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Gas-Flare_featuredBY STEFANIE HERWECK      

 6.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) per year.

That’s a conservative estimate of how much three proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) companies would pump into the atmosphere each year in order to liquefy their total capacity of gas for export.

That’s more than 40 times the GHGs currently emitted by standing sources in Cameron County.  It’s about as much as two coal-fired power plants would emit in a year, and approximately the same amount of GHG pollution produced to power 900,000 homes with electricity.

In other words, the LNG industrial complex would supersize the carbon footprint of the Rio Grande Valley.

This number includes the GHGs generated by burning natural gas, either at the LNG facilities or at a power plant, in order to fuel the liquefaction process.  It also accounts for the carbon dioxide that will be vented directly into the air during the gas refining process.  None of the LNG facilities have plans to capture this carbon dioxide.  GHGs are also released during the flaring that the companies will do to in order to release pressure from the system.

But the GHGs emitted in conjunction with the LNG terminals themselves are only a part of the total greenhouse gas footprint of LNG exports.

The liquefaction plants will be fed by natural gas extracted through fracking from the Eagle Ford Shale.  We know that natural gas production, especially shale gas production, is a leaky business.  Methane escapes throughout the process of drilling, gathering, refining and transporting the gas.

These so-called “fugitive” emissions have proved difficult to measure.  The EPA’s current official estimate is that 1.6 percent of the natural gas in the supply chain is leaking into atmosphere, but many scientists have criticized this low number, and reports this year (here and here) have suggested the agency is significantly underestimating methane emissions. In fact, aerial and satellite monitoring has detected much larger quantities of methane over shale regions. One such study found the Eagle Ford region could be leaking as much as 9 percent of what it produces into the atmosphere.

This is a serious problem because methane is a super-potent greenhouse gas—its warming potential is 86 times more than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period and 34 times more over 100 years.

LNG exports would certainly intensify this problem.  According to a U.S. Energy Information Administration report, 60 to 80 percent of the gas that LNG companies plan to export would have to come from new production—that means 60 to 80 percent more drilling and fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale and an even greater quantity of methane pollution.

The LNG companies argue that gas exports will still be good for the climate because they will replace coal in Europe and Asia. However, a Department of Energy study, using leakage rates that we now know are too low, found that when we account for the cradle-to-delivery GHG pollution of LNG exports, natural gas isn’t any better for the climate than burning local coal in China.  If we factor in the more likely higher rates of fugitive emissions, LNG exports are worse than coal in both China and Europe.

And what’s bad for the climate is fast becoming bad for business.  According to an analysis issued last week by the financial think-tank Carbon Tracker Initiative, a global agreement to keep warming under two degrees Celsius, which is the ultimate goal of the Paris climate talks, will preclude new major fossil fuel infrastructure projects.  Any carbon-intensive projects like the LNG export terminals risk becoming stranded assets in a world with emission limits.

In fact, the think-tank estimates that “Half of the supply in new LNG projects is unneeded and very little new capacity will be needed in the US and Canada in a 2 degree scenario.”

LNG exports are simply too dirty to be a part of the low- and zero-emissions solutions that we need to avert the most disastrous impacts of climate change.

By embracing and promoting the LNG industrial complex, our politicians and business leaders are chaining the Rio Grande Valley to a dying industry, one that would make the Valley a part of the climate change problem, rather than a region that contributes to climate solutions.

The Rio Grande Valley is a frontline community threatened by the worst ills of climate disruption—coastal flooding due to sea level rise and stronger tropical storms, as well as record-setting heat waves and extreme drought.  In addition to the human suffering these calamities could bring, they could also have severe impacts on our economy.

Investing in the carbon-intensive LNG industry would be fundamentally self-destructive, like someone diagnosed with lung cancer taking up smoking.

As a community we need to demand that our leaders stop ignoring climate change and reject the LNG industrial complex.

That’s why the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club invites the public to join us Sunday, December 6 at 2:00 pm at the Cameron County People’s Climate March at Washington Park in Brownsville.  For more information see the Cameron County People’s Climate March on Facebook.

Stefanie Herweck serves on the executive committee of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.

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BY STEFANIE HERWECK

IMG_7283The first thing we noticed was the smell, slightly sulphur at first, as we were driving into town.  As we got closer the air took on an acidity that we could feel in our eyes and taste on our tongues.

