Category Archives: Methane

Chasing The Methane Dragon That Lurks In The Deep Sea

We went into the depths of the ocean with a scientist seeking to understand how frozen gas deposits might respond in a rapidly warming world.

HuffPost.com, by Chris D’Angelo, 09/02/2019 07:53 am ET
ART BY BOLOGNA SANDWICH

THE BOTTOM OF THE ATLANTIC OCEAN — Forty miles off the coast of North Carolina, the 274-foot research vessel Atlantis paced a dark, empty swath of ocean in evenly spaced lines as the crew pinged sound waves into the deep. A quarter-mile below, plumes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, rose from the seafloor.

The underwater site, named Pea Island after an area of the Outer Banks, is one of the hundreds of active methane seeps discovered off the Atlantic coast since 2012. No human had ever explored this particular underwater world. Samantha Joye, an oceanographer and microbiologist, was about to change that.

She strolled into the ship’s computer lab at 6 a.m., a thermos of tea in hand. She looked anxious as she checked in on what the sonar had turned up.

Jason Chaytor, a marine geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, had spent half the night mapping the ocean floor. He pointed to the columns of bubbles visible in the rainbow-colored images. The largest of the plumes extended some 250 meters from the bottom, about halfway to the surface.

“You’re going to visit this first,” Chaytor told her.

Joye leaned over his shoulder and squinted through purple-framed glasses. A mad scientist grin washed over her face.

The site is what’s known as a cold seep, an area where methane and other hydrocarbons naturally eject from the seafloor. Cold seeps are home to diverse communities of organisms, including Joye’s favorite: beggiatoa, a large, thread-like bacteria.

Along with their ability to capture energy from poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas, beggiatoa form colonies, or “mats,” that are hot spots for hitchhiking microorganisms that feast on methane. Working together, these communities of microbes act as biological filters, blanketing active seeps and limiting the amount of gas that enters the water column and, more importantly, the atmosphere.

Oceanographer Samantha Joye and deep-sea ecologist Erik Cordes chat aboard the research vessel Atlantis in August 2018.
Oceanographer Samantha Joye and deep-sea ecologist Erik Cordes chat aboard the research vessel Atlantis in August 2018. DEEP SEARCH IVAN HURZELER/ERIN HENNING

The seeps along the Atlantic’s continental margin are not new, but recent advances in sonar imaging technology have given scientists the tools to spot them. (Hundreds more have been found in recent years off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.) The novelty of the technology means scientists lack the baseline data that would allow them to compare the amount of methane leaking today to, say, the amount leaking 20 or 200 years ago.

Methane is among the most potent greenhouse gases. And while the numerous sources of methane are well understood, what’s driving the recent surge in global emission levels remains a matter of scientific debate.

The two-week Atlantis expedition was part of project Deep Search, a five-year government-funded study to explore cold seep, canyon and coral ecosystems in this largely uncharted swath of the deep Atlantic. The team of more than 20 scientists set out from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in mid-August 2018 with plans for a dozen manned submersible dives off the southeast Atlantic coast ― most of them to uncharted sites.

Joye, a professor at the University of Georgia, hoped the mission would further scientists’ understanding of methane seeps, their potential for contributing to global warming and the complex microbial communities that inhabit these systems.

In 2006, while exploring in the Gulf of Mexico, Joye was part of a team that discovered a massive mound of methane hydrate, a solid, ice-like form of the gas that is widespread in deep marine sediments. The feature resembled a dragon’s head and was named “sleeping dragon.” For Joye, it’s an apt metaphor for the apocalyptic situation that would unfold if a giant burst of methane into Earth’s atmosphere ever occurred.

“We are waking up the methane dragon,” Joye said. “And that’s a dragon that we really want to keep in the box.”

Methane hydrate, a frozen form of methane gas, at one of the many cold seeps off the U.S. Atlantic coast. Hydrate is widespre
Methane hydrate, a frozen form of methane gas, at one of the many cold seeps off the U.S. Atlantic coast. Hydrate is widespread in the deep ocean and sequesters as much as 20% of all carbon on Earth. NOAA OFFICE OF OCEAN EXPLORATION AND RESEARCH

Methane, or CH4, is part of Earth’s natural carbon cycle, emitted from wetlands, soil, volcanoes, wildfires, rice paddies and even by termites. In the ocean, methane is produced when microorganisms or geologic processes deep in the earth’s crust break down organic matter that settles to the seafloor, including dead fish, krill and bacteria.

