Those Plumes of Methane Leaking Off the Coast of Washington Are Really Bad News for the Oceans


By Michael Casey

VICE News is closely tracking global environmental change. Check out the Tipping Point blog here.

Over the past five years, fishermen in the Pacific Northwest have found themselves increasingly impacted by climate change.

As the oceans absorb greater amounts of carbon dioxide from human-caused emissions, the waters off Washington and Oregon have become more acidic. That has forced some commercial fisheries to relocate to places like Hawaii or get out of the business entirely, since the acidic waters make it more difficult for mollusks, crabs, and corals to grow their shells.

And things are only likely to get worse.

Not only is climate change making the ocean more acidic, it’s warming the waters, causing sea levels to rise and even helping to unlock methane deposits that have been frozen on the seafloor, which in turn makes the oceans more acidic. And those plums of methane bubbling up through the water column could exacerbate global warming.

“It means global warming has come to our waters,” said Paul Johnson, a University of Washington professor of oceanography who has researched the methane plumes.

Johnson first heard about the plumes about a decade ago from fishermen who spotted them on their sonars. He immediately assumed the culprit to be methane.

Johnson’s lab analyzed the water temperature about a third of a mile down where the methane was frozen below the seafloor. The researchers found the ocean temperatures had warmed 0.3 degrees Celsius in the past 44 years, suggesting the warming was causing frozen deposits of methane — known as methane hydrates — to be converted into methane gas that was rising through the water column.

“In the deep ocean, that is a big deal,” Johnson said of the rate of warming.

Then this month, Johnson and his team found a disproportionate number of the 168 bubbling plumes they observed off the Washington and Oregon coasts were at critical depths where methane hydrates are found.

“What we’re seeing is possible confirmation of what we predicted from the water temperatures: Methane hydrate appears to be decomposing and releasing a lot of gas,” Johnson said. “If you look systematically, the location on the margin where you’re getting the largest number of methane plumes per square meter, it is right at that critical depth of 500 meters.”

Methane has a 25 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over 100 years. It the second greatest greenhouse gas emitted from the United States, coming primarily from the oil and gas industry and to a lesser degree livestock and landfills.

As global temperatures warm, scientists are concerned that methane trapped in permafrost thawing in the higher latitudes, like in Alaska and Siberia, might be released into the atmosphere. More recently, attention has turned to the oceans.

Last year, researchers reported finding hundreds of methane plumes rising from the seafloor off the Atlantic coast — though there remains a debate over whether they came from methane hydrate or another source, such as decomposing organic material.

Then there is the West Coast.

Johnson and his colleagues concluded that warming — as a result of water from global warming hotspot off Siberia that travelled with ocean currents east across the Pacific Ocean — would theoretically destabilize methane deposits on the Cascadia subduction zone, which runs from northern California to Vancouver Island.

They calculated as much as 4 million metric tons of methane has been released since 1970 from the seafloor along the Cascadia subduction zone. That is roughly 220 million pounds of methane per year from the sediments off the Washington coast or about the same amount of methane released from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and 500 times the rate that is naturally released from the seafloor.

That figure, they projected, is expected to quadruple in the decades ahead.

But, according to Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist who is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, that doesn’t mean much when put in the bigger context of global warming.

“These are interesting but they are minor issues,” Schmidt said of the plumes. “People have detected methane seeps all over the place off the continental shelves and mostly they are in equilibrium with what is going on. So if the water is warm, you will get a little bit more or a little bit less … The overall constraints are such that it’s really hard to see how in the present climate situation how it could be a big effect.”

But Kevin Schaefer, a research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center who studies emissions from permafrost, was not as dismissive. The challenge, he said, was that so little is known about these methane plumes including just how much is being released on a global scale.

“It’s a potential risk but I’m not sure the scientific community has a good estimate of how much this might be in the future,” he said. “We don’t know. It could have an impact. Whether it’s radical, I would probably say not.”

In the Pacific Northwest, it seems very little of the methane is reaching the atmosphere. Johnson said about 95 percent is being consumed by microbes as it makes its way to the surface.

“Methane is free lunch for a lot of bacteria,” Johnson said. “As the methane percolates up through the sediments in the top 10 to 20 centimeters bacteria eat it like crazy. Then as it gets into the water column, there is another type of bacteria that eat it.”

So far, the biggest threat from the methane plumes appears to be the local water quality, Johnson said. The bacteria convert the methane into carbon dioxide, producing lower-oxygen, more-acidic conditions — and that hurts local fisheries.

“It’s not that it is going to immediately accelerate global warming. There is not enough coming out to make much of a contribution,” Johnson said. “The fishing communities are concerned about ocean acidification and low oxygen in the water and it (methane) has a tendency to make that worse.”

Follow Michael Casey on Twitter: @Mcasey1

TOPICS: tipping point , environment, americas, united states, washington, methane, oceans, ocean acidification, global warming, climate change

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Join us at VERGE from anywhere in the world (Oct. 27-29)


Next week, 1500+ thought leaders from diverse industries and sectors will convene in San Jose, CA to explore the existing technologies and systems that are shaping the future of buildings, energy, transportation, food, water, supply chains and cities. Can’t make it to San Jose? Good news: You can join the event virtually on October 27-29 from anywhere in the world.

