Category Archives: climate change

MA House Passes Gas Leaks Bill

In a unanimous vote, the House passed a bill to require utility companies to stop leaks from their gas lines. As reported in the Boston Globe (2/13/2014),

Boston’s gas pipelines are riddled with thousands of small leaks — often the cause of the occasional rotten-egg-like whiff of mercaptan-laced gas that passerbys smell. Federal and state legislators have called for fixes, citing both safety concerns and the amount of money lost from leaking gas that never gets to consumers.

State Representative Lori Ehrlich, the Marblehead Democrat who filed the bill, said she was delighted at this step toward addressing the problem.

“The law has permitted gas companies to merely monitor more than 20,000 gas leaks throughout the Commonwealth,” Ehrlich said in a statement. “These unrepaired methane leaks waste almost $40 million of a natural resource annually, and often lead to deadly explosions.’’

SAFE has been a strong proponent of fixing the gas links, particularly in light of the proposal to build a new gas-generation power plant in Salem.

SALEM GAS PLANT AND THE LOW-CARBON FUTURE

Salem Alliance for the Environment (SAFE) released the following statement in response to the February 8 demonstration in Salem by 350-MA.

SAFE fully agrees with 350MA that the United States must take immediate steps to address global climate change. However, SAFE believes that the proposed quick-start, high efficiency natural-gas power plant for our city is consistent with the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act and can play a positive role in decarbonizing the electric grid in the three decades ahead.

As a seaside community, Salem should be on the forefront of addressing the climate crisis. If we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, including sea level rise that could risk putting a part of our own community under water, the world must reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050. Like the sponsors of the protest against the proposed gas plant in Salem, we are in search of a viable path forward.

Our vision for Salem includes a large-scale maritime wind farm off of Cape Ann—a project that would become more viable if the proposed Salem gas plant goes forward.  And as advocates for solar energy, we are pleased that Salem is one of 15 communities that have been selected for the second round of Solarize Mass.

We also recognize the growing evidence that hydrofracking is severely damaging the environment and peoples’ lives. We strongly oppose this practice and believe it should be stopped until proven safe. To that end, SAFE supports federal and state regulation of fracking and legislation that forces utilities to prevent chemical contamination of drinking water supplies and to fully address methane leaks in the gas distribution infrastructure.

The “easy” work in reducing emissions has been done here in Massachusetts, with all coal-fired power plants scheduled to close by 2017. Going forward the choices become more difficult. Among the steps we can take to further reduce emissions in the short run is to replace older gas generation with high-efficiency quick-start plants similar to the one proposed for Salem.

The challenge of renewable energy is that it is intermittent: the sun doesn’t shine at night, and the wind can die down at any time. The older plants that currently power the grid are not good at filling in these interruptions in power production because they take 12-36 hours to ramp up to full power. The proposed gas plant for Salem is a much better choice to be paired with large renewable projects because it offers super-efficient generation with the flexibility of being able to increase or decrease power generation in an hour’s time, without having to run any more than needed.

During this recent cold spell, our reliance on the dirtiest fossil fuels – coal and oil – for our region’s electricity has escalated dramatically. This situation underscores the need for gas as a transitional fuel until renewables can take up the slack. Otherwise, we are exposing ourselves not only to the unnecessary risks of rolling brownouts that ISO New England (the region’s non-profit electric grid manager) has so forcefully warned us about in their recent statements but also a reliance on dirtier fuels that increase our greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural gas power generation is not a panacea but rather a transitional step. It is a much cleaner-burning fuel and creates fewer carbon emissions than either coal or oil. For gas generation to be part of the solution, however, public policies must ensure that gas extraction and transmission meet the highest standards.

In the next 30 years, we must make major changes in how we generate, transmit and use electricity. Our policymakers here in Massachusetts and in Washington, DC, need to make a far greater commitment to investing in renewable energy generation and in the national network of transmission infrastructure needed to deliver that power to every community in America. Once that infrastructure is in place, then natural gas generation can—and should—be phased out.

This is a need and vision that will take decades to make real. During this transition we have a choice of relying on older gas generation or upgrading to the latest and most efficient gas turbines that will allow us to introduce more renewables, not fewer, into the regional power grid.

Our goal should be to build a national transmission network powered by thousands of renewable energy projects distributed all over the system. That will allow us to decarbonize our electricity in this country safely and dependably.  If we choose not to build high-efficiency gas plants at strategic locations on the existing power grid, we miss the opportunity to create the infrastructure of the future–today.

