New study identifies spill risk of hydraulically fractured wells


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The amount of natural gas from hydraulically fractured wells has exploded over the last 15 years. (U.S. EIA)
Jake Slobe | March 1, 2017

Each year, 2 to 16 percent of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells spill hydrocarbons, chemical-laden water, hydraulic fracturing fluids and other substances, according to a new study.

The analysis, published Environmental Science & Technology, identified 6,648 spills reported across Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania over a 10-year period.

Researchers examined state-level spill data to characterize spills associated with unconventional oil and gas development at 31,481 wells hydraulically fractured or fracked in the four states between 2005 and 2014.

Lauren Patterson, policy associate at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the study’s lead author.

“State spill data holds great promise for risk identification and mitigation. However, reporting requirements differ across states, requiring considerable effort to make the data usable for analysis.”

North Dakota reported the highest spill rate, with 4,453 incidents, followed by Pennsylvania at 1,293, Colorado at 476 and New Mexico at 426. The number of spills reported is partly a reflection of the reporting requirements set by each state. For example, North Dakota required reporting smaller spills (42 gallons or more) than Colorado and New Mexico (210 gallons or more).

The results of the study exceed the 457 spills calculated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for eight states between 2006 and 2012 because the EPA’s analysis only considered the hydraulic fracturing stage, rather than the full life cycle of unconventional oil and gas production.

Fifty percent of spills identified in the Environmental Science & Technology article were related to storage and moving fluids via pipelines, although it was not always possible to determine the cause of the spill because some states explicitly required this data to be reported while others relied on narrative descriptions.

Across all states, the first three years of a well’s life, when drilling and hydraulic fracturing occurred and production volumes were highest, had the greatest risk of a spill. The study found that a significant portion of spills (from 26 percent in Colorado to 53 percent in North Dakota) occur at wells that experienced more than one spill, which suggests that wells where spills have already occurred merit closer attention.

 

Statewide monarch butterfly conservation strategy released


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The Cerro Pelón Reserve near Macheros is the second most populous monarch butterfly roosting site in Mexico during the winter months. (Dylan Hillyer/personal collection)
Jenna Ladd | February 28, 2017

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium released its statewide strategy for the conservation and advancement of the monarch butterfly on Monday.

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy aims to recover monarch butterfly populations in Iowa and North America. Developed by the consortium-a group of more than thirty organizations including agricultural and conservation groups, agribusiness and utility companies, county associations, universities and state and federal agencies-the strategy provides necessary resources and information to advance the well-being of monarch butterflies in Iowa and across the continent.

A recent report found that the population of monarch butterflies that spend the winter months in Mexico decreased by 27 percent in 2016, primarily due to extreme weather events and the pervasive loss of the milkweed plant. Milkweed is the only plant in which female monarchs will lay their eggs as well as the primary food source for monarch caterpillars. According to the consortium, about 40 percent of monarchs that overwinter in Mexico come from Iowa and its neighboring states. In the last two decades, the total monarch population has declined by 80 percent.

Monarch butterflies provide vital ecosystem services including pollination and natural pest management. They also serve as a food source to larger animals such birds and bats.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp said, “We didn’t get to this point overnight, and we aren’t going to improve the population overnight. But we have a really strong group across many different areas of expertise working together to improve the outlook for the monarch in Iowa and beyond.”

The strategy provides scientifically-based conservation practices that include using monarch friendly weed management, utilizing the farm bill to plant breeding habitat, and closely following instruction labels when applying pesticides that may be toxic to the butterfly.

In June 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will determine whether or not to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Wendy Wintersteen is dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. She said, “This strategy is critical to rally Iowa agriculture, landowners and citizens to continue to make progress in restoring monarch habitat.”

New UI study looks at age of groundwater in the Jordan Aquifer


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The Jordan Aquifer touches seven states and covers most of Iowa. Experts say the aquifer needs to recharge in many places where the water is being drawn from the aquifer faster than it can be recharged. (USGS)
Jake Slobe | February 26, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses a new study focused on finding the age of groundwater in the Jordan Aquifer.