With just an internet connection and your computer, you’ll gain access to over 50 mainstage presentations from the brightest minds in sustainability and technology. Plus, get an exclusive look at Sidebar interviews with some of our highest profile keynote speakers.

Register for the virtual event today and join the thousands of sustainability leaders from around the world that will be tuning in:

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Smart Ped electric assist scooter is a great new multimodal alternative

by Lloyd Alter (@lloydalter)


© smartped

A hundred years ago all the smart young people were cruising the streets of New York and London on the Autoped, a gasoline powered folding scooter. In our earlier coverage of it we quoted:

This fascinating machine represents the world’s first model of scooter. It was the only motorcycle to be built in New York City. Though adopted by the U.S. Post Office and other services – as well as fashion-conscious women in Europe and America – it was also used by New York gang members for easy getaways – they could motor down narrow alleys to escape police in cars behind them.

Now, a century later, it’s back in an all-electric model that looks a whole lot better and safer. It’s the Smart Ped, made in Milan by Nino Klansek and the people at FlyKly, who previously brought us the FlyKly Smart Wheel for your bike. They gave TreeHugger a heads-up on their new device after seeing our Autoped coverage, but are now up on Kickstarter for all to see.

smartped user© FlyKly Smartped

It’s a very interesting device. Unlike the old Autoped, there isn’t a throttle; like a Pedelec bike it senses the riders’ push and then gives it a boost. So you never have to worry about how you control it, or going too fast and getting into dangerous situations, because you still have to do some work of pushing. It’s more intuitive this way and a whole lot safer. It just lets you go a little bit farther and faster:

HTML5 Icon

It runs on a smaller version of the smart wheel motor used in the bike, mounted in a 16″ wheel.

Motor© smartped

The all-in-one electric motor, battery and electronics come from the Smart Wheel concept, all fitted in the rear wheel. The aluminum housing, consisting of an electro motor, battery set, electronics and forward thinking sensors, is meticulously assembled and crafted into a wonderful piece of tech.

smart ped folding© Smart Ped

Building a scooter with wheels that big gives a much smoother, more stable ride. It also folds up and is light enough (11 kg or under 25 pounds) that you can pick it up and carry it with you on transit or even planes. It will run at a not crazy-fast 16 MPH for 18 to 30 miles, depending on how much you are kicking. It has “smart sensors” to do kick detection, mass estimation, friction estimation, speed and acceleration, all of which it probably needs to figure out how much push to give you.

And of course there is an app; the FlyKy people also designed a clever light that doubles as a phone holder, so you can “track how you ride and get suggestions for alternative routes to make your commute safer, easier and more fun. It creates tailor made reports on how much money, time and carbon footprint points can be saved with switching to a different mobility pattern. Use it to control your Smart Ped or connect with your friends and share your rides and stats.”

We have long been fans of the idea of multimodal travel, the idea that you might have a device that can take you that “last mile” or couple of miles from home to transit, from transit to destination. I have also recently tried out an electric assist bike and think that there is a role for them in making life just a bit easier in hilly cities or for older riders.

AutopedThe Retronaut/Public Domain

And if you have to dress like this to go to the office, an electric boost makes a lot of sense. The Smart Ped looks like a very interesting new option. More on their Kickstarter site.

Tags: Electric Bikes | Kickstarter

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The (surprising) greenest city in the US is?

A new ranking lists the country’s most sustainable cities for 2015; number one might not be what you’d expect.

When daydreaming about what America’s greenest city might look like, I see calm streets filled with pedestrians and cyclists, bike baskets cascading like cornucopia with farmer’s market produce. The air smells like a meadow, there are dogs frolicking in massive parks, there are rainbows, people smile!

But according to a comprehensive ranking by the personal finance site, WalletHub, the truth slams the brakes on my reverie … screeching tires and all. That’s because as calculated by the set of 12 metrics they used – falling into the four categories of Environmental Quality, “Greenness” of Transportation, “Greenness” of Energy Sources and Green Lifestyle & Local Policies – the greenest metropolis of the 100 most populated cities in the United States is none other than the city I call home, New York City.

Whaaat?! I think of Portland or San Francisco … places where people wear hemp andplastic bags are banned and electric cars fill the parking lots. But no. While those two beacons of sustainability rank second and third, it’s the Big Apple that gets the prize for first place.

What’s not surprising is that New York takes the number one spot for sustainable transportation. Having a car in New York is a pain in the seat – meanwhile, the subway gets you anywhere, relatively quickly, for a few bucks and every day it seems there arenew Citi Bike stands and bike lanes. And indeed, the authors of the ranking found that, for example, the percentage of commuters who drive is four times less in New York than in Chesapeake, Va.; likewise, New York is four times more walkable than Chesapeake as well.

So New Yorkers, take pride in the city (well, that’s a given) and wave your reusable shopping bags high!