We must recognize that in order to transition from our current electric system to one in the future powered mostly by renewable energy, we need several interim steps. We believe this proposed plant is one of the steps on this pathway to a low carbon future that our region and country must pursue and develop.

We should not let unrealistic short-term idealism, regardless of how well-intentioned, limit long term progress.

Read  SAFE’s earlier statement on Footprint Power’s proposed gas generating plant for Salem Harbor.

Plant can be part of renewable energy future

SAFE members recently published two letters in the Salem News.

From Karen Kahn:

David Pelletier, in his Dec. 31 column (”They got their wish, and now they don’t want it”), unfortunately undermines his credibility by implying that climate change concerns may be overblown. Over the last 15 years, the risks from fossil fuels have increased, and many credible people now are concerned about our reliance on natural gas, as well as coal and oil for electricity production.

What makes Healthlink’s position ingenuous is a refusal to look at the specifics of the Footprint proposal. The SAFE board, of which I am a member, has studied the proposal and concluded that it is not only good for Salem but a positive step forward for the environment.

The proposed gas plant has many features that make it a good transition to a renewable energy future. Its quick-start technology allows for half of its full capacity to come online in just 10 minutes, reducing the amount of carbon pollution that older plants spew during the full day that it takes them to get online. Moreover, this type of plant can provide “firming” power for renewables, quickly getting up to full production when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

Reducing the risks of climate change is a goal we should all share. It is unfortunate that our communities are fighting with each other over a good proposal, rather than seeking common ground in addressing the crisis that we all face.

From Stan Franzeen:

In his Jan. 8 letter to The Salem News (“Are wind and solar energy the answer?”), Robert D’Entremont vividly points out the real-world challenges of replacing Salem’s massive coal-burning power plant with solar or wind technologies.

The following day, Commonwealth Magazine revealed that “data compiled by New England’s power grid operator indicate plants running on coal and oil have been producing between 14 and 21 percent of the region’s electricity over the last few days. During all of 2012, coal accounted for 3 percent of the region’s power output and oil just 1 percent. The recent shift to coal and oil sharply increases carbon emissions, but it keeps the lights on.”

Although I believe that non-carbon energy sources are critical to solving our growing climate crisis, the above report is a perfect illustration of SAFE’s position that until sustainable technologies take up the slack, gas will be needed to meet the energy requirements that ISO New England has so forcefully concluded we need.

It’s a bitter pill to take, but what are the real-world alternatives?

Is Ethanol Green?

The Boston Globe reports on the loss of prairie lands to new corn production–not for food but to run our cars.

ROSCOE, S.D. — Robert Malsam nearly went broke in the 1980s when corn was cheap. So now that prices are high and he can finally make a profit, he’s not about to apologize for ripping up prairieland to plant corn.

Across the Dakotas and Nebraska, more than 1 million acres of the Great Plains are giving way to corn fields as farmers transform the wild expanse that once served as the backdrop for American pioneers.

This expansion of the Corn Belt is fueled in part by America’s green energy policy, which requires oil companies to blend billions of gallons of corn ethanol into their gasoline. In 2010, fuel became the number one use for corn in America, a title it held in 2011 and 2012 and narrowly lost this year. That helps keep prices high.

‘‘It’s not hard to do the math there as to what’s profitable to have,’’ Malsam said. ‘‘I think an ethanol plant is a farmer’s friend.’’

Future of Power Generation in Salem

A Statement from the SAFE Board of Directors

SAFE has struggled with the environmental issues raised by the likely construction of another fossil fuel-burning plant on Salem Harbor. Like our allies in the environmental movement, we dream of a future in which energy demand is reduced dramatically by advances in energy efficiency, and is supplied by clean and renewable sources. We believe that this vision is achievable if our country and other nations rally to the urgency of the climate change crisis at hand. Even with an urgent mobilization, however, we expect the transition to a low-carbon world to take several decades to achieve. There will be no overnight fix to the climate crisis.

The City of Salem has before it a proposal by Footprint Power to redevelop the existing site of the Salem Harbor Generating Station.  This large, multi-year project would be the largest transformation of the Salem waterfront since the current plant’s construction in 1954-56.  Footprint Power is the new owner of the site and seeks to demolish the existing plant and related structures, remediate the entire site, and then build a 692 MW combined-cycle gas plant on 18-20 acres (on the eastern portion of the site, near the South Essex Sewage District facility).  The current plan calls for a tight timetable with the new plant online and ready to generate power by 2016.  Then, once the new plant was online, they would redevelop the remaining 38 acres of the site.

