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A recent study by the Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University showed high concentrations of chloride, bromide, strontium, and radium in wastewater from hydraulic fracturing in Western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale Formation, after undergoing wastewater treatment.

226Ra levels in stream sediments (544−8759 Bq/kg) at the point of discharge were ∼200 times greater than upstream and background sediments (22−44 Bq/kg) and above radioactive waste disposal threshold regulations, posing potential environmental risks of radium bioaccumulation in localized areas of shale gas wastewater disposal.

These potentially dangerous, high levels of sometimes radioactive pollutants were discovered in fracking water that had already been treated at a wastewater treatment plant. This poses serious concerns for treated fracking wastewater, let alone water from hydraulic fracturing that has been documented being dumped into nearby water supplies without first being treated.

The study is Impacts of Shale Gas Wastewater Disposal on Water Quality in Western Pennsylvania. Abstract below. 

Abstract: 

The safe disposal of liquid wastes associated with oil and gas production in the United States is a major challenge given their large volumes and typically high levels of contaminants. In Pennsylvania, oil and gas wastewater is sometimes treated at brine treatment facilities and discharged to local streams. This study examined the water quality and isotopic compositions of discharged effluents, surface waters, and stream sediments associated with a treatment facility site in western Pennsylvania. The elevated levels of chloride and bromide, combined with the strontium, radium, oxygen, and hydrogen isotopic compositions of the effluents reflect the composition of Marcellus Shale produced waters. The discharge of the effluent from the treatment facility increased downstream concentrations of chloride and bromide above background levels. Barium and radium were substantially (>90%) reduced in the treated effluents compared to concentrations in Marcellus Shale produced waters. Nonetheless, 226Ra levels in stream sediments (544−8759 Bq/kg) at the point of discharge were ∼200 times greater than upstream and background sediments (22−44 Bq/kg) and above radioactive waste disposal threshold regulations, posing potential environmental risks of radium bioaccumulation in localized areas of shale gas wastewater
disposal.

China smog emergency shuts city of 11 million people

BEIJING, China – Choking smog all but shut down one of northeastern China’s largest cities on Monday, forcing schools to suspended classes, snarling traffic and closing the airport, in the country’s first major air pollution crisis of the winter.

An index measuring PM2.5, or particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5), reached a reading of 1,000 in some parts of Harbin, the gritty capital of northeastern Heilongjiang province and home to some 11 million people.

A level above 300 is considered hazardous, while the World Health Organization recommends a daily level of no more than 20.

“You can’t see your own fingers in front of you,” Harbin’s official news site noted.

Wind turbines and solar panels on the Indigo Tower at Twelve West in Portland, Oregon

Wind turbines and solar panels on the Indigo Tower at Twelve West in Portland, Oregon

I was visiting Portland, Oregon, last weekend, and I came across this building while wandering around near Powell’s Books.

This is the Indigo Tower at Twelve West in Portland’s West End. This building is certified LEED Platinum, and you can see wind turbines and solar panels on the roof.

Why don’t we have buildings like this in Denver? We certainly get enough wind. I’m jealous.

The Gallup annual environmental survey, released March 29, 2012, shows that 49% of Americans prioritize economic growth over environmental protection, while 41% of Americans value protection over growth. That’s an 8-point margin in favor of growth, down from last year’s 18-point margin.

During times of economic hardship it’s understandable that people, especially those that are having trouble paying their bills or are in danger of losing their jobs, would prioritize economic growth over protection of the environment.

But there’s something funny going on with this poll. Let’s take a look at the question:

With which one of these statements about the environment and the economy do you most agree – [ROTATED: protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth (or) economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent]?

This question strikes me as a little misleading. They seem to suggest that environmental protection and economic growth cannot occur simultaneously. Perhaps the phrasing of the question is a reflection of the common misconception that environmental protection comes at the cost of economic growth.

So what this poll has actually discovered is that 49% of Americans favor the economy over the environment when protecting the environment curbs economic growth.

Economic growth and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive; economic growth can spur innovation in renewable energy and energy efficient technologies, and investment in such technologies can promote economic growth.

As Robert and Edward Ayres report in Crossing the Energy Divide, American steelmaker ArcelorMittal has a program called “cokenergy”, where excess heat from blast furnaces is used to generate electricity and heat their facilities. The program generates enough electricity to power their entire Chicago plant, at about half the cost of electricity from the local utility. This saves ArcelorMittal money that can then be used elsewhere, like hiring workers, buying equipment, or R&D.

Some estimates say the US gained over 9 million jobs in the renewable and energy efficiency industry in 2007 alone. This might be an optimistic estimate, but even if only a fraction of that number of jobs have been created, implying that environmental protection cannot occur at the same time as economic growth is simply incorrect.