When we arrived on the west side of Port Arthur we didn’t just smell the pollution, we saw a sickly brown stripe across the sky streaking its way over the marshes and beach to the south.

There are refineries here, including Motiva, the largest oil refinery in the nation, smack up against neighborhoods. There are piles of coke and coke-fired power plants belching black smoke.  The Veolia incinerator is here burning, among other things, toxins which were manufactured for Syrian chemical weapons.

The combined emissions from these sources mean that cancer mortality rates in Port Arthur are 25 percent higher than the state average.  Long-term exposure to a stew of chemicals punctuated by intense individual releases that trigger warnings has wreaked havoc on the families who live in West Port Arthur.  And the oil and gas industry here hasn’t been an economic boon to the residents—more than a quarter live in poverty.

This is a sacrifice zone.

Like many other areas along the Gulf Coast, and inland in the shale gas frack zones, Port Arthur has been given over to the fossil fuel industry.  The air and water, along with the health and safety of the residents, have all been sacrificed for big oil and gas.

Petrochemicals and profits are shipped out.  Pollution and poverty remain.

As we passed over the ship channel bridge, the latest industry conquest loomed on the horizon.  Across the Sabine River which divides Texas from Louisiana, cranes moved like an insect’s legs around Cheniere’s Sabine Pass LNG facility.  The plant was originally built to be an import facility, but when the practice of hydrofracking increased domestic gas supplies and drove prices down, Cheniere began the process of converting Sabine Pass into an export terminal.

trains

The Sabine Pass LNG refrigeration “trains” under construction. When construction is complete six trains will purify and liquefy up to 3.6 billion cubic feet per day of fracked gas that is piped to the facility. You can see the 377-foot flare in the center of the photo.

The five Sabine Pass storage tanks hold the equivalent of 17 billion cubic natural gas.  That's a quarter of what the U.S. uses each day.

The five Sabine Pass storage tanks hold the equivalent of 17 billion cubic natural gas. That’s a quarter of what the U.S. uses each day.

tanker

We found the LNG tanker Methane Rita Andrea already berthed at Sabine Pass.

The best view of the 1,000-acre Sabine Pass LNG facility is from the Texas side of the river, as tall impoundments obscure much of the plant on the Louisiana side.  They look like the levees that line the Rio Grande, but instead of blocking the advance of flood waters they were raised to corral a pool of liquefied natural gas or other flammable liquids should there be an accidental release.  LNG is extremely hazardous, because once ignited, it burns so hot that firefighters cannot approach, and people a mile or more away must be evacuated due to the risk of deadly thermal radiation.

When construction is completed later this year, the plant will purify and then liquefy fracked gas by cooling it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, which condenses it down to 1/600th of its volume.  The liquefied gas will be loaded onto ships for export to countries where gas prices are higher.  When all six of its refrigeration “trains” are complete, the facility will be capable of exporting 3.6 billion cubic feet per day of LNG.

Mercury, carbon dioxide, sulphur and water will be removed from the gas in these scaffold-like “trains.”  Propane, ethylene, and the methane itself will be used as “cryogens” to cool the gas.  Because natural gas is continually warming and “boiling off,” Cheniere will relieve pressure by intermittently burning excess gas from a flare tower 377 feet tall.

Cheniere is not the source of the toxic soup that Port Arthur’s residents currently breathe, of course, because the facility is not yet online.  But when it begins shipping gas it will add smog and carcinogens to the mix.  In fact, in its environmental assessment documents, Cheniere reports that the facility will be a major source of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, particulates, and greenhouse gases.

The Brownsville Navigation District is currently courting 5 proposed liquefied natural gas export facilities that, if built, would line the Brownsville ship channel just outside of Port Isabel.

Together their expected output could be as much as or greater than Sabine Pass LNG, which means that they could emit similar levels of toxins, including 5,790 tons of nitrogen oxides, 8,837 tons of carbon monoxide, and 305 tons of volatile organic compounds each year.  All three of these will have serious impacts on human health.  They could also emit millions of tons of greenhouse gases, and pump ton after ton of smog-causing, asthma-attack-inducing particulates into the air.

By inviting these LNG facilities into the Rio Grande Valley, we are sacrificing the very air that we breathe.