Transcript: A University of Iowa study has found that groundwater in Iowa’s Jordan Aquifer is much older than previously thought.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Researchers from the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa have partnered with the UI Geology Department, Grinnell College, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in a study that uses isotopic age dating to estimate the age of groundwater in the Jordan Aquifer.

The study found that groundwater in central and northern Iowa is somewhere between 69,000 and 178,000 years old. To assess the age of groundwater in the aquifer, the study sampled eight municipal wells located across the state.

The study also examined the use of aquifer water for ethanol production. From 2004 to 2013, annual use of groundwater from the aquifer for ethanol production increased approximately 7.4 billion liters per year. The study recommended that ethanol production should be based on the accessibility of sustainable groundwater resources, rather than locations where deep groundwater reserves are needed for production.

Although not a focus of this study, similar studies have found that increased pumping from the aquifer has potential to induce detrimental water quality changes, including an increase in radium and salinity levels.

To learn more about the aquifer study, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Rising temperatures deplete Colorado River


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The Colorado River provides drinking water for 40 million people. (Katie Rompala/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 24, 2017

The volume of the Colorado River has decreased by 19 percent since 2000, and recent research shows that climate change is partly to blame.

Two researchers from Colorado State University and University of Arizona compared temperature, precipitation and water volume in the Colorado River basin from 2000-2014 to historical records dating back to 1896. Since 2000, precipitation in region has decreased by 4.6 percent while temperatures have risen 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages. Utilizing existing climate models, the scientists found that the river’s flow should have only decreased by roughly 11.6 percent since the drought began in the area in 2000. Instead, the river’s flow decreased by 19.3 percent due to the effects of global warming, they said.

Published last week in the journal Water Resources, the study read,

“Fifteen years into the 21st century, the emerging reality is that climate change is already depleting the Colorado River water supplies at the upper end of the range suggested by previously published projections. Record-setting temperatures are an important and under-appreciated component of the flow reductions now being observed.”

The Colorado River provides drinking water for 40 million people and irrigates 6,300 square miles of agricultural land. Moving forward, the study’s authors said precipitation in the river’s basin would have to increase by 14 percent by the end of the century in order to mitigate the rising temperature’s effects.

Brad Udall of Colorado State University is one of the study’s co-authors. He said, “We can’t say with any certainty that precipitation is going to increase and come to our rescue.”

Warming ponds could speed up climate change


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Small ponds used by researchers at the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University. (University of Exeter)
Jenna Ladd | February 23, 2017

A recent study shows that when freshwater ponds warm, they release more methane and are able to store less carbon dioxide.

Researchers at the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University of London warmed a collection of man-made ponds by four to five degrees Celsius over the course of seven years. The first of its kind, the study found that the amount of methane released by the ponds increased by double while the amount of carbon dioxide the ponds could store decreased by half.

Professor Gabriel Yvon-Durocher was the study’s lead investigator. He said, “Given the substantial contribution small ponds make to the emission of greenhouse gases, it is vital to understand how they might respond to global warming.”

While ponds and lakes only account for about 0.008 percent of the total volume of water on Earth, they are major contributors of carbon dioxide and methane. Greenhouse gases from freshwater sources are mostly the byproduct of organic matter breaking down in low-oxygen environments.

Yvon-Durocher continued, “Our findings show that warming can fundamentally alter the carbon balance of small ponds over a number of years, reducing their capacity to absorb and increasing emissions of methane. This could ultimately accelerate climate change.”

The scientist noted that these findings are different than those normally observed on land, where the effect of rising temperatures lessen over time. In contrast, when ponds warm and release methane, a gas that is known to be 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, they actually exacerbate warming.

Ponds of less than one meter, such as those used in the study, are responsible for the release of 40 percent of all inland methane emissions.

 

The professor noted, “This accelerating effect in ponds, which could have serious impacts on climate change, is not currently accounted for in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models.”

The complete study can be found in the journal Nature Climate Change.