It is also a powerful super-pollutant, roughly 30 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a century in the atmosphere. Although far less prevalent in Earth’s protective shield than carbon dioxide, methane accounts for about one-fifth of human-caused planetary warming. Since 1750, methane concentrations have risen more than 150% ― a spike driven by fossil fuel production, agriculture and deforestation.

In both the deep sea and Arctic permafrost, a massive amount of methane is trapped in hydrate. This otherworldly substance, also called “methane ice” or “fire ice,” forms when methane combines with water at low temperatures and high pressure. It represents one of the largest carbon reservoirs on Earth, sequestering an estimated 16 to 20% of all carbon.

“Think about that,” Erik Cordes, the expedition’s chief scientist and a deep-sea ecologist at Temple University, said as Atlantis headed out to sea from Woods Hole. “All the forests on the planet, all the living organisms on the planet together, have less carbon in them than there is in methane hydrate.”

Hydrate remains stable under conditions like those found in the frigid deep sea. But if exposed to warmer temperatures or a drop in pressure, it can turn to gas, expanding by approximately 180 times its volume. The concern for some scientists is that as global climate change thaws Arctic permafrost and heats up the oceans, these hydrates will break down, setting off a potentially calamitous feedback loop.

We are waking up the methane dragon. And that’s a dragon that we really want to keep in the box.
– Samantha Joye, oceanographer and microbiologist

Enough methane in the ocean could deplete the water of oxygen and wreak havoc on marine life, while a sharp rise in atmospheric methane would trigger rapid and cataclysmic warming.

That scenario keeps Joye up at night. She’s been studying methane seeps and hydrothermal vents for two decades and says she’s seen enough to know that these systems are poised to respond to the rapid changes now unfolding in the oceans. Climate-driven hydrate collapse, she stressed, is not some hypothetical.

“I hate to say it’s a ticking time bomb because I don’t want to scare the shit out of people,” she said. “But it scares the shit out of me.”

Methane bubbles out of the seafloor off the coast of Virginia, north of Washington Canyon.
Methane bubbles out of the seafloor off the coast of Virginia, north of Washington Canyon. NOAA OFFICE OF OCEAN EXPLORATION AND RESEARCH

In 2016, a decade after first documenting the “sleeping dragon,” Joye returned to the site with a film crew from the BBC to find that the hydrate mound ― one of the largest ever documented ― had completely vanished. Similar deposits at other nearby locations were also gone, replaced by craters, or “pockmarks,” where the once-frozen methane exploded from the seabed, Joye said. The water temperature near the seafloor was several degrees above normal.

“We know it’s hydrate destabilization,” she said, adding that she and others had tried unsuccessfully to secure funding for long-term study. “We need to make people understand that we really need to be monitoring these things.”

Surges in atmospheric methane have been blamed for past planetary warming events. The most severe, the “The Great Dying,” occurred 250 million years ago and wiped out approximately 90% of all species. Among the controversial scientific theories about what may have caused it is hydrate degradation. Another is a massive bloom of methane-producing microbes, as a team of researchers at MIT detailed in a 2014 paper.

Scientists have also found signs of a large, sudden burp of methane gas from the Arctic seafloor during a period of extreme warming more than 100 million years ago, thought to be caused by hydrate destabilization. And hydrates have been implicated in a period of extreme warming 55 million years ago, called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when global temperatures increased as much as 14.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

I hate to say it’s a ticking time bomb because I don’t want to scare the shit out of people. But it scares the shit out of me.  – Joye

Unlike in previous episodes of climate upheaval, the activities of a single species are what’s driving the current crisis, which has the potential to affect every corner of the planet. While carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the most immediate threat, the reality is that humans have little understanding of the many complex systems that could be disrupted in the process. The microbial communities found at methane seeps are just one of them.

At a depth of 500 meters, Pea Island sits at the upper limit of hydrate stability, what scientists call the “feather edge,” making it extremely susceptible to rising ocean temperatures. There are untold numbers of similar seeps around the globe.

“Pea Island is sort of the poster child of change in the oceans with respect to methane,” Joye said.

An octopus at Blake Ridge seep.
An octopus at Blake Ridge seep. IVAN HURZELER AND DEEP SEARCH 2019 – BOEM

Other scientists and methane experts are less concerned about a runaway CH4 scenario from hydrate ― at least anytime soon. Carolyn Ruppel, who leads the U.S. Geological Survey’s Gas Hydrates Project, is among those who have pushed back against fears of a looming “methane time bomb.” Her research shows that the vast majority of known methane hydrate ― more than 95% ― exists in the deep ocean, below 1,000 meters, and that a large-scale release would require hundreds or even thousands of years of warming.

