Category Archives: Air Quality

LA TIMES: Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

Repost from the Los Angeles Times
[Editor: This is an incredibly entertaining as well as informative article. Recommended reading!  – RS]

Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

By Robin Abcarian, September 24, 2016 2:25PM

latimes_abcarianThere were a couple of light moments Thursday at the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s interminable, inconclusive public hearing about whether it should allow the fossil fuel giant Phillips 66 to send crude-oil trains across California to its Santa Maria Refinery.

A local named Gary, one of only four citizens to express support for the project, took the microphone and announced, “Anybody opposed to something because it’s dangerous is my definition of a coward.” As he walked away, the audience, packed with oil train opponents, howled.

“My name is Sherry Lewis,” said the next speaker, “and I come from Cowards Anonymous.”

After several hearings, reams of public comment and a few concessions by Phillips 66, commissioners were finally supposed to put the matter to a vote this week.

Would they approve the construction of a new rail spur and oil transfer operation that would give Phillips the ability to send three new crude-oil trains through California each week, or would they defy their staff, who recommended denial because the project would have significant negative effects, particularly to air quality and sensitive habitats?

Would they disregard their pleading constituents, and the letters that have poured in from cities, teachers and boards of supervisors from San Francisco to Los Angeles asking commissioners to deny the project because those mile-long oil trains bring increased risk to every California community along Union Pacific tracks?

(Not to belabor the point, but if you live, work or study within half a mile of those tracks, you’re in what is known, for emergency planning purposes, as the “blast zone.” Even the mayor of nearby Paso Robles, who has offered lukewarm support for the project, once referred to them as “bomb trains.”)

Last spring, three of five commissioners indicated they were leaning toward approval. But one of them, a local realtor named Jim Irving, now appears to be on the fence.

The regulatory issues around oil trains are complex and somewhat maddening. Local and state governments, for example, have no say over what is carried on railroad tracks, because the federal government regulates interstate commerce. Think of the chaos if individual cities tried to impose rules on railroads.

Even though cities and counties have no control over railroads, they still want assurances that tracks and bridges are safe for the heavy, mile-long trains that carry highly flammable crude oil. We all do, don’t we?

Thursday, Irving asked about the Stenner Creek Trestle, a picturesque, 85-foot-high steel railroad bridge just north of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus that was built in 1894.

Could Union Pacific reassure the county that the bridge is sound enough to carry those heavy tanker cars? As recently as June, a slow-moving Union Pacific oil train derailed near an elementary school and a water treatment plant on the Columbia River Gorge in Mosier, Ore. That derailment has weighed heavily on people’s minds around here.

“We tried to request documentation from Union Pacific related to the stability of bridges,” county planner Ryan Hostetter told Irving, “and all we got was a form with a checked box that they had inspected.”

“That’s kind of appalling,” said Irving.

::

These are not idle questions, and they are being faced by communities all over the country.

As my colleague Ralph Vartabedian has reported, some of the nation’s top safety experts believe “the government has misjudged the risk posed by the growing number of crude-oil trains.”

The Mosier train derailment was caused by failing bolts that allowed the tracks to separate. This was particularly worrisome because the tracks had been inspected the previous week.

“For me, that was a game changer,” said Benicia City Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “I just don’t think the rail industry has caught up with safety standards.”

On Tuesday, Strawbridge and her colleagues on the Benicia City Council voted 5-0 to deny a project very much like the one under consideration in San Luis Obispo County. This one was proposed by energy behemoth Valero, which owns a refinery in Benicia.

Unlike Phillips’ Santa Maria Refinery, which employs only 120 people full time, Valero is Benicia’s largest employer. The refinery provides nearly 25% of the city’s annual $31 million budget. It has been a good neighbor, said Strawbridge, and charitable.

But she and her colleagues could not put their town at risk. After four years of debate, and a last-minute declaration by the federal Surface Transportation Board that oil companies cannot claim they are exempt from local regulations just because they use the railroads, the council said no to oil trains.

“I’ve gotten a lot of hugs on the street,” Strawbridge told me Friday.

They are well deserved.

::

Next month, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission is scheduled, finally, to vote on this thing. After that, the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors will weigh in.

The wild card seems to be the board’s one open seat, in District 1, which comprises towns in the more conservative north side of the county. That supervisor has often functioned as a swing vote on the board. Two conservatives are vying for the seat, the aforementioned mayor of Paso Robles, Steve Martin, and John Peschong, a well-known Republican operative whose firm, Meridian Pacific Inc., received $262,000 from Phillips 66 in 2015, according to the oil company’s website.

Maybe the leaders of San Luis Obispo County will look north to the tiny city of Benicia for inspiration. That town, after all, had far more at stake.

They have a chance to do the right thing, not just for their county, but for all of California.

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SF CHRON: Climate bills pass California Legislature, Gov. Brown will sign

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

Climate bills pass Legislature, await Brown’s OK

By Melody Gutierrez, August 25, 2016
Gov. Jerry Brown said he plans to sign the bills when they reach his desk. Photo: Lenny Ignelzi, Associated Press
Gov. Jerry Brown said he plans to sign the bills when they reach his desk. Photo: Lenny Ignelzi, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — The California Legislature passed two bills Wednesday that extend the state’s ambitious goals to reduce the impact of greenhouse gases and provide additional oversight on the agency charged with carrying out climate-change policies.

