It’s time to freak out about methane emissions

“In the public conversation about climate change, methane has gotten too little attention for too long. Many people may be unaware that humans have been spewing a greenhouse gas that’s even more potent than carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate not seen in at least 800,000 years. It harms air quality and comes from sources as varied as oil and gas pipelines to landfills and cows. But methane and other greenhouse gases, including hydroflurocarbons, ozone, nitrogen dioxides, and sulfur oxides, are finally getting the attention they deserve — thanks largely to advances in the science.

Until the past few years, methane’s relative obscurity made sense. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is by far the largest contributor to climate change, and it comes from recognizable fossil fuel sources such as car tailpipes, coal smokestacks, and burning gas and oil. The most troubling part is that it sticks around in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, making climate change not just a problem for us now, but generations well into the future. Carbon is now embedded in our language, from “carbon footprint” to “zero-carbon lifestyle.””

“Even though methane is not nearly as well understood as carbon, it’s playing an enormous role in the climate crisis. It’s at least 80 times as effective at trapping heat than carbon in a 20-year period, but starts to dissipate in the atmosphere in a matter of years. If this is the “decisive decade” to take action, as the Biden administration has said, then a methane strategy has to be at the center of any policy for tackling global warming.

Methane could mean the difference between a rapidly warming planet changing too quickly and drastically for humanity to handle, and buying the planet some much-needed time to get a handle on the longer-term problem of fossil fuels and carbon pollution.”

“Identifying the millions of sources of methane around the globe isn’t so simple. Cattle release methane, and so does decomposing organic material. All the food waste that goes into landfills release methane. And natural gas is almost entirely methane.

If you’ve heard politicians call natural gas a “bridge fuel,” what they mean is that natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal. It’s wrong to call it clean, because burning methane still releases carbon — and methane that escapes without burning is a powerful warmer.”

“Environmental Defense Fund, which has commissioned flights to monitor methane over Texas oil and gas fields, has found that oil fields in the US are leaking 60 percent more methane than the Environmental Protection Agency estimates. University of Michigan scientist Eric Kort found methane spewing from offshore wells at far higher rates than previously understood. The environmental group Earthworks, using expensive, on-the-ground camera equipment, helped track down some sites that were repeat offenders of venting methane into the atmosphere.

The scientific papers have mounted: Since 2013, at least 45 scientific papers have highlighted the disproportionate role of oil and gas operations, according to a review by the advocacy group Climate Nexus.”

“There’s widespread agreement, even from some in the fossil fuel industry, that the place to start is tackling leaks. This will get easier as scientists gather better data about where methane is leaking. From the industry’s perspective, companies are losing product and dollars.”

“Fractions of degrees could translate into wild swings in extreme weather, or tipping points we don’t even fully understand. In the effort to prevent climate catastrophe, methane will count tremendously.”

The US is inching closer to passing a game-changing climate policy

“A time when the United States runs mostly on wind- and solar-powered electricity could be a reality in only a few years. It wouldn’t require any scientific breakthroughs or technological leaps for clean energy to overtake coal and natural gas, which still dominate 60 percent of the US power sector. What it would take to challenge a century of fossil-fuel dominance in record-breaking time is one sweeping, underappreciated policy: a clean electricity standard.”

“A clean electricity standard is a bit of a misnomer because the actual policy being discussed is even more boring-sounding: a clean electricity payment program that pays utilities to clean up their act and fine them for missing deadlines. Still, this approach could effectively double the amount of wind and solar on the market, moving the nation toward roughly 80 percent renewable sources of electricity by 2030, and within reach of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. It’s critical to getting the US halfway to Biden’s pledge under the Paris climate agreement.”

“Two of the biggest ways Americans contribute to climate change is in their transportation and electricity usage. You might cut your carbon footprint by making your home more efficient, installing a solar panel, and even buying an electric car — and the power that flows from your outlet is a lot cleaner than it was a decade ago. But coal and natural gas, more often than not, are still the status quo. This reality limits the impact of well-meaning actions: A coal-fired power plant may be charging your Tesla, and gas might be powering your office’s air conditioning.”

