Simple way to recycle methane discovered

Methane flaring from a hydraulic fracking well in Pennsylvania. (WCN/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2018

Scientists have recently discovered a way to simply convert excess methane into the building blocks for plastics, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

A study funded by the Department of Energy by researchers at the University of Southern California has identified a one-step chemical process to change methane into basic chemicals ethylene and propylene. Methane is known to be 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, especially in terms of short-term greenhouse gas effects. The gas’ sources include hydraulic fracking wells, organic matter breaking down in landfills or large livestock operations.

The U.S. produces more methane than almost any other country, but the new research presents an opportunity to trap and use the gas. Currently, methane must be shipped via large pipelines from release points to processing areas in order to be converted into anything useful. The study’s authors point out that this practice is cost-prohibitive for many producers, but their research offers a solution. The one-step process means that methane can be captured on-site and transformed into ethylene and propylene without costly transportation.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency several times before becoming its leader, has spoken about the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas in recent public addresses. He claims the agency will work to address the issue, but government spending plans say otherwise. A 2019 federal budget plan proposes a 72 percent funding cut for the Department of Energy renewable energy and energy efficiency program, the very same program that funded this study.

Women more likely to be affected by and act on climate change

Women and children are most susceptible to heat-related illnesses that are becoming more common due to climate change. (Janet Mailbag/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 8, 2018

During a recent speech at Georgetown University, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pointed out that women are disproportionately affected by climate change worldwide.

Research from several sources back up this claim. Discussing global desertification due to drought and intense heat waves, Clinton said, “I would say that particularly for women…they will bear the brunt of looking for the food, looking for the firewood, looking for the place to migrate to when all of the grass is finally gone.”

The gendered effects of climate change extend beyond communities in developing nations, however. Researchers from the Natural Resources Defense Fund point out that two-thirds of those jobs lost after Hurricane Katerina in New Orleans were lost by women. Job creation during the rebuilding periods following natural disasters are primarily in the construction industry and go almost exclusively to men. As a result, 83 percent of single mothers were not able to return to New Orleans following the hurricane.

The changing climate poses unique risks to women’s health as well. Increasingly frequent and intense heat waves can cause low birth weights among pregnant women. Women are also fourteen times more likely to die during a natural disaster than men. Researchers link this to insufficient access to information and warnings as well as a difference in women’s ability to cope with such events.

As Clinton put it, women “bear the brunt” of a changing climate. Perhaps that’s why women in political positions of power are more likely than their male counterparts to sign off on treaties that combat climate change.

Perrin Ireland is a science reporter for the Natural Resources Defense Fund. She said, “Women play critical roles in our communities, and our voices must be heard for climate action. In order to have a resilient future, for the thriving of our communities, women must have a seat at the table.”

Trump administration works to reverse over 65 environmental policies

The federal government no longer requires new infrastructure projects to meet flood protection guidelines. (Melissa Galvez/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 7, 2018

Since taking office about a year ago, the Trump administration has moved to eliminate over 65 environmental regulations and policies, according to a report from the New York Times Climate Team.

The report aggregated data from climate deregulation policy trackers from the environmental law programs at Harvard University and Columbia University to come up with a total of 67 environmental regulations that the administration has sought to rollback. Reporters split the policies into three categories: those that have already been overturned, those that are on their way to being overturned and those whose fate is unclear due of court actions.  The largest category of 33 rules are those that have already been reversed.

There are a few among them that are most relevant for Iowans. First, the administration has reversed an Obama-era regulation that required federal buildings and infrastructure projects to be constructed in accordance with higher flood protection standards. Under this rule, new projects in flood plains would have had to be either elevated or flood proofed at a minimum of two feet above the 100-year floodplain. Recent research from the University of Iowa’s Flood Center found that as the climate continues to warm, the risk of flooding in Iowa and the northern U.S. is increasing.

The administration has also opted to reject the Environmental Projection Agency’s research on a particular pesticide and allow for its further use. Following the EPA’s study of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which found to pose a risk for fetal brain and nervous system development, the Obama administration proposed a ban of the pesticide. Trump-appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt argued that further study of the chemical is needed prior to a ban.

The list of environmental policies reversed by the administration goes on, and just three have been successfully reinstated after environmental groups sued the Trump administration.

The advantages of geothermal energy

Geothermal energy is another viable–but unheard of–source of renewable power (shutterstock)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu| February 6th, 2018

Jim Turner, an operating officer with Australia’s energy company Controlled Thermal Resources, wants more people to know about Geothermal Energy–an often unheard-of source of renewable energy using the Earth’s core heat as its main source.