We may also be sacrificing our existing economy.  Imagine how the sight of burning flares amid a brown cloud will impact tourism on the island.  Will people still come here to go birding when the air burns their throat?

And when those “clean” economic drivers decline, will we, like Port Arthur, court dirtier and dirtier industries to fill the void?

We have seen in Port Arthur that fossil fuel companies do not make good neighbors.  They will transform Brownsville, Port Isabel, and South Padre Island, both through direct emissions of toxins and smog, and indirectly, as our economy and quality of life come to mirror Port Arthur’s.  And as fracking to feed these export facilities ramps up in South Texas and Northern Mexico, they will have a similar, devastating effect on our region.

Valley residents have a choice: we can stand up for our clean air and reject the LNG export facilities, or we can become the next sacrifice zone for big oil and gas.

Concerned citizens are meeting regularly in Brownsville and in McAllen to fight LNG. Find out more at Save RGV from LNG on Facebook or email lrgvsierraclub@gmail.com. 

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corpus-christi-petroleum-natural-gas-processing-plant-new

BY STEFANIE HERWECK

The first thing you notice are the roiling orange flames spewing out of slender pipes, creating a black smoke that dilutes into the brownish air above. Tall, soot-covered silos shoot skyward out of a maze of dirty pipes. In the foreground, squat tanks are marked with rust stains and posted with warning signs which you can just make out. There’s an acrid, chemical smell in the air, and your breathing instinctively becomes shallow.

You’re in Beaumont. You’re in Port Arthur. You’re near the Houston Ship Channel. Or you’re driving through Corpus Christi. And you’re trying to get out of there—to get past the unhealthy industrial hellscape of petrochemical plants as soon as you can.

If you’ve traveled through Texas’ other coastal cities, you’ve had this experience.   And if you’re like me, you probably thought to yourself, thank God I don’t live here.

Unfortunately, petrochemical plants like these could be coming to us here in the Valley. The Brownsville Navigation District has leased land for four liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals which are now awaiting permits.  A fifth lease is reportedly in the works.

The terminals proposed for the Port of Brownsville would first remove impurities from the gas and then supercool it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, so that it liquefies and condenses to 1/600th of its volume. The liquefied gas can then be loaded onto tanker ships bound for Europe and Asia.

These refining and refrigeration processes release harmful emissions that will pollute our air and water and put our most vulnerable populations—children and the elderly—at risk.

Although none of the LNG companies coming to the Port of Brownsville have released estimates of their expected emissions, we can calculate rough amounts of the pollutants they will emit by comparing them to a recent report on the expansion of Louisiana’s Sabine Pass LNG facility. Sabine Pass LNG’s expansion will allow it to process 1.4 billion cubic feet per day. Together, the four Brownsville LNG facilities awaiting permits have stated that they will process 5.6 billion cubic feet per day.

Sabine Pass LNG reports that with its expansion in place it will produce 1,820.83 tons per year of nitrogen oxides (NOx). If we assume similar emission rates for the Brownsville LNG projects, we can expect 7,296.33 tons per year of nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen oxides make up the poisonous “brown cloud” that you see in large cities like Houston. They worsen asthma symptoms and damage lungs. They also contribute to acid rain and harm marine life. The amount the Brownsville facilities will emit is approximately equivalent to the total NOx emissions produced annually by all the vehicles in Cameron County.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2)is another contributor to acid rain, and the refineries can be expected to emit more than 24 tons per year, a 9% increase in the total Cameron County emissions of SO2.

Based on the Sabine Pass LNG expansion, the four LNG projects at the Port of Brownsville can also be expected to emit 362 tons per year of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemicals that contribute to smog and pollute water. Some, like benzene and toluene, are carcinogens. Indeed, a possible cancer cluster being investigated in the Barnett Shale region of north Texas has been linked to benzene emissions from nearby natural gas drilling.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poison produced when fossil fuels do not burn completely. It can be particularly harmful to pregnant women, fetuses and babies, and people with heart conditions. Using the Sabine Pass expansion as a guide, we can estimate that the Port of Brownsville operations will add 11,222 tons per year of carbon monoxide, an approximately 20% increase in Cameron County’s total annual CO emissions.

