above its West Elk coal mine in Colorado.  Arch has so far thwarted efforts to require the company to capture and utilize the gas.

We Can’t Frack our Way to Clean Air

With mounting revelations that air pollution from fracking threatens public health, you’d think that the Obama Administration would be rushing to ensure these harmful emissions are kept in check.

After all, reducing this pollution actually makes the oil and gas industry money.  Companies including BP, Williams (now WPX), Anadarko, and more all report enormous paybacks.

The reason?

It’s simple.  Reducing pollution means capturing gas that is usually just vented into the air, wasted.  More gas means more money.  In other words, controlling harmful air pollution means being more productive.

And it doesn’t end with fracking.  A recent NRDC report confirms companies can make money by reducing air pollution at every step of the process of producing oil and gas.  From the wells downstream to the distribution system, the industry is blessed with an array of options to make money while at the same time keeping our air safe to breathe.

It’s no surprise that when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year proposed updates to a suite of rules to limit air pollution from fracking, they found the proposal would actually yield millions for the oil and gas industry.

Win-win would be an understatement.  Even investors are calling on industry to control its pollution, noting the “financial risks” of wasting gas.  It’s the no-brainer of all no-brainers.  And given the enormous public health benefits we stand to reap, there’s absolutely no reason to delay.

Yet sadly, delay is exactly what the Obama Administration is doing.

As was reported earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency is putting off new clean air rules for fracking for another two weeks.  These rules were spurred after WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance filed suit against the Agency over its failure to meet deadlines under the Clean Air Act.

Now two weeks isn’t that much time, but it comes as the Administration is seemingly bent on appeasing the oil and gas industry in a cynical move to score political points with the electorate, even at the expense of our health and the environment.

Take for example, the Environmental Protection Agency recently backing down from efforts to protect clean water from fracking.  Or U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s recent announcement that the Administration was “speeding up” federal drilling (nevermind that there’s a glut in natural gas right now that has pushed prices to record lows and tempered drilling plans across the country).

In fact, WildEarth Guardians has heard that the delay on the clean air rules may very well be due to a White House demand to scrap key provisions over concerns about how the safeguards would affect Obama’s re-election campaign.

More to the point, it seems that Obama’s re-election campaign has the perception that regulating fracking will somehow be viewed as being responsible for high gasoline prices.

Ergo, ditch the clean air rules.

If true, it would not only stand as an abhorrent attempt to let politics trump public health, but it would be one of the most monumental miscalculations by this Administration.  Nevermind that more drilling–and certainly environmental regulation–hasn’t had any effect on gasoline prices.  Ultimately, it would amount to the President turning a win-win opportunity into a loser for all.

Without a doubt, it would be an abandonment of any and all leadership.

For Americans dealing firsthand with air pollution from fracking, this outcome could be devastating.

Like for parents of Erie, Colorado, which is north of Denver, who are facing the prospect of wells being fracked near two elementary schools and a daycare center.

Sure, I suppose there’s a chance the President may score political points for rhetoric, speculation, sloganeering, fear, and hype.  But for those of us living in the real world where facts and reason rein, this does nothing to protect our clean air.

Delaying common sense protections for public health and the environment is bad enough, especially when those protections will make the oil and gas industry more productive and profitable.  The prospect of the Obama Administrating using delay to scuttle what are arguably some of the most reasonable fracking safeguards ever would be unconscionable.

Watch this great documentary on Hydrofracking and Air from Kyle Montgomery on Vimeo, which focuses on the Marcellus shale in the northeast.

Coalorado Plateau

Superlatives are an understatement on the Colorado Plateau.

Home to Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches, and more, the region is the American West’s defining collision of contrasts pushed to some of the most beautiful extremes.  The land, the water, the people, the air–they’re a mélange of unlikely proportions that over time (lots of time) have come together to create one of the most iconically paradoxical joinders of culture and geology, water and desert, even life and death.

(just check out this Flickr album of bryandkeith’s bike tour of the Colorado Plateau, wonderful point of view and awesome photography!)

Yet even in this landscape marked by stark contrasts, there’s some things that seem out of place.

Like coal.

Not the natural seams of coal that streak buttes with black stripes of a carboniferous past, but the mines and the power plants concentrated in the region that have turned this past into a present-day environmental disaster.

By our count, the Colorado Plateau, which spans five states and encompasses most of the Colorado River watershed, supports 12 coal-fired power plants that collectively account for 44% of all coal-fired electricity generated in the Western United States (check out our map below, as well as another one like it on our Flickr site).  Unlike many plants in the nation that get their coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, these 12 are fueled entirely by mines on the Plateau.

Collectively, these plants take a huge toll on the region’s air, water, and land.  And this where another set of less appealing superlatives come in.

Like largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi River, a distinction that belongs to the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona.  At 2,400 megawatts, the power plant is capable of providing energy to more than 1.5 million households annually.

Or largest source of nitrogen oxide emissions, a byproduct of coal combustion that forms smog and haze, a distinction that belongs to the Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico.  In 2011, the plant released more than 37,500 tons, as much as 1.96 million cars.