Additionally, ocean physics greatly limits the amount of gas that can reach the atmosphere, Ruppel explained in a phone interview. The gas dissolves into seawater on its way up through the water column, where microbes convert it into CO2. A bubble released from a depth where hydrate can exist has very little chance of retaining methane all the way to the surface, she said.

In a monumental 2016 paper, Ruppel and John Kessler, an oceanographer at the University of Rochester in New York, wrote that “there is no conclusive proof that hydrate‐derived methane is reaching the atmosphere now.” Yet they acknowledged there are many locations where methane ice is vulnerable to warming, specifically in the Arctic and on upper continental slopes, which “could be a major source of atmospheric CH4 under certain catastrophic, but unlikely, circumstances.”

It’s obvious why methane hydrate has alarmed the public. But Ruppel says it is the shallow water seeps, those on upper continental shelves and not associated with hydrate, that have a greater capacity to inject methane into Earth’s atmosphere.

“What I tell young people now is, if you really want to make a career for yourself, don’t worry so much about the deeper water seeps,” she said. “Worry about what methane is coming out of the shelves.”

Further complicating this nascent field of science is the fact that many countries, including the United States, are eyeing hydrates as a potential future energy source ― production that risks releasing even more of the gas.

Samantha Joye inspects a core of marine sediment aboard Atlantis.
Samantha Joye inspects a core of marine sediment aboard Atlantis. DEEP SEARCH 2018 – BOEM, USGS, NOAA

Joye is not one to sugarcoat what she sees or what she makes of it. Her no-nonsense approach has earned her both praise and rebuke and has pitted her against powerful players.

When BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 and unleashed more than 200 million gallons of crude, Joye had already been studying natural seeps and microbial life in the region for 15 years. Within weeks of the deadly catastrophe, she organized a research team to collect samples aboard the Pelican, the first scientific vessel sent to the blowout site.

It was during that first mission that the team discovered large plumes of oil and methane forming deep in the Gulf, a sign that the spill was far worse than BP had indicated. BP insisted the plumes didn’t exist: “The oil is on the surface,” Tony Hayward, the company’s chief executive, said at the time. Other researchers later validated Joye’s finding.

Joye also sparred with the Obama administration. In August 2010, the White House released a government report that estimated 76% of the oil had dissolved or been cleaned up. Less than two weeks later, Joye co-authored a report that found nearly 80% of the oil was still in the water and a threat to the Gulf ecosystem. Government scientists maintained that their numbers were accurate.

Joye emerged from the disaster ― the largest marine oil spill in history ― as something of a scientific superhero, the brainy introvert willing to share data that many felt that the government and BP were keeping under wraps.

And she’s kept at it. Five years later, Joye co-published a study that concluded the 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants cleanup crews dumped into the Gulf likely made the situation worse. Rather than breaking the oil into smaller droplets that oil-eating bacteria could more easily consume, the chemicals slowed the microbes’ ability to degrade oil, she found.

“The dispersants did a great job in that they got the oil off the surface,” she told The Associated Press at the time.

Fellow scientists say she’s “a force of nature,” a researcher who has made “heroic efforts to communicate science to the general public.”

Cordes and Joye have been collaborating ever since their first cruise together in 2001. He said there are few people who can keep up with Joye’s level of energy.

“She’s one of the most creative scientists that I’ve known,” he said. “While she’s gathering data, she’s also interpreting it and throws ideas out there. And she has an amazing ability to be right more often than not.”

A little before 8 a.m., Joye and USGS microbiologist Chris Kellogg climbed to the top of a narrow staircase on Atlantis’ stern and kicked off their sneakers. Kellogg waved to fellow researchers watching from the deck. Joye flashed a modest smile. The two scooted down a small ladder into Alvin, a three-person deep-sea submersible most famous for exploring the wreckage of the Titanic in 1986. On its front end are two robotic arms, numerous cameras and a basket for stashing the samples it collects.

After the hatch on Alvin was sealed, a giant hydraulic crane plopped the sub into the sea, and the sub’s crew descended into the dark.

