Gas Just Another Fossil-Fuel Loser in Obama Push for Renewables

From an Article by Naureen Malik and Harry Weber, Bloomberg News Service, August 4, 2015

Natural gas, once seen as a clear winner in President Barack Obama’s push for cleaner power, isn’t looking like much of a champ these days.

That so-called bridge that gas was supposed to be, leading America away from dirtier fossil fuels such as coal and toward renewable power, just got a lot shorter under the final Clean Power Plan released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday. The agency will reward early investments in wind and solar power to get the nation generating 28 percent of its power using renewables by 2030, up from a previously proposed 22 percent.

The more aggressive goal weakens natural gas’s role in America’s energy future in favor of a quicker transition to zero-carbon sources of electricity. It’s yet another blow for gas producers who’ve seen prices for their fuel slide amid a glut of supply from shale formations.

“Given the relatively accelerated timeline required to meet the interim target, the so-called ‘bridge’ has been largely eliminated and replaced by renewables,” said Teri Viswanath, director of commodities strategy at BNP Paribas SA in New York. “The industry often emphasizes that natural gas is twice as clean as coal. However, doesn’t this imply that it is just half as dirty?”

The final plan is a clear boon for companies such as SolarCity Corp. and NextEra Energy Inc. that have invested billions in renewable generation. Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s energy unit, Apple Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. are among U.S. corporations that have pledged to invest at least $140 billion to shrink their carbon footprint as part of a White House initiative.

The EPA is “obviously stressing to get away from coal, but they are also stressing over time to get away from natural gas,” said Bob Yawger, director of the futures division at Mizuho Securities USA Inc. in New York. “I am looking at it as bearish in a very long-term kind of way.”

For the operators of the nation’s power grids, it’s potentially a bigger headache. They’ll have to juggle the retirement of dependable coal-fired plants while dealing with an onslaught of often volatile renewable power generation and, perhaps, less gas-fired supply to back up the entire system. “If the population wants to go renewable, there’s no reason we can’t, but it’s going to be expensive and everybody should understand that,” said Ed Hirs, a lecturer on energy economics at the University of Houston. “Going full-speed ahead is going to bring with it new problems.”

Only 5.5 percent of U.S. power generation comes from wind and solar. Almost a third comes from gas. The country needs gas to deal with the intermittent nature of solar and wind, said Stacy Nemeroff, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence.

“The only way to get from here to a lower-carbon-emitting future is through natural gas and natural gas generation,” Thad Hill, chief executive officer of Calpine Corp., the largest U.S. operator of gas-fueled plants, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television Monday. In a conference call with reporters Sunday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said gas will remain a key part of the U.S. power mix while also acknowledging the administration’s desire to push the industry toward renewables.

In April, gas produced more power than any other source, overtaking coal as the primary plant fuel for the first time thanks to supplies surging out of U.S. shale formations.


Fact or Fiction?: Natural Gas Will Reduce Global Warming Pollution

From an Article by David Biello, Scientific American Magazine, August 3, 2015

A drop in U.S. carbon dioxide pollution in recent years stems from burning natural gas instead of coal. Or does it? Given that the U.S. bid to combat climate change through actions like the Clean Power Plan relies on more burning of gas than coal in power plants, that answer is both politically and scientifically important.

Compared with coal, burning natural gas results in roughly half the amount of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity. Yet even half the CO2, when spread over hundreds of power plants,is too much to achieve such goals as a CO2-emission reduction of 80 percent by 2050 or 100 percent by the end of this century, in order to avoid more than 2 degree Celsius of global warming, more acidic oceans, inexorable sea level rise and extreme weather, among other unpleasant impacts predicted by scientists.

Under the terms of the Clean Power Plan, the most advanced natural gas burning power plants can still emit 771 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity produced. So is natural gas a bridge to a cleaner energy future or a slightly longer route to climate catastrophe?

To answer that question the past may provide a rough guide. At roughly the same time after the turn of the 21st century the U.S. underwent a recession, an energy transition to more natural gas and a move away from producing highly polluting products such as steel. So which of these factors deserves the most credit for the accompanying drop in the nation’s global warming pollution?

It’s an important puzzle to solve because recessions are not widely viewed as a policy option (advocates of “degrowth” notwithstanding) whereas the export of fracking—the process by which natural gas is extracted from shale rock—to other countries to help deliver a cleaner fossil fuel habit is.