Salem Alliance for the Environment (SAFE) has expressed qualified support for this project for several reasons. Despite environmental concerns laid out below, we believe that the proposal, under the right circumstances, can provide a meaningful opportunity to transition to a renewable energy future.

Environmental Concerns

SAFE believes that people in the United States and around the world must heed the calls of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to reduce carbon emissions.  The last consensus report called for industrialized, G-8 countries to reduce their CO2 emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050 if not sooner.  This is a generation-defining and historic challenge we face and it will require major changes in US energy policy and the lifestyle of American citizens.

Consequently, SAFE has struggled with the environmental issues raised with respect to supporting another fossil fuel-burning plant on Salem Harbor.  While gas burns more cleanly than coal or oil, it still contributes to climate change.

In addition, this new plant would be using gas purchased from hydrofracking operations.  Because hydrofracking is not well regulated and is rapidly expanding, it has become an environmental threat. In some regions, hydrofracking is threatening the purity of ground water supplies. In addition, millions of cubic feet of methane are escaping into the atmosphere each year.  Methane (or CH4) is 26 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 (over a 100 year period). Thus, the science is uncertain as to whether the lifecycle carbon emissions from using natural gas are a substantial improvement over coal or oil. At the same time, we believe that appropriate regulation could significantly mitigate the environmental damage that results from the process, making natural gas an appropriate, if not ideal, “bridge” to a renewable energy future.

The Energy Transition

Our society needs to increase our use of renewable energy and reduce our consumption and dependence on fossil fuels for electricity and transportation. One viable path towards this future goal of relying more on renewable energy sources is to use high-efficiency, combined-cycle gas plants like the one being proposed for Salem. A plant with this design and technology can increase or decrease its power production at any given moment, and therefore is an ideal facility to be paired with large-scale renewable energy projects such as wind and solar farms, whose generation is intermittent and constantly changes.

The only other type of power generation readily available to do this is nuclear energy.  For obvious safety and environmental reasons, SAFE’s members do not support that option.  Rather we aspire to live in a society that harnesses the wind, the sun and waves to sustainably provide our country and planet with the energy it needs.

This sort of major transition will take a generation or more to accomplish.  It begins however with building and putting in place the infrastructure that opens up the potential to harness renewables. SAFE therefore supports the Footprint proposal, with qualifications, for the sake of this larger vision.

We take our role as local environmental advocates seriously. Our support is not, and has never been, unconditional; it is premised on our researched understanding that the proposed plant will contribute to the net de-carbonization of the regional grid, and will further enable, rather than impede, the development of renewable energy. Should these premises prove otherwise, or if evidence emerges that the proposed plant will undermine the general health or well being of Salem or its neighboring communities, SAFE’s position may change.

Addressing Climate Change

Addressing global climate change is a significant challenge for our community. We live in a coastal city that is already feeling the impact with increasingly high tides, severe weather, and coastal flooding. Though the proposed plant would be less polluting than its predecessor, the more energy it produces, the more CO2 it will release into the atmosphere. It is only appropriate as a transition, not as a solution. It does not in any way lessen the need for the government, or us as citizens, to keep driving down our carbon emissions, at the individual and societal level.

With this in mind, SAFE’s vision for our area includes the development of an off-shore wind farm off the coast of Salem and/or Cape Ann. Though there is no proposed plan for a maritime wind farm at this time, it is our belief that public opinion will come around on this topic as more people locally realize and understand the profound and urgent challenges we face in reducing carbon emissions here in New England.

As public sentiment grows in favor of offshore wind and as the market for such projects becomes more attractive, SAFE wants to ensure that this current plant will be “wind farm ready.” This plant will be situated right next to a major hub in the regional power grid. This is an ideal point of interconnection for a large-scale renewable energy project, especially when accompanied by a generation facility that can ramp up and down its generation relatively quickly and readily “firm” power generated from an offshore wind farm.

Community Benefits and Issues

A gas plant like this one can be a part of the larger transition to a low carbon economy and society, but this will not happen automatically.  Decisions and agreements now will frame the path of future development.  There are times when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine and tides are not flowing.  During such moments, we will need reliable power generation over the next 50 years.  If this plant can allow, over the long run, an increased reliance of renewable energy here in eastern New England, then we support its construction with the provisions outlined below.

