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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

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California clamps down on natural gas leaks from pipelines 

David R. Baker, SFGATE
California utility regulators on Thursday approved new rules designed to prevent, find and fix leaks at natural gas facilities ranging from storage sites to pipelines.
California regulators have approved rules designed to cut natural gas leaks from pipelines and pumping stations by 40 percent, as part of the state’s far-ranging fight against global warming.
The California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously Thursday to adopt the rules, which will require utility companies to conduct frequent inspections and fix even minor leaks within three years.
Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping atmospheric heat.
“This certainly is an approach other states can take, and we think the data will show that it’s the right thing to do,” said Tim O’Connor, director of California oil and gas policy for the Environmental Defense Fund, which has made cutting gas leaks nationwide one of its top priorities. The group called the package of natural gas regulations the nation’s toughest.
Once fully implemented, the regulations approved Thursday could save $8 million worth of gas each year, enough to supply 72,000 homes, O’Connor said. Although the Trump Administration is delaying the implementation of Obama-era federal rules to rein in methane emissions, other states including New York and Massachusetts are moving forward with their own regulations, O’Connor said.
Source: California clamps down on natural gas leaks from pipelines – SFGate

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Santa Rosa buying Petaluma hay ranch as treated waste disposal site

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa is buying a Petaluma pasture to make sure it has enough places to put people’s processed poop.
The city is close to acquiring a 235-acre Lakeville Highway hay ranch so it can use the property to spread a byproduct of the wastewater treatment process known as biosolids.
The approximately $2 million deal, which was advanced by the Board of Public Utilities Thursday, highlights the pressures the city faces in finding affordable ways to recycle waste in an era of increasingly stringent environmental regulations.
Santa Rosa recycles its wastewater to irrigate crops and produce geothermal energy at The Geysers, the latter solution costing the city $205 million to build while earning engineering and sustainability awards.
But less known by the general public is what happens to the 26,000 tons of thick black sludge that remains behind annually after the main treatment processes are complete.
That’s enough to “fill the entire playing field of AT&T Park eight feet deep every year,” said Mike Prinz, director of subregional operations for Santa Rosa Water.
More than a third of it is mixed with green waste like chopped up leaves and grass clippings to make high-quality compost, most of which is sold to local farms, vineyards and landscaping companies.
A far cheaper option has long been to apply the nutrient-rich material, which has the consistency of wet coffee grounds, directly to farmland as fertilizer.
Because the waste goes through an extra 21-day digestion process to capture methane to power the Llano Road treatment plant, it has far fewer pathogens and odors than the byproducts of other treatment plants.
Nevertheless, there are strict rules about how it can be applied, including that it be disked into the soil, set back from creeks and public access restricted after application.
Read more at: Santa Rosa buying Petaluma hay ranch as treated waste disposal site | The Press Democrat

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Waste from California dairy farms presents climate change challenge 

CBS SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5)
Got milk? Chances are it’s from California. There are more dairy cows in the Golden State than anywhere else in the country. But all that milk and cheese comes at a cost to the planet.
Tom Frantz keeps a running count. He says dairy farms have taken over his farming community in the San Joaquin Valley. “There are ten of them within what I call smelling distance of my home,” he said, noting they’ve moved in in just the last 10 years.
We’re not talking about mom-and-pop operations.
“These are milk factories,” said Frantz. “We went from zero cows to about 60,000 cows, within about five miles of where I live.”
“6,000 animals in one dairy has the waste stream of a city of half a million people,” said Frantz.
But unlike a city, most dairies don’t treat their waste. After separating out the solids to use as manure, they dump the rest of the waste into open lagoons and let it evaporate.
“This waste stream is just rotting in these giant lagoons,” said Frantz.
It’s not just the smell. The lagoons of manure also emit methane, and lots of it.  If you account for climate impacts over 100 years, which is the basis of AB 32, dairy and livestock operations are directly responsible for 5.4 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. But in the state’s short-lived climate pollution plan, that uses a 20-year global warming accounting. The impact triples to 15 percent.
“They are incredibly potent climate pollutants,” said Ryan McCarthy, Science & Technology Policy Advisor with the California Air Resources Board. “Really tackling and addressing the way that dairies manage their manure would represent one of the most significant climate programs we have in the state,” said McCarthy.
Read more at: Waste From California Dairy Farms Present Climate Change Challenge « CBS San Francisco

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Climate fight targeting cows may reshape California dairies

Kurtis Alexander, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Dairy farmer Bob Giacomini, 79, is ahead of his time, even if he didn’t mean to be.
Eight years ago, the North Bay native bought a custom motor, generator and pipeline to make electricity from an unusual source — cow manure — at his ranch along Tomales Bay. The hope was that the renewable energy would save him a few bucks and perhaps bolster the environmental bona fides of his family’s famed cheese, Point Reyes Original Blue.
As it turned out, the power system served another purpose. It helped do away with the potent greenhouse gas that’s at the heart of a new, first-of-its-kind climate law targeting agriculture.
Legislation signed this month by Gov. Jerry Brown requires California’s dairy industry to answer for its contribution to global warming by making a 40 percent cut in methane emissions in coming years. The gas, which heats the atmosphere 20 times faster than carbon dioxide, comes from the butts and burps of bovines.
One U.N. report blames livestock, which has largely escaped climate regulation, for 14.5 percent of the planet’s heat-trapping gases, as much as planes, trains and automobiles combined.
Read more at: Climate fight targeting cows may reshape California dairies