To disentangle all these competing explanations or at least find out their relative importance, scientists have used a mathematical technique known as structural decomposition analysis. Here’s how it works: There is a big number to look at, say, total consumption in an economy. This big number can be broken down into contributing factors, such as population size and consumption per person.

Hold population steady through time as total consumption changes and you derive the change in total consumption caused by a change in consumption per person. Then hold consumption per person steady while changing population size and you derive how much of total consumption comes from each of these factors.

A group of scientists and economists used such a mathematical analysis to look at U.S. CO2 emissions between 1997 and 2013, a period that saw total pollution drop by nearly 800 million metric tons, or roughly the annual pollution of Germany. The group looked at six different factors: population and consumption per person, but in addition shifts in consumption patterns; shifts in industry; the energy intensity of the economy; and changes in the fuel mix.

The study found that prior to 2007 (and, hence, the start of the recession), U.S. CO2 pollution continued to grow, largely because the economy continued to expand; people bought more and more. After 2007 U.S. CO2 pollution dropped but roughly 80 percent of that decline was because people and companies bought and built less stuff, supplemented by the shift away from heavy industry. This finding matches a slew of previous analyses by the U.S.

Energy Information Administration, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and CO2 Scorecard, among others, that have also concluded that the 2008 great recession was largely responsible for the observed emission reductions. In fact, one warm winter in 2012 alone played an outsize role in recent CO2 reductions.

Natural gas did play a significant supporting role in reducing pollution from the energy sector, however—a role that has increased over time as people and companies have started buying more stuff. The shift away from burning coal has counterbalanced population growth, according to this new analysis. In fact, cheap and abundant natural gas appears to have helped keep some 160 new coal-fired power plants from being built, which would have spewed hundreds of millions of metric tons of CO2 over the years.

Coal’s share of electricity generation in the U.S. has been dropping since 2009 and more than 180 gigawatts of power plants that burn natural gas have been built since 1990. The electricity from a one-gigawatt coal-fired power plant can be replaced by burning one billion cubic meters of natural gas instead, resulting in an annual savings of roughly three million metric tons of CO2 in addition to reductions in other air pollution, like the sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain or the nitrogen oxides that create smog. There is now 1.5 times more potential electricity generation from burning natural gas than from burning coal in the U.S., and coal-fired power plants representing roughly 7 percent of this country’s electricity generation are retiring this year, mostly in the eastern half of the country.

An analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory suggests that natural gas and renewables like wind turbines and solar panels have picked up the slack produced by missing coal—the beginnings it seems of a long-term energy transition. More simply put, natural gas may be keeping a lid on growth in CO2 emissions from generating electricity in the U.S. at present.

But natural gas hasn’t just killed coal. From Florida to Wisconsin, gas-fired power plants are replacing nuclear ones. That fuel switch actually increases CO2 pollution, however. And, in the absence of mandates like renewable portfolio standards—mandates for a certain percentage of electricity to derive from renewable resources—natural gas could also prevent the building of wind and solar farms or geothermal power plants.

Furthermore, all those power plants that burn natural gas will still spew CO2, albeit less than the equivalent coal-fired power plant. In a world aimed at zero emissions, that reduction is not good enough ultimately. In fact, the more than 1,000 gigawatts of natural gas–fired power plants built around the world would spew roughly 300 billion metric tons of CO2 if operated over the next 50 years—or more than half of the world’s remaining carbon budget. Exceeding that budget may lock in the worst of climate change, whether fast sea level rise or extreme weather.

Cheap natural gas may even slow the shift away from heavy industry in the U.S.: New fertilizer plants and chemical plants have already been built as a result of cheap and abundant natural gas and new steel plants may not be far behind. Finally, natural gas can leak, adding methane to the atmosphere, which also exacerbates global warming.

In the context of an energy transition that may take decades the U.S. does not have 20 years for natural gas to kill coal and replace oil in power and transportation, respectively, followed by another 50 years needed to replace now-entrenched natural gas with renewables and/or nuclear power plants powering electric cars and trucks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects natural gas to be producing one-third of U.S. electricity in 2030 and technologies that might make natural gas near-zero carbon, like those that capture and store CO2, have yet to be tried or even tested on the gaseous fossil fuel.

For all these reasons, natural gas makes for a weak bridge to a zero-pollution future and truly clean power—one that cannot span more than a few decades. Still, a bridge made of gas is better than none at all.

