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The Climate Crisis: August 18, 2021

Bill McKibben, THE NEW YORKER

I’ve long felt that one of my great failings as a climate communicator has come in trying to get across the dangers posed by methane, the second most damaging greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide. Despite long years of many people trying to underscore the risks of methane, our go-to shorthand for climate pollution remains “carbon.” That’s why companies and political leaders boast about how much they’ve reduced their carbon emissions, but, if they managed the trick by substituting gas for coal, their total contribution to global warming has barely budged—because natural gas is another word for methane, and because when it invariably leaks from frack wells and pipelines it traps heat, molecule for molecule, much more effectively than CO2.

Now, finally, methane appears to be having its day in the sun. A key thing to understand about methane (CH4) is that it doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere anywhere near as long as CO2: its life span is measured in decades, not centuries. While methane is in the air, it traps a lot of heat, but a dramatic reduction in the amount of CH4 would be a quick fix that would help slow the rise of global temperatures, giving us more time to work on the carbon quandary. As Stanford University’s Rob Jackson told me, last week, the best estimate is that methane caused about a third of the global warming we’ve seen in the past decade, not far behind the contributions of CO2.

The first way to reduce methane in the atmosphere, of course, is to stop building anything new that’s connected to gas: stop installing gas cooktops and gas furnaces, and substitute electrical appliances. And stop building new gas-fired power plants, instead substituting sun, wind, and battery power. And, as a really important new study by the star energy academics Bob Howarth and Mark Jacobson emphasizes, by all means do not start using natural gas to produce hydrogen, even if you’re capturing the carbon emissions from the process.

Read more at https://link.newyorker.com/view/5be9d06e3f92a40469e05fc8er70o.6ds/6fbf19eb

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Why I was wrong about methane

Dan Farber, LEGAL PLANET

I didn’t think cutting methane was a high priority. Now I do. Here’s why.

I didn’t use to think that eliminating methane emissions should be a priority. True, methane is a potent greenhouse gas. But it’s also a short-lived one, which only stays in the atmosphere for twenty years or so. In contrast, CO2 emissions cause warming for 2-3 centuries or more. So methane emissions seemed to be something that could be addressed at any point we got around to them. I’ve rethought that conclusion, however for a combination of policy and political economy reasons.

On the policy side, cutting methane would have immediate benefits that aren’t limited to reducing warming. Because methane contributes to ozone pollution, emissions cause immediate health effects as well as warming effects. According to the U.N., “a 45 per cent reduction would prevent 260 000 premature deaths, 775 000 asthma-related hospital visits, 73 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat, and 25 million tonnes of crop losses annually.”.

In addition, one reason to worry about methane is that it accelerates warming, even if the world would have eventually gotten to the same temperature due to CO2 emissions. The pace of warming matters, not just the extent of warming. A pulse of methane today may not matter in a century, but it does mean that warming over the next few decades will happen faster. Slower warming gives the world less time to adopt adaptation measures like strengthening flood defenses, making crops more drought resistance, taking precautions against heat waves. . Before we can take those steps, institutions and public attitudes will themselves have to adapt to the realities of climate change. If we can slow warming a bit, even if we end up in the same place ultimately due to carbon emissions, that gives us more time to prepare for what’s coming down the road.

Read more at https://legal-planet.org/2021/06/17/why-i-was-wrong-about-methane/

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After 27 years in western Marin County, Straus moves to cutting-edge creamery in Rohnert Park

Austin Murphy, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In his dungarees and rubber boots, Albert Straus looked every bit the dairy farmer that he is. On this particular morning, however, the 66-year-old founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery was some 25 miles from his family farm.

Straus stood on the floor of a processing plant, amid gleaming silver tanks and conveyor belts that would soon begin moving hundreds of the company’s iconic glass bottles of milk with cream on top.

While those bottles were familiar, the building was not. After 27 years making its highly regarded organic dairy products at a facility in Marshall, the company recently moved its production plant from Marin to Sonoma County, to this brand new, $20 million, 50,000-square foot facility in Rohnert Park. Where the old creamery was surrounded by ranchland, its new neighbors include the Graton Resort and Casino, and a Costco.

“After 27 years in Marshall,” said Straus, gesturing to the machinery around him, “this will give us a road map for the next 30 years.”