Or three of the top 25 largest sources of carbon dioxide in the United States–the Navajo Generating Station, Four Corners Power Plant, and Jim Bridger Station in Wyoming (13th, 24th, and 14th, respectively).

To that end, the largest source of carbon dioxide in every state in the region (with the exception of Utah) is located on the Plateau:  Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station, New Mexico’s Four Corners Power Plant, Colorado’s Craig Generating Station, and Wyoming’s Jim Bridger Station (the Hunter Power Plant in Utah is the second largest in the State).

But even more distressing is the fact that these plants collectively report more than 20.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals released annually into the air and water, and on the land.  To put that into perspective, that’s almost as much as was released in the entire State of Colorado in 2010 (23 million tons reported to EPA).

In other words, these 12 power plants spew almost as much toxic pollution as an entire state.  These toxic releases include more than 1,800 pounds of mercury emitted into the air from the plant’s smokestacks.

Perhaps it’s no wonder the Colorado Plateau has some of the highest concentrations of mercury in the West.  Studies in Mesa Verde National Park, an icon of the region’s rich pre-Puebloan history, have even confirmed the link between the region’s power plants and mercury contamination.

Check out our detailed chart of toxic releases for every one of these coal-fired power plants.

Not surprisingly, haze and smog are becoming major concerns.  Air monitors throughout the region have reported dozens of exceedances of federal limits on ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of urban smog.  In an area defined and treasured because of its remoteness, it’s clear vistas, and it’s lack of urbanity, that’s a big problem.

And while power plants aren’t the only source of pollution in the region, it’s becoming all too clear that the key to solving these problems is to tackle coal on the Colorado Plateau.

This imperative is especially urgent given there are still looming plans to expand the region’s coal footprint.  The proposed Desert Rock power plant in New Mexico is still on the table and there’s been a recent surge in Obama Administration support for expanding coal development on Navajo lands.  And Colorado has at least three new coal mine proposals developing, Oak Mesa, Red Cliff, and Sage Creek.

The list, unfortunately, is expanding.

Certainly, the Colorado Plateau is defined by its contrasts, but there’s been a certain harmony in all this.  The irony with coal is that is stands to overshadow even this region’s rich contradictions, especially as global warming makes this land ever drier, hotter, even dustier.

For anyone who loves the American West, there should be no question that there needs to be a move away from coal on the Colorado Plateau.

That may be the biggest understatement of them all.

Colorado Plateau Coal Map-March 2012

All Coal Goes Back to…Portland, Oregon?

Meet Pacificorp, a utility company that owns and operates more coal-fired power plants than anyone else in the American West and that happens to be headquartered, of all places, in Portland, Oregon.

Which is kind of odd because when I think of coal, the last thing that comes to mind is Portland, Oregon.

Nevertheless, with Pacificorp headquartered in old Stumptown, it literally makes this city the coal burning capital of the American West.  It’s quite a distinction, especially for a  city that’s normally known for being the greenest in the country.

For those who don’t know Pacificorp, the company owns all or portions of 11 coal-fired power plants in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming.  Its total coal-fired electric generating capacity amounts to 6,781 megawatts, more than any other utility in the West.

Its coal-fired electricity powers a vast service area, including portions of California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.  And even though the company has other sources of electricity, including hydro and wind, coal dominates the company’s portfolio.  That means coal is powering Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah.

That makes the company’s greenhouse gas footprint enormous.  Nearly 50 million tons of carbon dioxide, to be exact (based on EPA data for 2010).  That’s more than five times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced in Oregon in 2007.   Check out the table below.

Plant State Ownership Share (%) Total CO2 (tons)
Colstrip MT 7 1,311,327
Wyodak WY 100 3,199,281
Dave Johnston WY 100 5,992,189
Jim Bridger WY 66 10,743,842
Naughton WY 100 5,882,446
Hayden CO 17 700,187
Craig CO 19 2,041,915
Carbon UT 100 1,473,621
Hunter UT 85 8,349,312
Huntington UT 100 6,252,135
Cholla AZ 39 3,213,406
 TOTAL 49,159,661

What’s more, the company is a subsidiary of MidAmerican Holdings, which is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway.  Buffet’s connection to Pacificorp’s western coal shadow isn’t much of a surprise, but it is increasingly odd given recent statements he made supporting a major ramp up in renewable energy development.

Making matters worse, Pacificorp is fighting to keep its coal plants alive, even despite growing costs.  And that’s where the real rub comes into play.  It’s one thing to own or operate an old coal-fired power plant.  It’s another thing to fight to keep it open as long as possible, environmental impacts be damned.

See for yourself what Pacificorp’s coal shadow looks like, check out our Google map below for more information on the company’s coal-fired power plants, some of WildEarth Guardians’ efforts to confront these coal plants, and links to other helpful websites, like SourceWatch’s amazing database of coal and coal-related information.  This map is also on our Pacificorp Coal-fired Power Plant map page.

In the meantime, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the key to confronting greenhouse gas emissions in the West is to tackle Pacificorp.  Whether in Portland or in Denver, Wyoming or California, we can’t make meaningful progress to safeguard the climate without taking on this company’s coal.