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Micro-plastics form as plastic trash deteriorates to foul waterways and accumulate in wildlife

Plastic Trash is Contaminating Landfills, Streams, Rivers & Oceans — The Public Health is at Risk Around the World

From an Article by Marc Hillmyer, Ensia, University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, July 29, 2015

Minneapolis — The fate of the world’s oceans may rest inside a stainless steel tank not quite the size of a small beer keg. Inside, genetically modified bacteria turn corn syrup into a churning mass of polymers that can be used to produce a wide variety of common plastics.

“It’s a bit like making yogurt,” says Oliver Peoples, chief scientific officer of Metabolix, Inc.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts–based company where bioplastics take shape in laboratory-scale fermentation chambers is one of a growing number of businesses and institutions working to develop cost-competitive, more environmentally friendly replacements for conventional plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, fail to decompose and are turning our oceans into seas of floating plastic.

“We’ve seen this huge increase in production in plastic that results in an increase in the waste stream as well,” says Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineering faculty member at the University of Georgia. “Unlike material that biodegrades, plastic has all of these issues. It easily travels into waterways, it physically fragments into smaller pieces which are extremely hard or impossible to collect, and [it tends to] absorb chemical contaminants that are already in the environment.”

Some 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons (5.3 million to 14 million tons) of plastic, or up to 4 percent of the roughly 300 million metric tons (330 million tons) of plastic produced each year, entered the ocean as trash in 2010. The figure is expected to increase 10-fold in the next decade as more plastic is produced and subsequently evades waste management and recycling efforts, according to a study Jambeck and colleagues published earlier this year in the journal Science.

What effect all this plastic has on living things, including humans, remains unclear. A number of recent studies show that chemicals in small bits of plastic, and even the plastic bits themselves, can accumulate in birds, fish and other marine life. Laboratory testing has shown the chemicals that comprise them can cause adverse health effects, including liver damage and endocrine disruption through altered gene expression. Whether similar effects occur outside the laboratory or whether they extend up the food chain to people who eat marine organisms remains unknown, yet both seem entirely plausible.

And that’s not all. Plastics are notorious in the greenhouse gas department as well. Roughly 8 percent of the petroleum used worldwide each year goes to make plastic directly or to power the plastic manufacturing processes, according to a recent report by the Worldwatch Institute. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with bioplastics are 26 percent lower than those associated with conventional plastic, according to a recent life-cycle analysis of corn-based and petroleum-based plastic by researchers at Michigan State University.

Emerging Alternatives

Finding non-petroleum-based, decomposable alternatives to today’s plastics, however, isn’t easy. Plastic made from corn, sugarcane or other plant-based material isn’t necessarily degradable, and getting degradation to occur when you want it to can be difficult.

“You don’t want your plastic bag to degrade while you are using it,” Hillmyer says. “On the other hand you want it to degrade rapidly when put into another environment.”

While chemists have had difficulty reformulating petroleum-based plastics so that they can degrade, a number of bio-based, degradeable alternatives are emerging.

Despite these and other recent successes, bioplastics remain a tiny fraction of the industry as a whole. Natureworks, a company based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, is one of the world’s leading manufactures of bioplastics. The company makes polylactic acid, or PLA, a biodegradable plastic it sources from cornstarch and makes into a wide range of consumer products — including single-use flatware, cups and packaging — that decompose at the end of their useful life. The company’s initial production facility in Blair, Nebraska, came online in 2002 and can produce 140,000 metric tons (150,000 tons) of PLA per year. The company recently announced plans to open a second plant in Southeast Asia that would use sugarcane as its

The Coca-Cola Company in 2009 launched PlantBottle, a drink bottle made from 30 percent sugarcane-based polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. The bottles are not degradable but, unlike most biobased plastics, can be recycled along with conventional PET, a commonly recycled plastic. Since 2009 the company has produced 35 billion of its original PlantBottles. In June 2015 the company unveiled a new version that is 100 percent biobased.

Government regulation, however, is leading to the increased use of bioplastics. In 2014 Illinois banned microbeads, tiny plastic abrasives commonly used in facial scrubs, shampoo and toothpaste, due to concerns about environmental degradation in the Great Lakes. At less than one millimeter in diameter, microbeads are too small to be filtered by sewage treatment systems and have been found in both freshwater and marine environments.