We can also expect the proposed LNG plants to emit 455 tons per year of particulate pollution, consisting of particles small enough to be inhaled. These cause respiratory problems and aggravate heart problems. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to particulates.

The Port of Brownsville’s LNG refineries will also pump out an estimated 10.1 million tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To put that in perspective, the EPA lists only two large-facility sources of GHG in Cameron County, the Silas Ray Power Plant and the Municipal Waste Dump. Together they produced 130, 815 tons of GHG in 2012. As a region that is on track to suffer potentially catastrophic impacts of drought, stronger storms and sea level rise from global warming, we should work to minimize, not supersize, our carbon footprint.

Politicians like Congressmen Vela and Cuellar have called LNG a windfall for the Rio Grande Valley. What they don’t talk about are the toxins that that wind will bring.

Instead of silently accepting their LNG sales pitch, we need to speak up and initiate a community conversation about what the coming of LNG could mean. Are we ready for the smoky flares and the brown clouds? Are we comfortable living and raising our children where poisons and carcinogens blow in the wind? Are we really willing to sacrifice our clean air and water?

It’s a momentous decision that we should all be involved in.

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Aerial View South Hook January 2009The 5 proposed Port of Brownsville LNG plants are among 40 natural gas export operations being advanced across the country.  If these proposals are approved the United States may become the world’s largest exporter of natural gas.  This in turn will raise domestic natural gas prices and expand the dangerous and destructive practice of fracking.  It will have serious implications for public health, the environment and climate change.
For this reason, the Sierra Club has taken the following actions:
  • The Sierra Club has developed a report entitled “Look Before the LNG Leap.”  The report demands that the Department of Energy undertake an environmental study that includes the cumulative impacts of ALL of the proposed LNG export facilities rather than allowing them to go through environmental review as individual projects.   READ IT HERE>>>
  • The Club has filed Motions to Intervene, Protest, and Comment for each and every LNG plant filing with Department of Energy.  In these motions they ask the Department of Energy to require an environmental review before granting the application, and they argue that the Department of Energy should find the application inconsistent with the public interest.  You can read the motions for 2 of the 5 Brownsville LNG projects HERE>>> and HERE>>>.
  • Along with other environmental organizations, the Sierra Club has petitioned the Department of Energy to revise the nearly 30-year-old policy guidelines for approving natural gas exports. You can read the press release and petition HERE>>>

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The Port of Brownsville hopes to become a production and export hub for liquefied natural gas (LNG).  They have leased land in the ship channel totaling almost 1000 acres to 5 different LNG operations.  Each of the companies involved is working through the permitting process at this time.

If these developments are allowed to proceed, their activities would have an extreme environmental impact,  including emitting toxic gases and particulates that damage human health, deforestation and destruction of critical habitat for the endangered ocelot, and the acidification of our Gulf waters and sensitive wetlands.  Furthermore, processing this extremely flammable gas would also expose members of the surrounding communities to hazards from unforeseen disasters, as we have seen with recent LNG explosions in Washington and Wyoming.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club visited the proposed sites on Saturday, and we bring you this virtual tour that includes the plans for four of the five sites and what they look like on the ground:

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From the Protecting What We Love Exhibit

Protecting What We Love is an exhibit of photo posters that tells the story of the environment in Texas in 2012.  The show includes the breathtaking work of some of Texas’ finest nature photographers — Charles Kruvand, Susan Heller, Adrian Van Dellen, and Deana Newcomb.
Alongside these gorgeous art pieces of the natural resources that we cherish are the documentary evidence of brave advocates exposing the dark side of the dream — the brave Don Young and Sharon Wilson with their photos of gas fracking and drilling in the Barnet Shale, the champion coal fighter Paul Rolke with his photos from Texas coal country; and the stalwart friend Hilton Kelley’s poignant images of children living and playing near the toxic fence lines of Port Arthur’s refineries and chemical plants.

Flyer for the exhibit

The solutions are here, too — enlightened and effective water conservation programs, solar panels flowering on rooftops across the state, green buildings for energy efficiency, an electric car and other smart transportation solutions to reduce pollution and clean up Texas.  There’s even a wonderful photo of our own cyclists out in force at UTPA to promote a clean, sustainable Rio Grande Valley. The Protecting What We Love exhibit opening is timed to coincide with the Edinburg Earth Day and Arbor Day on Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm.  The exhibit will be on display through this Friday, April 20.  Then the exhibit moves to the Brownsville Main Library April 23-April 29 and the Southmost Branch April 30-May 5.  Flyer for Brownsville here.