University of Iowa announces it will be coal free by 2025


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Infographic of the University of Iowa’s path to zero coal. (Josh Brdicko, Marketing & Design, BFA ’18)
Jake Slobe | February 22, 2017

University of Iowa President, Bruce Harreld, announced on Feb. 20 the UI will be coal-free by 2025.

“It’s the right choice for our students and our campus, and it’s the surest path to an energy-secure future,” said Harreld in the press release. “In 2025, we expect to have diminished our reliance on coal to the point it is no longer included in our fuel portfolio.”

The UI has taken steps to reduce its dependence on coal — in 2008, the university established seven “sustainability targets” to be achieved by 2020, according to the press release.

Since the 2020 vision’s inception, the UI has managed to reduce its use of coal by 60 percent.

This correlates with one of the sustainability targets, which seeks to derive 40 percent of the UI’s energy from renewable resources — a far cry from a university once dependent on fossil fuels, according to the UI sustainability website.

The coal-free goal builds on the the sustainability targets set by UI officials in 2012. At that time, UI officials pledged to work toward having 40 percent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020. The idea, according to UI officials, was to help transition from the university’s dependency on fossil fuels — including coal — and to increase campus use of biomass and other renewable energy sources.

Over the past nine years, UI campus has reduced its use of coal by 60 percent, according to the release. In late 2016, UI achieved a single-day high of 52 percent energy generated from renewable fuels and averaged 50 percent that week.

In addition to the UI’s use of coal, the sustainability targets also deal with achieving net-negative energy growth and decreasing the amount of waste put into landfills.

The university’s current energy portfolio includes oat hulls, miscanthus grass, wood chips and green energy pellets.

UI partnered with Iowa State University in 2013 to develop a miscanthus grass with local farmers living within 50 miles of Iowa City. The university has already planted 550 acres of the miscanthus and will plant an additional 250 to 350 acres during the spring of 2017. The goal is to establish up to 2,500 acres locally by 2020, according to the release.

 

CGRER co-director delivers UI Presidential Lecture


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Dr. Gregory Carmichael (left) and University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld (right) at the 34th Annual Presidential Lecture on Sunday. (Jake Slobe/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | February 21, 2017

UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research co-director Dr. Gregory Carmichael delivered the 34th Annual Presidential Lecture to a crowded assembly hall at the Levitt Center for University Advancement on Sunday.

The lecture, titled “What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Global Reach of Air Pollution” featured opening remarks from University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld. Quoting Dr. Jerry Schnoor, Carmichael’s co-director at CGRER, President Harreld joked, “Greg is now more traveled than George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, four million miles and counting.” Carmichael’s extensive research of the long-range transport of air pollution has taken him to many parts of Eastern Asia, South America, Africa and Europe, among other locations.

Carmichael’s lecture was organized into three parts: the global reach of air pollution, the link between climate change and air pollution, and a finally, a discussion about the action necessary to curb air pollution worldwide. The lecturer made a strong case for air pollution research, citing that it is the root cause of 7 million avoidable deaths per year. Carmichael pointed out that air pollution has economic consequences too; each year, it leads to loss of 10 percent of U.S. soybean yields.

The lecture encouraged a sense of urgency when it comes to cleaning up the atmosphere. Carmichael warned, “That molecule that we put in the air today will stay in the air for a long time.” He went on to say that 20 percent of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere today will remain there for thousands of years. Professor Carmichael’s research focuses primarily on the utilization of comprehensive computer models and big data to simulate the interplay of air pollutants with weather and climate.

His work has been instrumental in understanding the way in which air pollutants from China move across the Pacific Ocean and affect the Western U.S. He said, “Fifteen to twenty percent of clean air policies in the Western U.S. are being offset by Chinese emissions.”

Above all, the Karl Kammermeyer professor of chemical and biochemical engineering emphasized his passion for instructing and advising students. Carmichael has supervised the research of 40 PhD and 35 Masters of Science students at the University of Iowa.

To learn more about Dr. Carmichael’s career, check out episode 5 of CGRER’s EnvIowa podcast.