With a federal ban on microbeads expected, Metabolix partnered with Honeywell in March to produce a biodegradable alternative to microbeads The microbeads the two companies are developing are made from Polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHA, a bio-based plastic that is more expensive but also more versatile than PLA. The microbeads the two companies are developing are made by fermenting cornstarch, though they could also be made from non-food crops such as switchgrass. PHA microbeads will degrade into carbon dioxide and water in a matter of months at the same rate as cellulose or paper, Peoples says.

Around the Down Sides

As we increase our reliance on plastics sourced from crops such as corn or sugarcane, we could inadvertently introduce new environmental concerns. A recent study in the journal Cleaner Production noted bioplastics grown from agricultural feedstocks use significant amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizers that can cause air and water pollution and compete for land with crops grown for food.

One possible way to get around the down sides of plant-based plastics while still reducing dependence on petroleum is to use CO2 as a feedstock instead. Novomer, a company spun out from research at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is turning waste CO2 from ethanol production plants into plastic. The company makes polyols — polymers used to make flexible foam found in mattresses, seat cushions and insulation, as well as a range of specialty coatings and sealants.

“If your mattress was made with our material, it would be roughly 22 percent by weight carbon dioxide,” says Peter Shepard, Novomer’s executive vice president of polymers. “It takes a greenhouse gas that is a waste material and turns it into a valuable product.”

Typically CO2 is too inert to react with other compounds, making its use in plastics or other applications difficult. Geoffrey Coates, a chemistry professor at Cornell University in Ithaca and a co-founder of Novomer, developed a catalyst that increased the reactivity of CO2 while simultaneously slowing down the reactivity of another key polyol ingredient — making it easier to incorporate CO2 into the resulting polymer.

The biggest challenge for bioplastics is that they are competing against conventional plastics, incredibly inexpensive materials that have been honed for the past 60 years, Scheer says.The polyols made by Novomer are degradable but lose their degradability when combined with petroleum-based chemicals to make foam.

Though the company is currently focused on making foams and sealants, Shepard says Novomer’s CO2-based polymers could be used to make degradable plastics with a CO2 content as high as 50 percent.

Biggest Challenge

Despite strong growth in recent years, some say bioplastics haven’t lived up to their potential.

“The bioplastics industry has not been able to create polymers that are attractive enough in terms of pricing and in terms of properties that will make the world willing to change,” says Frederick Scheer, the former CEO of Cereplast, a once-leading bioplastics company that declared bankruptcy in 2014.

“People are somewhat conscious of the environmental impact of oil-based materials that will not biodegrade, but they are not willing to spend the extra dollars to push [new] types of materials,” he says.

Competition with petroleum-based plastic has only intensified over the past year as the price of oil has dropped in half. “In order to be competitive with traditional oil-based material we needed the price of oil to be somewhere around $130, $140 a barrel,” Scheer says. “Clearly, at $50 a barrel we are far away from being able to compete.”

Scheer says the capacity to make all of the world’s plastic from non-petroleum sources exists, but to do so would require significant government support. “It will have to be driven by regulation that will force the cost of plastic and cost of oil to be substantially higher than it is right now,” he says.

Polyethylene Competitor?

If sustainable plastics that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and degrade at the end of their useful life are going to go mainstream, they will have to be able to sub in not only for microbeads, foam and other specialty applications but also for thermoplastics — low-cost, shapeable polymers that comprise more than 80 percent of the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic produced each year.

Coates is now working on a new biopolymer with properties comparable to or perhaps better than polyethylene, the most widely produced thermoplastic used to make everything from trash bags to water bottles to plastic toys.

Even a thin layer of polyethylene is incredibly strong, making, for example, mailing envelopes that are nearly impossible to open without scissors or milk jugs that don’t break when dropped on the floor. “Most of that is because it’s a semicrystalline material,” Coates says. “The [polymer] chains pack next to each other in a very tight and specific fashion that overall, gives pretty impressive properties.”

In a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Coates and colleagues at Cornell described a new material with a semicrystalline structure that is made from a sugar feedstock and has properties similar to polyethylene, yet is better able to decompose at the end of its useful life.

The new material, known as poly(polypropylene succinate), hasn’t been tested to see how quickly it would decompose in a landfill or marine environment. But based on its composition, Coates says, it should begin to degrade in water after several months, a time period that would exceed the useful life of most single use products. Poly(polypropylene succinate) breaks down into propylene glycol and succinic acid, nontoxic materials that are further reduced to CO2 and water when ingested by microbes.