While the old plant could process up to 20,000 gallons of milk a day, the new one will be capable of doubling that output — “and do it much more efficiently,” noted Straus. The upgraded plant also features new technologies that allow it to capture and reuse large amounts of water and heat.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/after-27-years-in-western-marin-county-straus-moves-to-cutting-edge-creame/?

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Negotiations for new Sonoma County composting site ended over financing issues

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A four-year effort to bring green waste recycling back to Sonoma County has collapsed, scuttling hopes of restoring any time soon a high-volume, locally based compost operation to supply farmers, landscapers and backyard gardeners.

The breakdown came late last month after the company chosen to work with the county waste agency withdrew from negotiations after it failed to secure financing.

The company, Renewable Sonoma, and its principal, Will Bakx, terminated negotiations with the county agency and the city of Santa Rosa after 2½ years of trying to shore up plans for a high-tech composting facility that would convert food scraps and yard waste into valuable agricultural products. The project, estimated to cost $52 million, also was to produce biogas to help power treatment equipment on land leased at the city’s Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant on Llano Road.

Bakx, whose proposal ranked first among nine pitches considered by the county in 2018 for siting and construction of a modern compost facility, said he had to pull the plug on negotiations because he couldn’t put together funding after talking with a variety of investors. He said he was not at liberty to disclose details.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/negotiations-for-new-sonoma-county-composting-site-ended-over-financing-iss/

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Windsor pulls plug on all-electric rule to stave off lawsuits by developers

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Windsor has capitulated to developers who challenged the town’s ban on natural gas in most new homes, opting to end its all-electric rule to stave off potentially expensive litigation.

The Town Council on Wednesday voted unanimously, if regretfully, to delete the all-electric rule it passed in late 2019, when it became the first Sonoma County jurisdiction to ban natural gas in new residential construction under four stories starting in early 2020.

The vote to end the policy — known as a “reach code” because it’s a discretionary move beyond mandatory minimum building standards — is necessary to end the litigation under the terms of a settlement reached with the developers who sued, according to town officials.

But for Councilwoman Deb Fudge, a staunch supporter of the all-electric rule, the idea that Windsor had to abandon the climate-friendly policy under legal pressure was difficult to believe. She lamented the town’s inability to sufficiently fund its legal defense, which she estimated could cost up to $400,000, even after her efforts to drum up extra cash from private sector climate allies.

“It’s beyond comprehension that we have to fold and reverse our reach code because a rich developer can outspend us,” Fudge said.

Two developers, Bill Gallaher and the Windsor-Jensen Land Co., sued Windsor over the natural gas ban, with Gallaher also suing Santa Rosa over the city’s rule. The developers challenged the process by which the jurisdictions had passed their all-electric rules, citing the bedrock California Environmental Quality Act in their lawsuits.

Windsor’s quandary with its all-electric rule — to defend or disown — drew advocacy from across the North Bay and attention from across the state. Climate advocates urged town officials to defend the natural gas ban, seen as a small but key part of California’s struggle to curb the disastrous effects of global heating.
Continue reading “Windsor pulls plug on all-electric rule to stave off lawsuits by developers”

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Large methane leaks reveal long-standing shortfalls in oversight

Chiara Eisner, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

Ever since a father and son managed to draw four whiskey barrels of oil from a hand-dug hole near California’s Kern River 121 years ago, productive oil and gas wells have multiplied like mushrooms across the area. Though such wells are expected to emit minimal amounts of greenhouse gases during the oil-extraction process, scientists from a space-related research group were shocked by the size of the methane plumes they detected when they flew an infrared sensor over Kern County in 2015. Repeating the flights three more times in the next three years confirmed the initial reading: some wells were releasing at least six times more of the potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere in one day than the Environmental Protection Agency had estimated they should emit in a year.

Karen Jones is one of the scientists at the Aerospace Corporation, the California-based nonprofit organization that conducted the aerial survey. She says she felt mystified by what she calls a lack of action among the oil fields’ operators and regulators as she watched the methane—the second-highest contributor to human-caused warming after carbon dioxide—continuously spew over the years. “The gas coming out of Kern County isn’t supposed to be there,” she says.