SAFE’s support for the proposed high-efficiency, combined-cycle gas plant on Salem Harbor is conditioned on the following:

1) There is an investment in infrastructure on the site now to make the proposed plant “maritime wind farm ready.”  This includes reviewing the proposed design to ensure that no new construction would make it more difficult to connect to a wind farm later.

2) The sound and emissions impacts on neighboring properties and the immediate area are measured, and estimated by a reputable independent engineering firm to be minimal or negligible.

3) Footprint agrees to provide a detailed description of the condition in which the remainder of the former power plant site will be left upon the final completion of the proposed new gas plant and before any other additional development commences.  If 20 acres of the 58 acres will be used for the gas plant, what will the remaining approximately 38 acres look like when the proposed plant is completed?  There is a concern that the portions of the property not be used for the new plant could be “fenced off” as an unattractive post-construction zone until other development projects are identified.

4) There is an agreement to create a robust and binding community benefits agreement (CBA) with the City that transfers with ownership of the plant.  Elements of this CBA would most likely need to include:

  •  A clear and legally binding dispute resolution process between the City and the Plant owners;
  • The assurance that the community will have input of how the remaining 38 acres of the larger site is developed;
  • The formation of a community foundation funded by the developers and owners of the facility but managed by an independent board of directors (as is called for in CBAs prepared for other cities hosting new, gas-fired generation plants.)
  • The identification of future opportunities to share heat processes with South Essex Sewage District (SESD), the largest user of power in Essex County. If waste heat from the power plant were used by SESD, there would be less need for cooling fans, reducing noise and local impacts. This is a potentially “low hanging piece of fruit” that would be tragic to ignore; conversely, a mutually beneficial, energy-saving relationship between the two facilities could result in significant energy savings.

5) The developers publicly pledge to advocate for strong oversight and regulation of hydrofracking. The process is now exempt from provisions in the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act that serve to protect underground sources of drinking water; and, as noted above, must reduce its methane emissions.

6) The proposed facility design meets green building and sustainable landscaping standards.

7) The plant offsets its carbon emissions locally, by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that reduce the carbon footprint of the City of Salem. This could include supporting home weatherization, retrofitting public buildings, solar panels for all public buildings and residences that can make effective use of solar energy, small and large scale wind projects.  Some of this could be covered in a Community Benefits Agreement.
Ultimately, SAFE supports this proposed plant with the above qualifications because we see the potential for this plant to be part of one solution for meeting the problem of carbon emissions regionally and globally. This will only happen, however, if local and regional leaders and community members insist upon it. As sea level rises and storms grow more extreme and agricultural systems become compromised, concern about Climate Change will grow in urgency over the next 10 to 20 years. It is up to us as a society and a community to embrace that potential and support and pursue ways to live more lightly on this planet.

Climate Change Hitting Alaska

A recent heat wave in Alaska has resulted in an extreme die-off among spawning Salmon and trout.  Water temperatures reached 80 degrees. Check out this story at Think Progress.

Climate Change Is Happening … So What?

Nation of Change reports:

Seven in 10 U.S. citizens believe climate change is real and happening now. Yet most have never even contacted a government official about the issue, let alone volunteered with an environmental organization or taken other action. Read more.

Heat-Trapping Gas Passes 400 ppm

 Justin Gillis of the New York Times reports that we have surpassed 400 parts per million of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere. Many scientists consider 350 ppm the tipping point–thus the name of Bill McKibben’s climate change organization, 350.0rg. Here’s the story:

The average carbon dioxide reading surpassed 400 parts per million at the research facility atop the Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii for the 24 hours that ended at 8 p.m. on Thursday.

Scientific instruments showed that the gas had reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million — just an odometer moment in one sense, but also a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering.

The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.

“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that reported the new reading.

Ralph Keeling, who runs another monitoring program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said a continuing rise could be catastrophic. “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds,” he said.

Virtually every automobile ride, every plane trip and, in most places, every flip of a light switch adds carbon dioxide to the air, and relatively little money is being spent to find and deploy alternative technologies.

China is now the largest emitter, but Americans have been consuming fossil fuels extensively for far longer, and experts say the United States is more responsible than any other nation for the high level.

The new measurement came from analyzers atop Mauna Loa, the volcano on the big island of Hawaii that has long been ground zero for monitoring the worldwide trend on carbon dioxide, or CO2. Devices there sample clean, crisp air that has blown thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, producing a record of rising carbon dioxide levels that has been closely tracked for half a century.