Atlantis, built in the mid-1990s and owned by the U.S. Navy, accommodates more than 50 people, has six onboard labs and was designed specifically to support Alvin. The ship stays in constant contact with the sub using an acoustic telephone. If you’re below deck during a dive, you can hear the radio chatter from the sub buzzing through the ship’s steel hull.

Alvin, a three-person deep-sea submersible, is launched from the research vessel Atlantis. 
Alvin, a three-person deep-sea submersible, is launched from the research vessel Atlantis.  CHRIS D’ANGELO/HUFFPOST

Eight hours later, Alvin dropped a large set of weights and slowly rose back to the surface, the first samples of the cruise in tow. Once the sub and samples were onboard, an excited team of scientists scrambled to unload quill worms, a pair of starfish, carbonate rocks and samples of muddy sediment and beggiatoa. Dead squid dangled from Alvin’s exterior, victims of their own curiosity.

The dive went well; good visibility, a manageable current and lots of specimens. But Joye was frustrated. Not only was the team unable to glimpse the methane plume it had seen on the radar, but several mud samples, called cores, degassed on their way to the surface, making it harder to profile the sediment inside. Joye suspected they contained chunks of hydrate, judging from how violently they had erupted.

Fortunately, the samples weren’t ruined. After a day in the ship’s cold room, a walk-in refrigerator that simulates the frigid deep ocean, the beggiatoa had wriggled their way to the top of the mud in search of oxygen, forming beautiful white geometric structures. Still sporting an astronaut-like jumpsuit for working in the cold room, Joye placed a dish underneath a microscope and instructed me to have a peek. Up close, the beggiatoa looked like hollow strings of spaghetti. Inside a few, yellow molecules of sulfur popped against a backdrop of dark mud. A translucent worm burrowed under the bacteria, making it roll and turn.

“It’s like gold from the bottom of the ocean,” Joye said. “White gold.”

Mats of white beggiatoa bacteria carpet the seafloor at an active seep off the Atlantic coast.
Mats of white beggiatoa bacteria carpet the seafloor at an active seep off the Atlantic coast. NOAA OFFICE OF OCEAN EXPLORATION AND RESEARCH, WINDOWS TO THE DEEP 2019

The methane seeps that these bacteria inhabit are unforgiving environments. They are also diverse and vital ecosystems, part of the foundation of the ocean food web that hundreds of millions of people rely on for food and income.

Amanda Demopoulos, a deep-sea benthic ecologist at USGS, hopes to drive that human connection home.

On most evenings during the cruise, she could be found processing seafloor sediment samples in the ship’s wet lab. It’s tedious work that involves slicing cores of mud into precisely measured sections, then carefully funneling the sediment into small bottles for future analysis. A single core can contain hundreds of microorganisms, which the team identifies and documents. These tiny critters are important indicators of ecosystem health and break down organic matter that cycles to the seafloor. If they disappear, that material can create environments where nothing can live, Demopoulos said.

“We want healthy earthworms in our gardens,” she said. “We need healthy animals in the ocean, too.”

Scenes from the bottom of the Atlantic.
Scenes from the bottom of the Atlantic. DAN FORNARI, WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION/NOAA OFFICE OF OCEAN EXPLORATION AND RESEARCH

On Day 10 of the cruise, I got to join Joye on a “dragon hunt” to a gas seep more than 130 miles off North Carolina’s coast and nearly a mile and a half below the surface.

A submersible dive is like a slow-motion fall through a distant galaxy. Outside our 3-inch titanium shell of safety, a frenzy of glowing bioluminescent critters — shrimp, jellyfish and chains of egg-like animals called salps — flickered, scurried and burst as they collided with Alvin’s robotic arms. Joye described it as nature’s ultimate fireworks display.

“The Fourth of July can’t hold a candle to a submarine dive,” she said as we made our way to the bottom.

The descent into total darkness lasted 70 minutes. Your mind can’t help but run wild thinking about what creatures might be lurking just out of sight. On a murky canyon dive a few days earlier, a 20-foot sixgill shark had bumped into the front of the sub.

Pilot Jefferson Grau flipped on the sub’s exterior lights, giving us our first glimpse of the ocean floor. It was alien and beautiful, startling and mesmerizing ― made even more so by the spacey music playlist Grau had cued up. At this depth, Alvin actually shrinks slightly as the pressure outside reaches 3,200 pounds per square inch. The amount of force it would take to open the hatch is roughly equivalent to lifting a fully loaded 747 jet.