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Power plant from the Beehive Collective graphic, The True Cost of Coal

By Stefanie Herweck

The story begins with an intact ecosystem and lives that depend on the land, the work that is done there, and the shared culture that grows up around these activities.

But this scene of biodiverse landscapes and healthy, sustainable communities is torn apart with a blast.

The top of a mountain is scraped off and dumped into the valley stream below to expose a thin coal seam.  The few workers it takes to mine the coal are destroying mountains where they hunted and fished as children, but they have no economic alternative.

When they finish all that is left is an exposed, barren landscape and a local culture eroding away along with the mountain’s remains and the mine’s polluted runoff.  Looming over this regional destruction are the storm clouds of global climate change that gather strength from the greenhouse gases emitted by the power plants that the coal feeds.

This is the visual story of Appalachia and the effects of mountain top removal coal mining as told by the Beehive Design Collective in their graphic The True Cost of Coal, which will be touring the Rio Grande Valley March 28 through 30.

In 2008, members of the nation-wide artist-educator collective began gathering the stories of hundreds of people in Appalachia whose lives had been affected by mountain top removal coal mining.  An elaborate illustration evolved from these conversations.  The graphic exposes the economic, cultural and environmental impacts of coal mining and coal burning.   It reflects the complexity of the struggles for land, livelihood, and self-determination playing out in Appalachia.  It also analyzes the role of coal in globalization, mass consumption, climate change, and environmental injustice.

Mountain top removal mining and the costs of coal-fired electricity may seem far removed from the Rio Grande Valley, but we too burn  coal and support dirty coal mining operations through our electricity use.  Magic Valley Electric Cooperative, a prominent electric provider in the Rio Grande Valley, is a member of South Texas Electric Cooperative, which in turn gets some of its power from the San Miguel power plant, located off Highway 281 about 50 miles south of San Antonio.

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Even though San Miguel is the smallest power plant in Texas, it’s one of the dirtiest.  It burns a particularly polluting form of coal called lignite.  The lignite comes from the nearby San Miguel strip mine, operated by Kiewit, where each year 300 acres of the rural south Texas plains are torn apart and transformed into brown dirt piles.  (See the photos of San Miguel in the slideshow above.  More photos of the mine are found on the Kiewit site.)

Since the lignite has a low energy density compared to other coal, the San Miguel is extremely inefficient, requiring 3.3 million tons of lignite per year.  Lignite also has a higher ash content, meaning that San Miguel generates more waste.  In fact, nearly 2 million tons of ash have to be hauled away from the power plant each year and dumped in nearby pits.

Even more dangerous than the waste that is hauled away is the waste that San Miguel’s smokestack belches.  Although all coal-fired power plants emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming, lignite produces much higher concentrations of the greenhouse gas than most coal.

San Miguel also makes the Environmental Integrity Project’s list of top mercury polluters, with the fourth highest mercury emission rate in the entire United States.  Mercury is a highly toxic metal that rains down on streams and lakes, accumulating in the fish and seafood that we eat.  In our bodies it acts as a neurotoxin, interfering with the brain and nervous system.  Children and unborn babies are extremely vulnerable to even low levels of mercury exposure, which can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, and kidney disorders.  One seventieth of a teaspoon is enough to contaminate a 25-acre lake, and San Miguel emitted 3,247 pounds of it from 2000-2010.

The good news?  San Miguel is ripe for retirement.  Because it is so small and so dirty, it does not make economic sense to install the type of pollution control upgrades that will be required under new clean air protections.

The Electric Cooperatives that own San Miguel are guided by their customer-stakeholders.  They are not a distant transnational corporation, they are us.  South Texas Electric Co-op and Magic Valley should act as responsible members of the community by switching to forms of clean power generation and bring an end to San Miguel’s terrible pollution and environmental destruction.

Just like Appalachia, it’s time for South Texas to acknowledge the true cost of coal and move beyond the dirty fuel into a clean energy future.

See The True Cost of Coal and learn more about the Valley’s coal problem.  Complete listing the Beehive Collective Rio Grande Valley Tour times and locations is here.

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