And then there are all the jobs from natural gas development. Granted, natural gas isn’t as environmentally friendly as solar or wind, but I think an argument can be made that the expansion in natural gas exploration (and subsequent job creation) was at least partly influenced by the push toward lower-carbon energy sources.

But I digress. The point is that the wording of the question above from Gallup’s annual environmental survey appears somewhat misleading, which may affect the results of the survey.

That’s not to say that Gallup’s results are invalid, just that the results may not accurately reflect Americans’ attitudes toward the importance of environmental protection. It’s possible that, if the phrases “even at the risk of curbing economic growth” and “even if the environment suffers to some extent” were removed from the survey, the results would reflect a different trend among Americans.

That doesn’t mean that changing the language would necessarily show that more Americans are concerned about the environment. Maybe environmentalists would be more willing to choose the economic development option if they didn’t think it reduced environmental protections. Or maybe others would be more inclined to promote environmental protection if it wasn’t portrayed as reducing economic growth.

There is no doubt that the pollsters at Gallup are very careful to write questions that are unbiased. It’s possible that they’ve considered all of this already, and have decided that the effects are negligible.

One last thing. The chart below shows a decent correlation between the recessions in ’81,’90,’01, and ’07 and a narrowing of the gap between those who support environmental protection and those who support economic growth.

Image Credit: Gallup

Image Credit US Coast Guard

In 2011, the top five oil companies (BP, Chevron, Conoco, Shell, Exxon Mobil) posted a combined profit of $137 billion. In the first quarter of 2012, these companies earned a combined $33.5 billion.

These windfall profits were enough to put Exxon and Chevron in the first and second spots, respectively, of the Fortune 500 most profitable list.

Last year, fossil fuel companies got $11 billion in government subsidies.

How can we justify giving these companies our tax dollars when budget cuts have forced the de-funding of social programs and the layoffs of over 100,000 teachers nationwide?

Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) announced they will introduce the End Polluter Welfare Act to Congress.

“People are sick and tired,” said Sanders, “of seeing the same folks who want to cut nutrition programs for hungry children fight tooth and nail to preserve federal tax breaks that go to Exxon Mobil – one of the most profitable corporations in history.”

This legislation will save the Federal government (and taxpayers) over $11 billion annually by doing away with fossil fuel subsidies, such as tax breaks, special financing, and taxpayer funded research and development.

According to 350.org, getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies will put $807 per year back into the pockets of US taxpayers.

The fossil fuel industry receives nearly six times more in government subsidies than the renewable energy industry. This creates significant entry barriers (see oligopoly) for the renewable energy industry and stifles competition.

A fact sheet hosted on Senator Sanders’ website shows how doing away with fossil fuel subsidies will save money in the years to come. I’ve listed some of the highlights below:

– $14 billion saved by eliminating the intangible drilling deduction, which allows oil and gas companies to deduct up to 80 percent of the costs of drilling.

– $12 billion saved by repealing a law passed in 2004 that allows oil companies to claim manufacturing tax credits.

– $6.8 billion saved by closing the loophole that allows corporations like BP to deduct costs incurred from cleaning up spills and paying damages. How can we expect oil companies to prevent spills if they can rely on taxpayers to pay for cleanup?

– $10.6 billion saved by recouping lost royalties for offshore drilling in public waters.

The End Polluter Welfare Act is good for the economy because it will reduce market distortions, put money back in the pockets of taxpayers, and promote green job creation.

Senator Sanders is asking citizens to speak out against corporate welfare by calling and emailing their senators and representatives, or by signing the petition.

Welcome to Economics, Politics, and the Environment, where I will pontificate at length on issues that I think are important. You have no doubt already guessed what many of those topics will be.

A little about me: I have a bachelor’s degree in Economics with a minor in environmental science and (almost) one in politics. I am endlessly fascinated (an usually very frustrated) with our economy and political system, and I’ll admit that I’ve become a little obsessed since the start of campaign season.

I am currently employed in the mortgage due diligence industry, though my interests lean more towards sustainability and renewable energy economics and policy. It has, however, given me a lot of perspective on the sub-prime mortgage crisis and resulting recession, as well as the housing market in general.

In the fall I will be starting graduate school for natural resource and environmental economics.

Now, maybe you’re thinking, “Economics is boring! Why would someone want to study so much of that?!”

Sometimes economics is really boring, I’ll admit. But most of the time, I think it provides a unique way of looking at the world that, at least for me, helps me make connections between policy, the economy, and sustainable practices that might otherwise never occur to me.

I’m also an insatiable reader, so expect occasional posts about what I’m reading and why you should read it too.