Alvin, a three-person manned submersible, has completed more than 5,000 dives since it started operating in 1964.
Alvin, a three-person manned submersible, has completed more than 5,000 dives since it started operating in 1964. WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION

This site we were visiting, Blake Ridge, is relatively well-studied and rich in methane hydrate, with numerous active seeps. Joye directed Grau, who not only drove the sub but steered a small arm that controlled the robotic arms out front. As the two worked, I did my best to film what was happening outside using a small joystick that controlled exterior cameras, jotting down times and depths.

Extensive beds of mussels, some big enough to hold a newborn child, and piles of ghost-white clamshells littered the seafloor. A bright red Spanish dancer, a type of sea slug, fluttered by. A brittle star tossed up sand as it scampered away. Our presence seemed to confuse purple octopuses, crabs and rattail fish — a bizarre creature with bulging eyes, a long tail and a sharklike fin on its back. It was almost certainly the first time any of these creatures had seen light.

Communities of bacteria that use chemosynthesis, a process similar to photosynthesis, to convert inorganic chemical compounds like methane and hydrogen sulfide into energy fuel life in the deep sea. The mussels and clams have a symbiotic relationship with these bacteria, providing them a safe place to live in return for food.

Joye and I kept our eyes peeled for bubbles, or if we were lucky, a chunk of hydrate ― the dragon itself ― which often forms under rock overhangs.

She let out a shriek when she spotted a large bed of mussels, often a telltale sign of the presence of hydrate. “I think we’re about to hit our nirvana!” Joye said as Grau brought the sub in for a closer look.

The mussels turned out to be dead, possibly because the supply of methane in that particular spot had shut off. Cold seeps are variable systems. As Ruppel explained, they have plumbing systems that resemble tree branches below the seafloor, and the amount of gas flowing through any one pathway can fluctuate.

Joye jotted “deathbed” in her dive log, noting our depth of 2,169 meters.

We never caught a glimpse of methane bubbles or hydrate that day, but returned to Atlantis with one of the largest hauls of mud samples from the two-week cruise ― enough to keep Joye’s and Demopoulos’s labs busy for months.

Samantha Joye and Erik Cordes hug after an Alvin dive to Pea Island seep.
Samantha Joye and Erik Cordes hug after an Alvin dive to Pea Island seep. DEEP SEARCH 2018 – BOEM, USGS, NOAA

While working late one evening in one of Atlantis’ cluttered labs, Joye made a startling discovery in seawater samples from Pea Island. Her students had been busy extracting gas from the water to study the content, which she then put through a gas chromatograph, a sophisticated device that separates a mixture of gases into individual components.

Her jaw dropped as the machine, which she’d nicknamed “Bucky,” kicked back the data.

One sample after another showed that the methane at and above Pea Island was off the charts. Joye wondered if her students were playing tricks on her. Or, even worse, that trusty old Bucky was broken.

She ran the samples again, but the numbers were solid. Methane concentrations at the Pea Island seep were among the highest she’d ever seen.

When she had more time back in her lab at the University of Georgia to crunch the numbers, what she found was even more alarming. Even though the microbes at Pea Island are gobbling up methane about 10 times faster than rates documented at natural seeps in the Gulf, the concentrations are so high that it would take them about 618 days to consume it all ― and that’s if the supply of methane suddenly stopped.

In other words, the microbes at Pea Island aren’t nearly keeping up. And the levels of methane were high in samples throughout the water column, all the way to the surface.

“That suggests that some of it’s going to get into the atmosphere,” Joye said. “That’s very scary.”

Over the last year, Joye has been trying to figure out what those findings mean. We know how methane in the deep ocean behaves under normal conditions, but current climate conditions are anything but normal. The global average temperature is already 1.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The world’s oceans have absorbed an estimated 93% of the excess heat. Meanwhile, Atlantic currents have slowed by an estimated 15% since the mid-20th century.

Joye’s preliminary conclusion is that an increase in hydrate breakdown from ocean warming and a weakening of ocean circulation could lead to a marked increase in methane emissions off the Atlantic coast. She plans to make that argument in an upcoming scientific paper.

Since the cruise, Joye and her students have been exposing the methane-eating microbes to different conditions, trying to better understand what makes them tick and how they might respond under future climate scenarios. This research could prove important for possible human intervention, just as scientists are now exploring cloud seeding and geoengineering to save coral reefs from deadly bleaching events. Maybe scientists can tweak bacteria to make them more efficient at consuming methane, or maybe they can introduce an existing nutrient to stimulate their growth and activity.