More Gas Pains on the Climate Front

A new study slated to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research reports that natural gas producers in the Denver-Julesberg Basin north of Denver are losing 4% of their gas to the air because of leaks and venting.

That lost gas is primarily methane (and a bit of other harmful pollutants, including volatile organic compounds, which contribute to Denver’s smog problem), which of course is not only a valuable product, but a potent greenhouse gas.

How potent?  It depends on the time frame.  Over a 20 year period, in other words the “short-term,” scientists report that methane has 105 times the heat trapping capacity of carbon dioxide.  In the “long-term,” or over 100 years, methane is 33 times more potent than carbon dioxide (this is because methane breaks down over time in the atmosphere, so after 100 years, is less potent).

So what does 4% mean in terms of actual greenhouse gas emissions?  Well, just looking  at Weld County, which is where the bulk of natural gas development has occurred in the Denver-Julesberg Basin, total production in 2011 was 212,958,693 thousand cubic feet according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, most of it methane.

4% of 212,958,693 thousand cubic feet is 8,518,347 thousand cubic feet.   And using the Environmental Protection Agency’s handy online methane converter, we can calculate that 8,518,347 thousand cubic feet equals 361,689,000 pounds, or 180,840 tons.

Now, greenhouse gases are usually measured in metric tons.  So again, using EPA’s handy converter, we can calculate that 180,840 tons of methane equals 164,056 metric tons.  That means that just in Weld County, the heart of the Denver-Julesberg Basin, natural gas producers are losing 164,056 metric tons of methane annually.

From a greenhouse gas standpoint, 164,056 metric tons of methane has the same impact as 17,225,880 metric tons of carbon dioxide, at least when considered over a 20 year period.  Over a 100 year period, it would equal 5,413,848 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Regardless of whether one looks at the 20-year or 100-year time-frame, that’s a lot of greenhouse gases.

According to another one of EPA’s handy online calculators, 17,225,880 metric tons of carbon dioxide is the same amount released annually by 3,377,624 passenger vehicles (check out the chart below).

In other words, losing 4% of all produced gas every year in the Denver-Julesberg Basin is like adding more than 3 million vehicles to the road.  That’s a potent punch to the climate.

Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas production in Denver-Julesberg Basin and equivalent number of passenger vehicles.

Of course, this is based on natural gas production just in Weld County.  And, as the authors of this latest article point out, their estimates of lost gas don’t include “additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system.”

Is this an indictment of natural gas?  Certainly not.  But it continues to undermine its reputation as a cleaner alternative to coal, or a “bridge” to renewable energy.  It also emphasizes that the greenhouse gas footprint of this “cleaner” fuel may be stomping out the very progress we need to be making in the fight against global warming.

Wasted Opportunity

I wrote previously on Xcel Energy’s plans to lock into long-term coal contracts for coal that, well, didn’t seem to exist.

Well, the hype continues.  Most recently, Peabody Energy announced plans to invest $200 million to move its Twentymile coal mining operations in northwestern Colorado to the new Sage Creek coal, which boosters claim will produce 12 million tons of new coal a year. Of course, this would make it the biggest coal mine ever in Colorado, which is surprising given that according to U.S. Energy Information Administration coal production reports, no mine in the State has ever produced more than 10 million tons annually.

According to both Peabody and Xcel, the new coal investment will fuel long-term contracts for 40 million tons of coal from the Sage Creek mine to keep the Hayden coal-fired power plant in northwestern Colorado burning for 16 years.

Putting aside the hyperbole, though, including the fact that Peabody still doesn’t have its crucial federal coal lease to ensure its long-term supply, all I can say is, really?

Both Xcel and Peabody are digging in, literally, in what has to be one of the most backward investments in the U.S. right now.  Just in terms of air impacts, economists are saying that coal-fired electricity costs us up to more than 5 times the value that it provides.  And the trend for coal right now?  To paraphrase The Economist, it’s not good.

And as I wrote before, even Xcel admits that so far to date, coal costs for the Hayden plant have climbed by 70%.  This is on top of the $170 million the company and the other owners of the plant intend to spend on clean air retrofits at Hayden.  Even then, the company plans to shutter half of Hayden by 2025 and the other half by 2036.

It’s an admirable goal of retrofitting the plant with up-to-date pollution controls.  But with costs and uncertainty mounting, the only thing that seems certain is that this investment is fast becoming a toxic asset.

Even Peabody seems to be hedging its bets, claiming that coal from Sage Creek will also fuel exports to Europe.  So much for homegrown energy.

Xcel claims that retrofitting Hayden, in other words making its coal plant cleaner, is the lowest cost alternative for meeting Clean Air Act.  Yet at the same time, the company is distancing itself from renewable energy development.  This is the epitome of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Despite all the hype, the signs aren’t good for Sage Creek and the Hayden power plant.  Peabody and Xcel can justify millions in short-term coal investments all they want, but in the end, it seems like wasted money and wasted opportunity.

The Sage Creek coal mine area near Hayden, Colorado (photo by John F. Russell).