10 feet or so beneath the Earth’s surface, the ground stays at a near-constant temperature of 50 – 60 degrees Fahrenheit. There are a few different ways to use this temperature to generate electricity; the most common method is to siphon water from just under the surface and create steam to power turbines. Some companies use the heat itself to create a “heat pump” that helps regulate the temperatures in buildings.

Most geothermal energy sites are located in the West of the United States–places with remote stretched of hot desert where the ground is easier to dig into.

The Earth at Western desert sites also satisfy three necessary conditions for ground to actually hold its heat and become a candidate for geothermal farming:it’s hot, wet rock, with enough space and fractures throughout that allow water to flow beneath the surface.

The nation’s Energy Department recently established FORGE, an effort to increase the number of geothermal sites in the United States. Geothermal energy is traditionally overlooked and underfunded, but with some combined effort this natural resource can help continue to reduce our carbon footprint.



Oceans at a record high heat for 2017


Scientists worry that rising ocean heat hints at something bigger (Falln-stock)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | January 30th, 2018

2017 has been widely regarded as one of the hottest years on record. Much of that heat can be measured and cataloged from oceans, which trap around 90% of greenhouse gas emissions, making them perfect record-keepers for climate change. Lijing Cheng and Jiang Zhu, researchers from China, recently released data on their measurements of ocean water temperatures. Their findings were startling: in 2017, the ocean waters measured hotter than in any other previous “record heat-wave” year.

Measurements of the global ocean heat have been fairly consistent since the 1950s, when advancements in environmental technology made detecting degree changes more plausible. Although fluctuations of temperature year-to-year are common, extreme spikes in degrees of heat are indications of dangerously rising climate temperature.

The heat trapped in the ocean waters cause lots of problems for the Earth’s environment–the gas emissions are primary causes for melting ice shelves, declining ocean oxygen, and damaged ocean ecosystems.

Scientists publish data like this in the hopes of piquing public interest in climate change.


Clean energy requires better infrastructure

Renewable energy is the way of the future, but infrastructure needs to improve (PDP)

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | 1/23/2018

The U.S. Energy Information Administration released a statement that contained some encouraging news: Clean, renewable energy use is on the rise, and power plants using coal and fossil fuels are slowly but surely being shut down forever.

In 2017, around 25 gigawatts of utility-scale power was added to the overall power grid –generators capable of producing enough energy to run entire buildings or power grids in residential or business areas. Of those additions, nearly half used renewable energy sources, mostly wind and solar power.

Clean energy comes with some issues, most of them due to infrastructure. Curtailment is the practice of stopping a power plant once it’s produced its fair demand of energy to save on fuel. But this method works better with fossil fuels and consumables. Natural resources, such as wind and solar rays, are often wasted because of curtailment. There is currently no practical way to store excess renewable energy, and any potentially useful clean energy is “wasted” as a result.

Current predictions place wind energy use at around 5.5% nationally.


States resist federal move to expand offshore drilling

A 100 foot flame flares above the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. (Jim McKinley/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 18, 2018

More states are lining up to be exempt from the Trump administration’s plan to expand offshore oil drilling in the United States.

The administration released a proposal earlier in January to make nearly all U.S. coasts available for drilling over the next five years. Last week, the U.S. Interior Department’s Ryan Zinke granted Florida’s coasts exempt from the deal after a short meeting with Gov. Rick Perry, citing concern for the state’s tourist economy. Shortly after, requests to be excluded from the proposal from other coastal states rolled in. Governors and state officials from Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Delaware have asked for meetings with Zinke to discuss the plan’s threat to tourism industries.

Governor John Carney of Delaware posted a Tweet last week, “Tourism and recreation along the Delaware coastline account for billions in economic activity each year, and support tens of thousands of jobs.”

The only states in support of the plan are Alaska and Maine.

Aside from repelling tourists, offshore drilling has serious implications for ocean life and human health. One drilling platform typically releases 90,000 metric tons of drilling fluids and metal cuttings into the sea. Drilling fluids, or drilling muds, which lubricate wells and cool drill pipes, contain toxic chemicals that harm aquatic life. When oil is pumped, water from underground surfaces along with it. Called “produced water,” it contains anywhere from 30 to 40 parts per million of oil. For example, each year in Alaska’ Cook Inlet, 2 billion gallons of produced water contaminates the area with 70,000 gallons of oil.

This new plans marks another rollback of Obama’s environmental legacy, which prohibited offshore drilling in 94 percent of U.S.’s coastal waters.