Joye’s hunch is that there is a naturally occurring organism out there that, with a little help from humans, could be a fighting force against a potential future methane surge. Her research in the Gulf of Mexico is one reason she thinks that’s possible, as methane-eating bacteria flourished in the initial wake of the oil spill, consuming gas at the highest rate ever recorded in the open ocean.

“Finding that magic organism that’s able to do all the wild metabolisms that we are dreaming of having the capability to do out there ― that’s motivation for doing this work,” she said.

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    Trump administration to relax restrictions on methane, a powerful greenhouse gas

    The oil and gas industry are split on the rollback

    This 2017 photo shows pumpjacks operating in the western edge of California's Central Valley northwest of Bakersfield. (Brian Melley/AP)
    This 2017 photo shows pumpjacks operating in the western edge of California’s Central Valley northwest of Bakersfield. (Brian Melley/AP)
    The Washington Post, By Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis, Aug 29, 2019

    The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it plans to loosen federal rules on methane, a powerful greenhouse gas linked to climate change.

    The proposed rule would reverse standards enacted under President Barack Obama that required oil and gas operators to prevent the release of methane in new drilling wells, pipelines and storage facilities.

    It also challenges the notion that the federal government has the authority to regulate methane without first making a detailed determination that it qualifies as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

    If successful, that change could hamper the ability of future administrations to enact tougher restrictions on methane. Already, the Trump administration has taken several steps to limit the government’s ability to regulate other greenhouse gases in the future, including in a recently finalized rule curbing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

    “EPA’s proposal delivers on President Trump’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use.”

    Methane is a significant contributor to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, though it is shorter-lived than carbon dioxide and is not emitted in amounts as large. It often is leaked as companies drill for gas and transport it across the country, and methane emissions are more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide emissions over the short term.

    Scientists have projected that the world needs to cut its overall greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half by mid-century to avert catastrophic effects from global warming.

    According to the EPA, methane accounted for more than 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities as recently as 2017. Nearly a third of those emissions were generated by the natural gas and petroleum industry.

    U.S. greenhouse gas emissions spiked in 2018 — and it couldn’t happen at a worse time

    “What they’re tackling is whether methane can lawfully be a regulatory pollutant,” Erik Milito, vice president of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said in an interview. “We have a strong consensus that federal agencies need to follow the letter of the law. They did not do that, and they are going back and correcting that.”

    Anne Idsal, assistant administrator​ of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said the administration is confident that methane emissions from oil and gas companies will continue to decline over time, even without the current regulations.

    “Methane is a valuable resource,” Idsal told reporters in a call Thursday. “There’s every incentive for industry to minimize any type of fugitive methane emissions, capture it, use it and sell it down the road.”

    The agency estimates that the proposed changes, which will be subject to public comment for 60 days after they are published, would save the oil and natural gas industry $17 million to $19 million a year.

    But several of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies, including Exxon, Shell and BP, have opposed the rollback and urged the Trump administration to keep the current standards in place. Collectively, these firms account for 11 percent of America’s natural gas output.

    In a statement Thursday, Shell U.S. President Gretchen Watkins reiterated the company’s support for national limits on methane, noting that Shell has pledged to reduce its methane leaks from its global operations to less than 0.2 percent by 2025.

    “We believe sound environmental policies are foundational to the vital role natural gas can play in the energy transition and have made clear our support of 2016 law to regulate methane from new and modified onshore sources,” she said. “Despite the administration’s proposal to no longer regulate methane, Shell’s U.S. assets will continue to contribute to that global target.”

    The Wall Street Journal first reported news of the rollback.

    Idsal said the agency will continue regulating volatile organic compounds, which are also released during oil and gas operations, rather than methane directly. Such limits could cut down on the amount of methane released in the process. Milito noted that by 2023, 90 percent of oil and gas facilities will have to install technology curbing volatile organic compounds.

    In September, the Interior Department eased requirements that oil and gas firms operating on federal and tribal land capture the release of methane.

    Environmentalists threatened to fight the Trump administration’s move in court.

    Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group, called the proposal reckless, saying it shows “complete contempt for our climate.” She said that even the Obama administration’s efforts to limit methane emissions were modest, given the significant amount that escapes into the atmosphere each year.

    “The Obama rule was like a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” Siegel said. “The Trump administration is so fanatical that they couldn’t even live with the Band-Aid. They had to rip off the Band-Aid.”