Gov. Jerry Brown praised lawmakers for passing SB32 and AB197, saying passage was an important milestone after similar efforts failed last year amid intense lobbying by the oil industry. Brown said he plans to sign the bills when they reach his desk.

“Legislation is not like Twitter,” Brown said. “You don’t do it in 140 characters or in a few seconds. It takes months and sometimes years. It takes trying, failing, amending and trying again; negotiation. There are 120 members in the Legislature, and not everyone sees things the same way.”

SB32 calls for the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The bill expands on AB32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which requires the state to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. The state is expected to reach that target.

“We have discovered, with these policies, our economy continues to go up, but our emissions are going down,” said termed-out state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County). “It’s not a choice between a healthy environment and sound economy. In California, we can do it both ways.”

AB197 directs the California Air Resources Board to prioritize disadvantaged communities in its climate-change regulations, and to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the measures it considers. The bill also allows the Legislature to appoint two lawmakers as nonvoting members of the board, a move supporters said will provide more transparency and oversight on the agency.

Lawmakers have criticized the lack of diversity on the board, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount (Los Angeles County) said the board has a credibility problem.

“Any exercise of authority has to be reviewed,” Brown said when asked about the criticism of the board that is largely appointed by him. “Any time you have the power to say no or reduce your high-carbon fuel, reduce your pollutants, change the way a carbonized society works, it will be felt with some sting. That’s the reality, but we want to make sure we are doing it in a way that advances our goals of equity and inclusion.”

Brown unsuccessfully lobbied to have the cap-and-trade program included in SB32, but lawmakers balked because the bill already faced an uncertain future in the Assembly. On Tuesday, the Assembly narrowly passed the bill with one vote to spare, although several Democratic lawmakers changed their votes to approve of the legislation after it passed.

The Senate passed SB32 on Wednesday in a 25-13 vote.

The future of cap-and-trade remains uncertain due to a legal challenge from the California Chamber of Commerce. That uncertainty, along with some fearing SB32 would not be signed into law, contributed to poor auction results this year.

EDITORIAL On Senate Bill 32

Step ahead on climate

California is doubling down in the fight against climate change. After teetering on defeat, a state bill that expands efforts to curb heat-trapping emissions is in the final stages of approval.

The measure, SB32, builds on the state’s plan in 2006 to cut greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2020, a goal that’s already within reach. With both the Senate and now the Assembly in support, the bill pushes the state to trim climate-altering emissions by 40 percent by 2030.

An accompanying bill would give the state Air Resources Board more power to regulate industrial and refinery emissions in a bow to lawmakers from low-income areas who want more out of climate change ideas. That bill, AB197, is hanging, a target for business lobbyists who want to sink the overall effort. Passing this second measure is essential to complete a comprehensive effort.

Still, the success so far is worth notice. California isn’t budging from its course. White House aides and Gov. Jerry Brown called wavering moderate Democrats for their votes, which the same lawmakers had withheld last year. With the nation stalled on climate change steps, California has a chance to move forward and demonstrate the effects, costs and benefits of its aggressive steps. The ability to add pollution controls to a roaring economy is making the state a globally watched experiment.

The rules need attention. One key mechanism is the cap and trade exchange that obliges polluting industries to purchase credits from cleaner operations. The sales aren’t netting the expected amounts with less than $10 million spent in the latest auction. The money is due to go to pollution-limiting programs such as transit and the struggling high speed rail project.

Defenders of the cap and trade plan say that uncertainty over the legislative outcome is to blame for the weak revenue. Now that the state’s direction is emphatically decided, the value of pollution credits should stabilize, they argue. That’s a claim that needs testing.

On balance, Brown has been a good advocate for climate action, though he does have one notable blind spot: his continued silence on a plan to ship major quantities of coal through a new Oakland port facility for overseas combustion. That project just happens to belong to Phil Tagami, a buddy and political donor to the governor. May we remind the governor of his own words from last year: “It doesn’t make sense to be shutting down coal plants (in the U.S.) and then export it for somebody else to burn in a more dirty way,” he said.

Let the record be clear: Brown’s climate commitment is incomplete until he takes a stand, one way or another, on that Oakland coal train.

 

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NEW STUDY: The U.S. oil and gas boom is having global atmospheric consequences

Repost from the Washington Post

The U.S. oil and gas boom is having global atmospheric consequences, scientists suggest

By Chelsea Harvey, April 28, 2016
Advances in hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling have unlocked huge amounts of petroleum in the Badlands of Montana. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Scientists say they have made a startling discovery about the link between domestic oil and gas development and the world’s levels of atmospheric ethane — a carbon compound that can both damage air quality and contribute to climate change. A new study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters has revealed that the Bakken Shale formation, a region of intensely increasing recent oil production centered in North Dakota and Montana, accounts for about 2 percent of the entire world’s ethane output — and, in fact, may be partly responsible for reversing a decades-long decline in global ethane emissions.

