Fracking update

I spent a lot of time involved with the eventually successful efforts to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for fossil fuels in New York State. Meanwhile, from my town on the NY/PA border, we have watched a host of negative consequences unfold for some of our PA neighbors. I am also only an hour or so from Cornell University, home to some of the leading researchers on fracking. I was privileged to see these professors speak a number of times, both on campus and at community events.

One of these researchers, Dr. Robert Howarth, has just published a new paper in the journal Biogeosciences about one of the most unfortunate environmental effects of the fracking boom, the release of methane to the atmosphere. Global atmospheric levels of methane are at all-time highs since recording began. The levels started a steep rise in 2006, just as the fracking boom in the United States was picking up.

Having heard and seen so much evidence of methane leakage from fracking, I had already assumed that the two were related, but, in this paper, Dr. Howarth explains the evidence by measuring the amount of 13C present, allowing him to determine the part of the global rise in methane related to fracking, most of which was emitted in the United States. The industry tries to tell us that they are controlling methane emissions through detecting and fixing leaks on the wellpads, but there are many other ways in which methane is released, including venting and flaring at the site, especially in areas where the methane is released when the company is primarily drilling for oil; well leakage that develops over time as casings fail; methane that seeps through the ground to the surface, similar to the way radon reaches basements when it originated thousands of feet below; abandoned wells when fractures intersect with them; compressor station leaks and releases; leakage from transmission and delivery pipes, some of which are over 100 years old; and the production, transport, and use of LNG.

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide but is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere. This makes reducing it quickly imperative in the effort to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

It is also why the more ambitious climate plans in the United States, such as those of Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Bernie Sanders, call for a ban on fracking.

The sooner this happens, the better. The economics of fracking are already poor, with a number of companies going bankrupt because of it. In many markets, renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuel energy already and energy storage technology is progressing rapidly while falling in price. It’s time to ban fracking and new fossil fuel infrastructure and go all in for renewable energy, energy storage, and energy efficiency.

We need to do all we can to keep the planet livable for people and all other life forms. Banning fracking would be a great step in the right direction.

rescue mission

This afternoon, we noticed a downy woodpecker on the ground under our feeders. It was strange, as woodpeckers generally don’t like being on the ground. We watched it for a while, but it became obvious that it couldn’t fly back up to the relative safety of the trees.

My daughters researched what to do. They put air holes in a cardboard shoebox and cushioned it with a towel. Next, T gently picked up the woodpecker with a washcloth and put it in the box and brought it inside. It is very chilly and wet today, so a warm, dry box was important for the bird to have any chance of survival.

Then, we needed expert help. They looked online for wildlife rehabilitators. There are none in our county who do bird rescues and the nearest one in a neighboring county wasn’t at home. Next, they called one that is affiliated with Cornell, daughter T’s alma mater. They were able to assist, so E and T headed for Ithaca, about an hour’s drive. (I stayed at home with baby toddler ABC.)

I’m happy to report that the woodpecker stayed cozy in the box until arrival. It looks as though he is having problem with one eye and his neck. They will treat him if they are able and humanely euthanize him if they can’t help him, much better than either freezing to death or being eaten by a cat. They are going to send a postcard with the outcome and I will update at that time.

Disturbing fracking news

I am a veteran of the fight against shale gas development in New York State, and, more broadly, against unconventional fossil fuel development and for a rapid increase in renewable energy in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming as low as possible.

I am fortunate to live in the Binghamton area, not that far from Ithaca, where several prominent scientists and professors work. They often came to speak at events in Binghamton and I sometimes would travel to Ithaca for lectures. I learned a lot from them and would use their research in commenting on news articles and in writing blog posts.

One of my favorite speakers is Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering Emeritus at Cornell University. His specialty is rock fracture mechanics and he had done hydraulic fracturing research for many years, putting him in a unique position to anticipate the dangers of combining high-volume slick-water hydrofracking with long laterals in shale. He teamed with Dr. Robert Howarth, an environmental scientist at Cornell, in the first major paper raising an alarm about methane leakage from shale oil/gas development; the paper was controversial, but prescient, with subsequent research affirming levels of methane leakage much higher than industry and government projections.

This newly released twelve minute video with Dr. Ingraffea shows the climate consequences of the decision to develop shale gas. This blog post by Sharon Kelly gives some further background and also has a link to the video, in case the embedded one below isn’t working. 

Pa’ina

Saturday night, we attended the tenth end-of-season pa’ina (dinner or feast) for the Cornell Sustainability Semester in Waimea. This was the program that our younger daughter, Trinity, attended three years ago. (It’s a fantastic program which you can read about here.) We weren’t able to travel out to Hawai’i the semester she attended, so it was a happy coincidence that the three of us were planning to be on the Big Island the same week that the Pa’ina was occurring and we gladly accepted the invitation to attend.

The pa’ina was held at Wai’aka House, where the students live with the program director and her assistants for the semester. It is located in Waimea in the Kohala region, which is the oldest part of the island. Kohala volcano has been extinct for a long time, and, while still mountainous, has eroded into grasslands that have been used for cattle ranching in recent times. From Wai’aka House, one can look across to the astronomical observatory on the also-extinct but still almost 14,000 foot Mauna Kea.

We have been reaping the benefits of the program by travelling with Trinity, who has been able to suggest favorite places to visit and can tell us about some of the geology, plants, animals, and cultural sites we have encountered. It was especially nice to be able to go with her to visit her home while on the Island, where we were warmly welcomed as part of the ‘ohana, which is usually translated as family, but which encompasses not only blood relatives but also those with whom you share your life.

Trinity knew a number of the people there, including the program director, whom they addressed as Kumu, which means teacher, and her daughter, one of the program assistants who had been a fellow student the year she attended, and several of the aunties and uncles who had assisted with cultural studies and other topics, and the director of her internship, Wilds. We also spent a lot of time talking to people we hadn’t met before, who were very warm and interested in sharing experiences with each other.

The students prepare the food, which included many traditional dishes, such as kalua pig and poi – we later saw a video of some of the preparations; my favorite dish was the salmon lau lau, in which salmon is wrapped in luau leaves (which you eat with the salmon) and ti leaves (which serve as a wrapper) and steamed.

After we had eaten, there was a traditional ceremony where one of the aunties and the kumu hula (master hula teacher) chanted and invested each member of this year’s program with a kihei, which is a rectangle of cloth that each person had decorated with symbols meaningful to them, draping it around their torso and tying it over their shoulder. Then, each person explained their design and the students also told a bit about their internships.

The moving climax and conclusion to the evening was a hula that the group presented on the lawn near the big side porch, wearing their kihei and head, neck, and ankle leis that they had made themselves. The whole group did the oli (opening chant) and then did traditional hula with the kumu hula chanting and accompanied by an ipu (gourd drum). Then, the students and assistants thanked Kumu for her love, leadership, and general awesomeness for the semester and presented her with flower and woven ti leave leis.  They concluded with a thank you chant, in which Trinity and many of the guests joined. It was touching to hear Trinity sing a chant in Hawaiian that she learned three years ago.

I was so happy to see Trinity return to a place and to people who were so important to her. Trinity’s major was designed to be very broad and her concentration within it was discontinued after her sophomore year. It was the Sustainability Semester, her internship, and the discovery that she enjoyed eradicating invasive species and nurturing native ones that gave her a new focus, leading to her internship with Cornell Plantations and her upcoming master’s program in conservation biology. We will always be thankful to Hawai’i, Kumu, Wilds, and Cornell’s Sustainability Semester for helping her find her passion.