    The Obama administration’s push to impose the first limits on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry in 2016 came shortly after the EPA found that emissions were on an upswing at a time when booming U.S. shale oil and gas drilling had dramatically driven down the prices of domestic natural gas and global oil alike.

    Ben Ratner, a senior director at the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview that rolling back the regulations could reward bad actors in the industry. Given that many major players had embraced limits on methane, Ratner said, it made little sense for Trump officials to ease such restrictions.

    “It’s more of an ideological reaction to regulation of any climate pollutant by the federal government,” he said.

    Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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      NY TIMES: Environmental Activists Take to Local Protests for Global Results

      Repost from the New York Times

      Environmental Activists Take to Local Protests for Global Results

      By John Schwartz, March 19, 2016
      Bill McKibben was arrested during a protest at Seneca Lake near Reading, N.Y., on March 7. He was protesting the proposed expansion of a natural gas storage facility. Credit Monica Lopossay for The New York Times

      READING, N.Y. — They came here to get arrested.

      Nearly 60 protesters blocked the driveway of a storage plant for natural gas on March 7. Its owners want to expand the facility, which the opponents say would endanger nearby Seneca Lake. But their concerns were global, as well.

      “There’s a climate emergency happening,” one of the protesters, Coby Schultz, said. “It’s a life-or-death struggle.”

      The demonstration here was part of a wave of actions across the nation that combines traditional not-in-my-backyard protests against fossil-fuel projects with an overarching concern about climate change.

      Activists have been energized by successes on several fronts, including the decision last week by President Obama to block offshore drilling along the Atlantic Seaboard; his decision in November to reject the Keystone XL pipeline; and the Paris climate agreement.

      Bound together through social media, networks of far-flung activists are opposing virtually all new oil, gas and coal infrastructure projects — a process that has been called “Keystone-ization.”

      As the climate evangelist Bill McKibben put it in a Twitter post after Paris negotiators agreed on a goal of limiting global temperature increases: “We’re damn well going to hold them to it. Every pipeline, every mine.”

      Regulators almost always approve such projects, though often with modifications, said Donald F. Santa Jr., chief executive of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. Still, the protests are having some impact. The engineering consultants Black and Veatch recently published a report that said the most significant barrier to building new pipeline capacity was “delay from opposition groups.”

      Activists regularly protest at the headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, but there have also been sizable protests in places like St. Paul and across the Northeast.

      In Portland, Ore., where protesters conducted a “kayaktivist” blockade in July to keep Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs from leaving port, the City Council passed a resolution opposing the expansion of facilities for the storage and transportation of fossil fuels.

      Greg Yost, a math teacher in North Carolina who works with the group NC PowerForward, said the activists emboldened one another.

      “When we pick up the ball and run with it here in North Carolina, we’re well aware of what’s going on in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island,” he said. “The fight we’re doing here, it bears on what happens elsewhere — we’re all in this together, we feel like.”

      The movement extends well beyond the United States. In May, a wave of protests and acts of civil disobedience, under an umbrella campaign called Break Free 2016, is scheduled around the world to urge governments and fossil fuel companies to “keep coal, oil and gas in the ground.”

      This approach — think globally, protest locally — is captured in the words of Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and a scholar in residence at Ithaca College who helped organize the demonstration at the storage plant near Seneca Lake: “This driveway is a battleground, and there are driveways like this all over the world.”

      The idea driving the protests is that climate change can be blunted only by moving to renewable energy and capping any growth of fossil fuels.

      Speaking to the crowd at Seneca Lake, Mr. McKibben, who had come from his home in Vermont, said, “Our job on behalf of the planet is to slow them down.”

      He added, “If we can hold them off for two or three years, there’s no way any of this stuff can be built again.”

      The demonstration at Seneca Lake earlier this month. Many protesters cheered when sheriff’s vans arrived. Credit Monica Lopossay for The New York Times

      But the issues are not so clear cut. The protests aimed at natural gas pipelines, for example, may conflict with policies intended to fight climate change and pollution by reducing reliance on dirtier fossil fuels.

      “The irony is this,” said Phil West, a spokesman for Spectra Energy, whose pipeline projects, including those in New York State, have come under attack. “The shift to additional natural gas use is a key contributor to helping the U.S. reduce energy-related emissions and improve air quality.”

      Those who oppose natural gas pipelines say the science is on their side.