“The biggest short-term benefits aren’t even about climate change. Continuing to cut coal also slashes the country’s air pollution, like the ozone and particulates that damage people’s lungs and hearts. These gains would easily dwarf what the Environmental Protection Agency has accomplished under previous presidents because it would close more coal-powered plants than even President Barack Obama’s most effective environmental regulation, the mercury and air toxins rule.
And then there are the lives saved, according to research from Harvard University: By 2030, the policy would save 9,200 lives because of the sudden cut in air pollution. Over the next 30 years, that number grows to 317,500 lives saved.”

After four years of inaction, the EPA is finally regulating this superpollutant

“HFCs have only been used in appliances since the 1990s, as a replacement for ozone-depleting chemicals, but their use has grown at a terrifying rate. While HFCs still only comprise about 1 percent of total greenhouse emissions, they are thousands of times better at trapping heat than carbon over a 20-year period.”

“another big task awaits for President Joe Biden to rein in HFCs: ratifying the 2016 Kigali Amendment, the global agreement to phase down these dangerous chemicals by 85 percent before 2050. It’s one of many amendments that has been added to the Montreal Protocol since 1987, a treaty that has been used to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals.
Every one of these amendments was ratified and implemented successfully by the US —except Kigali, the one that came along just as Trump and Republicans took power and brought climate action to a standstill.”

A Power Company’s Quiet Land-Buying Spree Could Shield It From Coal Ash Cleanup Costs

“The new regulations require utilities to clean up contaminants if they are found at high enough levels beyond the boundaries of their plant sites. By extending those boundaries through land purchases, Georgia Power could push back the day it has to deal with its legacy of pollution”

“Georgia Power spokesperson John Kraft said in a recent statement that the purchased properties were intended for use as a construction buffer while the company closes its unlined ponds, a lengthy process that includes pumping water out of the disposal site and burying the remaining coal ash in place. He did not respond to direct questions about whether the purchased land would help the company delay cleanup costs.

He noted that the company, a subsidiary of the Southern Company, the nation’s second-largest energy provider, has hired experts to monitor test wells positioned around the ash ponds for signs of groundwater contamination. Based on the results of those tests, he added, the company “has identified no impact to drinking water.””

“On Dec. 22, 2008, more than a billion gallons of a toxic slurry of coal ash and water breached a dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant about 40 miles west of Knoxville. The wave — roughly five times the volume of liquid spilled by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico two years later — tore up railways, toppled power lines, knocked a home off its foundation and caked the Emory River in a thick, gray sludge.”

“Utilities produce over 100 million tons of coal ash annually, according to the EPA, making it the nation’s second-largest source of industrial waste after household garbage.

Coal ash is the fine residue left when coal is burned to produce power. The ash contains contaminants associated with long-term health risks, including damage to the kidney (from mercury), stomach (from boron) and nervous system (from arsenic). To dispose of it, utilities can either transport the waste to a landfill with a protective liner on the bottom or mix it with water in an ash pond without a layer underneath.”

Installing air filters in classrooms has surprisingly large educational benefits

“The impact of the air filters is strikingly large given what a simple change we’re talking about. The school district didn’t reengineer the school buildings or make dramatic education reforms; they just installed $700 commercially available filters that you could plug into any room in the country. But it’s consistent with a growing literature on the cognitive impact of air pollution, which finds that everyone from chess players to baseball umpires to workers in a pear-packing factory suffer deteriorations in performance when the air is more polluted.

If Gilraine’s result holds up to further scrutiny, he will have identified what’s probably the single most cost-effective education policy intervention — one that should have particularly large benefits for low-income children.

And while it’s too hasty to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of one study, it would be incredibly cheap to have a few cities experiment with installing air filters in some of their schools to get more data and draw clearer conclusions about exactly how much of a difference this makes.”