The findings are important for several reasons. First, ethane output can play a big role in local air quality — when it is released into the atmosphere, it interacts with hydrogen and carbon and can cause ozone to form close to the Earth, where it is considered a pollutant that can irritate or damage the lungs.

Ethane is also technically a greenhouse gas, although its lifetime is so short that it is not considered a primary threat to the climate. That said, its presence can help extend the lifespan of methane — a more potent greenhouse gas — in the atmosphere. This, coupled with ethane’s role in the formation of ozone, makes it a significant environmental concern.

From 1987 until about 2009, scientists observed a decreasing trend in global ethane emissions, from 14.3 million metric tons per year to 11.3 million metric tons. But starting in 2009 or 2010, ethane emissions starting rising again — and scientists began to suspect that an increase in shale oil and gas production in the United States was at least partly to blame. The new study’s findings suggest that this may be the case.

The study took place during May 2014. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aircraft flew over the Bakken Shale and collected data on airborne ethane and methane, as well as ozone, carbon dioxide and other gases.

“We were interested in understanding the atmospheric impacts of some of these oil and gas fields in the U.S. — particularly oil and gas fields that had a lot of expansion of activities in the last decade,” said Eric Kort, the study’s lead author and an atmospheric science professor at the University of Michigan.

The findings were jarring.

“We found that in order to produce the signals we saw on the plane, it would require emissions in the Bakken to be very large for ethane … equivalent to 2 percent of global emissions, which is a very big number for one small region in the U.S.,” Kort said.

Notably, he said, the team’s observations in the Bakken Shale helped shed some light on the mysterious uptick in global ethane emissions observed over the past few years.

“The Bakken on its own cannot explain the complete turn, but it plays a really large role in the change in the global growth rate,” Kort said.

On a regional level, the researchers pointed out that a deeper investigation into the Bakken emissions impact on ozone formation may be warranted — not only for the purpose of analyzing local air quality but also because current models of the atmosphere have not included the jump in ethane output.

Because the researchers were also measuring other gases during the flyovers — including ozone, carbon dioxide and methane — they were able to make another major discovery. They found that the ratio of ethane to methane produced by the Bakken was much higher than what has been observed in many other shale oil and gas fields in the United States — an observation that could have big implications for future methane assessments, which are important for climate scientists.

In many oil and gas fields, methane is often the primary natural gas present — sometimes accounting for up to 90 percent or more of the gas that is released during extraction. Ethane often tends to be present in smaller proportions. In the Bakken, however, the researchers found that ethane accounted for nearly 50 percent of all the natural gas composition, while methane was closer to 20 percent.

This is important because researchers sometimes use trends in global ethane emissions to make assumptions about the amount of methane that’s being released by fossil fuel-related activities. While it’s possible to measure the total methane concentration in the atmosphere, it’s difficult to say exactly where that methane came from, because there are so many possibilities: thawing permafrost in the Arctic, emissions from landfills and agriculture are just a few examples. But because ethane is primarily emitted as a byproduct of fossil fuel development — and because methane and ethane tend to be emitted together in those cases — researchers sometimes use trends in global ethane emissions to make assumptions about how much of the Earth’s methane output can be attributed to oil and gas development.

When global ethane emissions were declining, for instance, many researchers assumed that overall losses of natural gas during fossil fuel extraction were declining, Kort noted. And when ethane emissions began rising again, it was logical to assume that methane emissions — from oil and gas development, specifically — were also likely on the rise. But as the Bakken study points out, this is not necessarily the case. The new study suggests that the Bakken formation has accounted for much of the global increase in ethane emissions while emitting comparatively low levels of methane simultaneously. And the researchers believe that there are other locations in the United States — the Eagle Ford shale in Texas, for example — where conditions are similar.

“They’ve basically shown here that a single shale can account for most of the ethane increase that you’ve seen in the past year,” said Christian Frankenberg, an environmental science and engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology and a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Frankenberg was not involved with this study, although he has collaborated with Kort in the past.)

“This is not to say that there’s no enhanced methane in these areas,” he added. But he pointed out that making an incorrect assumption about the ratio of methane escaping compared to ethane “might easily overestimate the methane increases in these areas.”

And making incorrect assumptions about the methane that’s entering the atmosphere alongside ethane can skew climate scientists’ understanding of where the Earth’s methane emissions are coming from and which sources are the biggest priorities when it comes to managing greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, while the new study contains striking findings about ethane emissions, it perhaps only deepens the already large and contentious mystery over just how much the U.S. oil and gas boom is contributing to emissions of methane, which is widely regarded to be the second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide.

More broadly, the paper also highlights the immense impact that fossil fuel development in the United States can have on the atmosphere — and how important it is from both an air quality and a climate perspective to closely monitor these activities. As the paper points out, domestic production is already being felt on a global level.

“Ethane globally had been declining from the 80s until about 2009, 2010 … and nobody was really sure why it was increasing in the atmosphere again,” Kort said. “Our measurements showed this one region could explain much of the change in global ethane levels and kind of illustrate the roles these shale plains could play.”

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