      They note that methane, the chief component of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas in the short term, with more than 80 times the effect of carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

      The Obama administration is issuing regulations to reduce leaks, but environmental opposition to fracking, and events like the huge methane plume released at a storage facility in the Porter Ranch neighborhood near Los Angeles, have helped embolden the movement.

      Once new natural gas pipelines and plants are in place, opponents argue, they will operate for decades, blocking the shift to solar and wind power.

      “It’s not a bridge to renewable energy — it’s a competitor,” said Patrick Robbins, co-director of the Sane Energy Project, which protests pipeline development and is based in New York.

      Such logic does not convince Michael A. Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

      “Saying no to gas doesn’t miraculously lead to the substitution of wind and solar — it may lead to the continued operation of coal-fired plants,” he said, noting that when the price of natural gas is not competitive, owners take the plants, which are relatively cheap to build, out of service.

      “There is enormous uncertainty about how quickly you can build out renewable energy systems, about what the cost will be and what the consequences will be for the electricity network,” Mr. Levi said.

      Even some who believe that natural gas has a continuing role to play say that not every gas project makes sense.

      N. Jonathan Peress, an expert on electricity and natural gas markets at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that while companies push to add capacity, the long-term need might not materialize.

      “There is a disconnect between the perception of the need for massive amounts of new pipeline capacity and the reality,” he said.

      Market forces, regulatory assumptions and business habits favor the building of new pipelines even though an evolving electrical grid and patterns of power use suggest that the demand for gas will, in many cases, decrease.

      Even now, only 6 percent of gas-fired plants run at greater than 80 percent of their capacity, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, and nearly half of such plants run at an average load factor of just 17 percent.

      “The electricity grid is evolving in a way that strongly suggests what’s necessary today won’t be necessary in another 20 years, let alone 10 or 15,” Mr. Peress said.

      Back at Seneca Lake, the protesters cheered when Schuyler County sheriff’s vans showed up. The group had protested before, and so the arrests had the friendly familiarity of a contra dance. As one deputy, A.W. Yessman, placed zip-tie cuffs on Catherine Rossiter, he asked jovially, “Is this three, or four?”

      She beamed. “You remember me!”

      Brad Bacon, a spokesman for the owner of the plant at Seneca Lake, Crestwood Equity Partners, acknowledged that it had become more burdensome to get approval to build energy infrastructure in the Northeast even though regulatory experts have tended not to be persuaded by the protesters’ environmental arguments.

      The protesters, in turn, disagree with the regulators, and forcefully. As he was being handcuffed, Mr. McKibben called the morning “a good scene.”

      The actions against fossil fuels, he said, will continue. “There’s 15 places like this around the world today,” he said. “There will be 15 more tomorrow, and the day after that.”

      A version of this article appears in print on March 20, 2016, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Protesters Across U.S. Turn Up Heat on Fossil Fuel. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe
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        Want proof that fracking endangers residential well water?

        Repost from DeSmog Blog

        Exclusive: Pennsylvania Family Dealing with Water Contamination Linked to Fracking Industry

        The Chichura family has flammable well water, most likely due to a fracking job gone wrong in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County. Their water well, along with those of four of their neighbors, was allegedly contaminated with methane in the fall of 2011, shortly after Cabot Oil started drilling operations near their home.

        The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) confirmed the Chichuras had methane in their water on September 21, 2011, and advised them to equip their well with a working vent to avoid a possible ignition.

        The contamination of wells is not an anomaly. The DEP identified 245 sites potentially contaminated by the fracking industry between 2008 and 2014.  …(continued)

        Repost from DeSmog Blog

        Texas Family’s Water Well Explodes, Burns 4-Year Old, Father and Grandfather — and Fracking to Blame, Lawsuit Alleges

        A family in Texas, including a four-year old, her parents and her grandfather, were severely burned when their water well ignited into a massive fireball after methane from nearby fracked wells contaminated their water supply, a newly filed lawsuit against EOG Resources and several related companies alleges.

        Cody Murray, a 38-year old who previously worked in the oil and gas industry, suffered burns to his face, arms, neck and back that were so severe that he was left permanently disabled, no longer able to drive because the nerve damage has left him unable to grip steering wheels or other objects. Cody’s young daughter, who was over 20 feet away from the pump house when it ignited, suffered first and second degree burns, as did Jim Murray, Cody’s father.

        The cause of the blast? Nearby fracked wells, the lawsuit alleges.  …(continued)

         

         

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