Carbon dioxide above 400 parts per million was first seen in the Arctic last year, and had also spiked above that level in hourly readings at Mauna Loa.

But the average reading for an entire day surpassed that level at Mauna Loa for the first time in the 24 hours that ended at 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday. The two monitoring programs use slightly different protocols; NOAA reported an average for the period of 400.03 parts per million, while Scripps reported 400.08.

Carbon dioxide rises and falls on a seasonal cycle, and the level will dip below 400 this summer as leaf growth in the Northern Hemisphere pulls about 10 billion tons of carbon out of the air. But experts say that will be a brief reprieve — the moment is approaching when no measurement of the ambient air anywhere on earth, in any season, will produce a reading below 400.

“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University.

From studying air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice, scientists know that going back 800,000 years, the carbon dioxide level oscillated in a tight band, from about 180 parts per million in the depths of ice ages to about 280 during the warm periods between. The evidence shows that global temperatures and CO2 levels are tightly linked.

For the entire period of human civilization, roughly 8,000 years, the carbon dioxide level was relatively stable near that upper bound. But the burning of fossil fuels has caused a 41 percent increase in the heat-trapping gas since the Industrial Revolution, a mere geological instant, and scientists say the climate is beginning to react, though they expect far larger changes in the future.

Indirect measurements suggest that the last time the carbon dioxide level was this high was at least three million years ago, during an epoch called the Pliocene. Geological research shows that the climate then was far warmer than today, the world’s ice caps were smaller, and the sea level might have been as much as 60 or 80 feet higher.

Experts fear that humanity may be precipitating a return to such conditions — except this time, billions of people are in harm’s way.

“It takes a long time to melt ice, but we’re doing it,” Dr. Keeling said. “It’s scary.”

Dr. Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, began carbon dioxide measurements on Mauna Loa and at other locations in the late 1950s. The elder Dr. Keeling found a level in the air then of about 315 parts per million — meaning that if a person had filled a million quart jars with air, about 315 quart jars of carbon dioxide would have been mixed in.

His analysis revealed a relentless, long-term increase superimposed on the seasonal cycle, a trend that was dubbed the Keeling Curve.

Countries have adopted an official target to limit the damage from global warming, with 450 parts per million seen as the maximum level compatible with that goal. “Unless things slow down, we’ll probably get there in well under 25 years,” Ralph Keeling said.

Yet many countries, including China and the United States, have refused to adopt binding national targets. Scientists say that unless far greater efforts are made soon, the goal of limiting the warming will become impossible without severe economic disruption.

“If you start turning the Titanic long before you hit the iceberg, you can go clear without even spilling a drink of a passenger on deck,” said Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “If you wait until you’re really close, spilling a lot of drinks is the best you can hope for.”

Climate-change contrarians, who have little scientific credibility but are politically influential in Washington, point out that carbon dioxide represents only a tiny fraction of the air — as of Thursday’s reading, exactly 0.04 percent. “The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic,” a Republican congressman from California, Dana Rohrabacher, said in a Congressional hearing several years ago.

But climate scientists reject that argument, saying it is like claiming that a tiny bit of arsenic or cobra venom cannot have much effect. Research shows that even at such low levels, carbon dioxide is potent at trapping heat near the surface of the earth.

“If you’re looking to stave off climate perturbations that I don’t believe our culture is ready to adapt to, then significant reductions in CO2 emissions have to occur right away,” said Mark Pagani, a Yale geochemist who studies climates of the past. “I feel like the time to do something was yesterday.”

Senators introduce climate change bill

From Politico:

Riding the momentum of President Barack Obama’s pledges to tackle global warming, Senate liberals are giving climate legislation another try — despite the seemingly insurmountable odds of winning congressional approval.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) unveiled a climate bill Thursday that would put a price on carbon and rebate 60 percent of the revenue to U.S. citizens. Read more.

Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/forecast-for-new-climate-bill-gloomy-87686.html#ixzz2L0mc0Yyb

Keystone Pipeline Will Accelerate Climate Change

Nation of Change reports a new study that shows that the Keystone pipeline will increase the exploitation of tar sands for oil production, and a result accelerate climate change.

More tar sands oil taken out of the ground means more dangerous pollution that hurts our climate and health. And, this new research also shows that tar sands will cause even more climate pollution than we previously thought due to the impacts of the high carbon byproduct petroleum coke.

Read more.