It’s unlikely that poly(polypropylene succinate) will ever cost less on a pound-for-pound basis than conventional polyethylene, but its unique crystalline structure suggests it could perform better than its petroleum counterpart. If so, bioplastics manufacturers may someday be able to compete with today’s plastics industry by making things like milk jugs with significantly less material than petroleum-based plastics.

Uphill Battle

Short of sweeping government regulations that place a price on carbon or require all plastics to biodegrade, bioplastics will have to find ways to outcompete conventional plastics if they are ever going to fill more than niche applications.

It’s an uphill battle — but one that another once-niche product, the solar panel, is increasingly winning. In 2007 solar power made up less than 0.1 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Thanks to ingenuity and innovation, the price of photovoltaic modules has dropped from $4 per watt to $0.50 per watt, making solar the fastest growing source of electricity in the country.

Might those working on bioplastics see a similar sea change? Ultimately, a lot will likely ride not only on how well their products break down, but on how much they can break down conventional plastic’s competitive edge.

See also:


Natural Energy Research Goes Off the Deep End — Fact or Fiction!

August 2, 2015

NSF: Could deep-Earth microbes help us frack for oil & gas? From an Article by Sean Cockerham, McClatchy DC News Service, July 28, 2015 On a muddy hill above a World War II ordnance plant that made material for atomic bombs, a fracking crew will drill thousands of feet underground in a search for life [...]

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Recalling What Fracking is Really Like on the Ground

August 1, 2015

Down Fracking’s Memory Lane – Remembering What Some Would Rather Forget Commentary by S. Tom Bond, Concerned Citizen of Lewis County, WV, July 30, 2015 Remember when horizontal slickwater fracking began? How it was a triumph of private enterprise, when in fact it had been invented at Morgantown WV in the US Department of Energy [...]

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Virtual Marches and Real Marches are Raising Awareness of Global Warming

July 31, 2015

Letter from Laurie David, Founder of “The Stop Global Warming Virtual March” Dear Fellow Marcher (July 30, 2015): Ten years ago, I had an idea to build a large grassroots movement demanding solutions to global warming. With the help of friends and mentors including NRDC founder John Adams, former NRDC president Frances Bienecke, Senator John [...]

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U.S. Natural Gas to be Exported, Higher Prices Projected

July 30, 2015

Natural Gas Awakening From U.S. Shale Slumber as LNG Shipments come On-Line From an Article by Naureen Malik and Christine Buurma, Bloomberg News Service, July 30, 2015 After years of languishing in a shale-induced coma, the U.S. natural gas market is waking up. Seasonal price swings will intensify as the country begins shipping liquefied natural [...]

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A Plea to West Virginians – Consider Peaceful Civil Disobedience as an Alternative

July 29, 2015

A Plea to West Virginians: Throw off your oppressors before surrendering or joining the exodus, get educated and fight – peacefully – against the powerful interests which control The Mountain State From an Article by Michael M. Barrick, Appalachian Chronicle, July 20, 2015 Alum Bridge, WV – The recent admission by Secretary Randy Huffman of the [...]

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Drilling Rig Count Down in Various Shale Regions from Last Year

July 28, 2015

Baker – Hughes releases weekly & annual shale drilling rig count From Pittsburgh Business Times, July 27, 2015 The number of drilling rigs in the Marcellus Shale stayed steady last week, although it’s down significantly from a year ago. There were 59 rotary rigs working the multistate Marcellus Shale play as of July 24, according to [...]

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Spreading Mesospheric Ice Clouds Shine at Night

July 27, 2015

Noctilucent Clouds, Methane & Climate Change From an Article by Damond Benningfield, StarDate Today, July 26, 2015 If you live at high northern latitudes, you might see some eerie clouds at this time of year. They show up for a little while in deep twilight, and shine electric blue. And they appear to have a [...]

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Our EARTH is in the Balance of Unseen Forces

July 26, 2015

President Obama Releases First Blue Marble Earth Photo in 43 Years From an Article by Lorraine Chow,, July 21, 2015 NASA’s new Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite has released a stunning, new Blue Marble photo for the first time in four decades, prompting President Obama to tweet a gentle reminder “that we need [...]

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