Revelations like Aerospace’s, which the nonprofit published in a report this past summer, are becoming more common. For years, oil and gas companies have been required to detect and repair methane leaks in their equipment. But scientists have produced dozens of studies over the past decade that suggest the current methods and technology used by industry to detect leaks—and by regulators to estimate how much methane is emitted—are inadequate to catch the actual scale of the problem.

Nonprofit groups and private satellite companies may soon make high-quality data about methane publicly available and ubiquitous, potentially creating more pressure to address the situation. Action to plug leaks and prevent further air pollution may be stymied in the meantime, though: the Trump administration took numerous steps that could weaken environmental protections, including rules outlining how companies monitor for and locate natural gas leaks in their equipment (methane is the main component of natural gas). Whether those rules will be reversed when the Biden administration enters the White House, and how long that process will take if it happens, remains to be seen.

Read more at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/large-methane-leaks-reveal-long-standing-shortfalls-in-oversight/

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Global methane emissions reach a record high

Hiroko Tabuchi, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Scientists expect emissions, driven by fossil fuels and agriculture, to continue rising rapidly.

Global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, soared to a record high in 2017, the most recent year for which worldwide data are available, researchers said Tuesday.

And they warned that the rise — driven by fossil fuel leaks and agriculture — would most certainly continue despite the economic slowdown from the coronavirus crisis, which is bad news for efforts to limit global warming and its grave effects.

The latest findings, published on Tuesday in two scientific journals, underscore how methane presents a growing threat, even as the world finds some success in reining in carbon dioxide emissions, the most abundant greenhouse gas and the main cause of global warning.

“There’s a hint that we might be able to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions very soon. But we don’t appear to be even close to peak methane,” said Rob Jackson, an earth scientist at Stanford University who heads the Global Carbon Project, which conducted the research. “It isn’t going down in agriculture, it isn’t going down with fossil fuel use.”

Scientists warn that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise on the current trajectory, the world has little hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or even 2 degrees Celsius. If the world warms beyond that, tens of millions of people could be exposed to life-threatening heat waves, freshwater shortages and coastal flooding from sea level rise.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/climate/methane-emissions-record.html

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Methane is on an alarming upward trend

Rob Jackson, Marielle Saunois, Philippe Bousquet, Pep Canadell & Ben Poulter, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

Atmospheric concentrations of the second most important greenhouse gas are hitting record levels

Cows, oil and gas wells, rice paddies, landfills. These are some of the biggest sources of methane staining the atmosphere today. Methane is the most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, and its concentration reached a record 1,875 parts per billion (ppb) last year, more than two and a half times preindustrial levels. Peak methane in the atmosphere feels as elusive as a cure for the (next) coronavirus.


As scientists at the Global Carbon Project, we and dozens of our colleagues just published a four-year study and public data sets of the Global Methane Budget to estimate methane sources from land, oceans, agriculture and fossil fuel use. Methane emissions reached a record 596 million metric tons per year (range of 572–614 million tons including error estimates) in 2017, the last year for which data are fully available. We present the results in the journals Earth System Science Data and Environmental Research Letters.

More than half of global methane emissions come from human activities, primarily agriculture and fossil fuel use. Our estimate for 2017 is up about 50 million tons, or 9 percent, compared to annual methane emissions in the early 2000s. Convert those 50 million extra tons of methane each year to the warming potential of carbon dioxide over the next century, and we’ve added the equivalent of 350 million more cars to the world’s roads—or another Germany and France to the world’s emitters.

The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is tracking trajectories modeled in aggressive warming scenarios where global temperatures rise by three to four degrees Celsius this century. With each passing year, we move further away from the pathways that climate models suggest will hold warming below 1.5 or two degrees C. In many ways we’re even further from reducing methane emissions than we are for carbon dioxide.

Biological sources of methane arise primarily from microbes growing in low-oxygen environments, including natural wetlands, landfills, water-logged rice paddies and the stomachs of ruminant cows, goats and sheep. We don’t find evidence for increased methane emissions from natural wetlands, but we do from landfills and ruminants through 2017; there are a billion and a half more people on earth today than in the year 2000, and average red meat consumption per person is still increasing. Agriculture contributes about two thirds of all methane released from human actions—as much as all natural sources combined.

Natural seeps, such as bubbling mud volcanoes, release some methane from fossil sources underground. But most fossil geologic methane making its way to the atmosphere comes from fossil fuels we extract, transport or burn. After agriculture’s two-thirds contribution, fossil fuel activities contribute most of the remaining third of global methane emissions from human actions—from coal mines and oil and gas wells to leaky natural gas pipelines and kitchen stoves. Overall, emissions from agriculture and fossil fuel use contributed equally to the 50-million-ton annual increase we observed.
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The natural gas industry has a leak problem

John Schwartz and Brad Plumer, THE NEW YORK TIMES

The American oil and gas industry is leaking more methane than the government thinks — much more, a new study says. Since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, that is bad news for climate change.

The new study, published Thursday in the journal Science, puts the rate of methane emissions from domestic oil and gas operations at 2.3 percent of total production per year, which is 60 percent higher than the current estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency. That might seem like a small fraction of the total, but it represents an estimated 13 million metric tons lost each year, or enough natural gas to fuel 10 million homes.

Thanks to a boom in hydraulic fracturing in states like Texas and Pennsylvania, natural gas has quickly replaced coal as the leading fuel used by America’s power plants. It has also helped, to some extent, in the fight against climate change: When burned for electricity, natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide that coal does. The shift from coal to gas has helped lower CO₂ emissions from America’s power plants by 27 percent since 2005.

But methane, the main component of natural gas, can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period if it escapes into the atmosphere before being burned. A recent study found that natural gas power plants could actually be worse for climate change than coal plants if their leakage rate rose above 4 percent.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/21/climate/methane-leaks.html

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Op-Ed: Cap-and-trade funds to support creative rural solutions

Paul Dolan and Renata Brillinger, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Overview from the CALCAN (California Climate and Agriculture Network) website:
Climate Smart Agriculture Programs – The state of California currently has four Climate Smart Agriculture programs that provide resources for California farmers and ranchers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon in soils and trees, while providing multiple benefits to agriculture and the environment. The programs are funded with proceeds from the state’s cap-and-trade program.
Healthy Soils Initiative – The Healthy Soils Initiative was proposed by Governor Brown in 2015 and received initial funding of $7.5 million in 2016. The Initiative provides funding for farmer and rancher incentives to increase carbon storage in soils and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions through practices that build healthy soil such as compost application, cover crop, reduced tillage, conservation plantings and more. The program will also fund on-farm demonstration projects to provide growers, researchers and other ag professionals strategies for mitigating climate change in agriculture.
State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program (SWEEP) – The program funds growers to improve their irrigation management practices to save water and energy and reduce related greenhouse gas emissions. Eligible project activities include pump upgrades and solar pump installation; conversion to drip or micro irrigation; improved water storage and/or recycling, soil moisture monitoring and irrigation scheduling.
Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALCP) – The program funds local government projects and permanent easements on agricultural lands at risk of development to prevent sprawl.
Dairy Digester Research and Development Program (DDRDP) – The program funds dairy digesters and related research to reduce methane emissions from the dairy sector. A portion of the funding will be allocated in 2017 to a new program called the Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP).

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed Assembly Bill 398, which extends cap-and-trade, California’s cornerstone climate change program, through 2030. The program requires the largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., the oil and gas industry, cement plants, large food processors) to cut their emissions. Without putting a price on carbon, we are unlikely to meet our climate change goals, the most ambitious in the country.
The state Legislature and governor will now debate how to budget billions of dollars in cap-and-trade revenue. In the past three years, California has invested more than $3 billion of cap-and-trade funds in our communities to accelerate the transition toward a clean energy economy. In January, Governor Brown proposed an additional $2.2 billion for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
To date, the money has been invested across California on projects that reduce emissions by weatherizing homes, installing solar panels, improving public transportation, building transit-oriented housing and more. In addition to these urban strategies, the state has also embraced sustainable agricultural solutions to climate change.
Since 2014, nearly $200 million has been granted to farmers and ranchers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to store carbon on their land. The country’s first Climate Smart Agriculture programs are demonstrating to the world that farmers and ranchers can be leaders in climate innovation.
Read more at: Close to Home: Cap-and-trade funds need to support creative rural solutions, like those on the North Coast | The Press Democrat