Here’s how the top 10 stack up:
1. New York, NY
2. Portland, OR
3. San Francisco, CA
4. Washington, DC
5. Honolulu, HI
6. Seattle, WA
7. Minneapolis, MN
8. Boston, MA
9. Oakland, CA
10. Fremont, CA

And at the other end:
91. Memphis, TN
92. Bakersfield, CA
93. Glendale, AZ
94. Jacksonville, FL
95. Chandler, AZ
96. Hialeah, FL
97. Louisville, KY
98. Indianapolis, IN
99. Gilbert, AZ
100. Baton Rouge, LA

For the 80 inbetween and to learn more about the methodology behind the numbers, go to WalletHub.

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Is the ‘reign of recycling’ really over?

by Tom Szaky, Guest Writer (@tom_terracycle)

John Tierney’s opinion piece in the New York Times’ October 4th Sunday Review, “The Reign of Recycling,” appeared to make a compelling case against the perceived benefits of recycling. Driven principally by arguments of economic efficiency, Tierney misses the larger point and planetary imperative of recycling. To avoid, and ideally reverse, the escalating damage we have done to our planet, our society needs a system in which production and consumption are in balance with long-term ecological well-being.

The economics of today’s recycling infrastructure are simple: if the cost of collecting and processing something is cheaper than the resulting end-product, then it’s generally recycled (as people can make money from doing so). This holds true for commodities such as paper, aluminum and certain types of rigid plastics (like a soda bottle or detergent container). For everything else, which represents the vast majority of packaging types (from a blister pack to a flexible food package) and almost all objects (a pen, a toothbrush, etc.), it costs more to collect and process than it’s worth. This renders these materials waste, which means they will either be landfilled or incinerated.

Tierney seems to agree with this statement. Although he disparages recycling generally, he reasons that recycling makes sense when it’s profitable, and landfill or incineration make sense when they are more profitable than recycling. However, this is looking at recycling only through an economic lens, making it synonymous to classic raw material extraction, like mining. Mr. Tierney misses the point that, like education, national security and most environmental policies that protect or advance the common good, the rationale for recycling isn’t only about cost efficiency.

Tierney relies on selective data to postulate that recycling items that aren’t deemed profitable isn’t environmentally beneficial. The benefits vary, but after having reviewed dozens of independent life cycle analyses (including independent LCAs for TerraCycle products made from packaging waste), I have consistently found – as have variousother institutions around the world – that there are meaningful environmental benefits to recycling most materials (it is irrelevant on this point whether or not these items are economically profitable to physically process) when measuring against the environmental impacts of producing new products from virgin materials.

For example, Tierney does not comment on the staggering amount of plastics in our oceans – 5 trillion pieces of plastic in fact, or about 250,000 tons. According to a variety of studies published by The Royal Society in their theme issue, “Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends” – ocean plastics are breaking down at an alarming rate and leaching toxic chemicals, such a bisphenol A, into our seas. Fish and birds consume or absorb these chemicals, and eventually, by moving through the food chain, those toxins can be consumed by humans. The rising level of these toxins in humans is linked to long-term health effects such as cancer, birth defects and endocrine disruption. As a society, we must consider the downstream economic costs of the health impacts associated with our linear consumption patterns. Doing so might expose the hidden dangers behind our disposable society, which has subsequently helped generate historic corporate profits for most companies in the supply chain.

This is just one of the environmental arguments that are not considered in Tierney’s analysis. What of the environmental impact (which has yet to be fully assessed) of the fly-ash and airborne particulates from the aging and less-than-efficient trash incineration systems of Europe, not to mention the leachate risks associated with disposing of incinerator ash in landfills? And if we’re still talking economics, waste incinerators have among the highest capital and operational costs compared to other energy-generating systems – a lot of money to linearly dispose of potentially valuable material. None of these economic considerations (and there are many others) find their way into Tierney’s convenient calculations.

There are an incredible number of parallels to this overall discussion; it is expensive to put catalytic converters on cars, but the difference in air quality in countries that don’t have them (such as in developing nations with limited emissions regulations and high volumes of older-model vehicles) is obvious. For much of the 20th century, there were battles over attempts to reduce dumping in our rivers and oceans. Today, it’s difficult to argue with the wisdom of those “costly” decisions.

I agree with Tierney that it’s important to rethink how we produce and dispose of waste, and that the ecological benefits must be subject to cost-benefit analyses. That said, any realistic equation must include the true costs and full impacts of Tierney’s preferred alternatives to recycling.

Despite Tierney’s convenient calculations and omissions of data key to making a positive case for recycling, and his clear one-sidedness in trying to make a case against it, Tierney still shows recycling has at least a modest environmental benefit. One thing that we know for sure isn’t benefiting long-term sustainable development is the linear system we have now (extract, produce, consume, dispose). I’ll take a modest positive for the environment over a devastating, clearly destructive negative any day.

As I read “The Reign of Recycling” I couldn’t help but think of a saying by Derek Bok: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

(For more, see: Idiocracy in the New York Times: John Tierney on recycling)

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Oil well oversight in L.A. Basin is ‘inconsistent,’ audit finds

by Julie Cart –

California’s oil regulatory agency concedes that it has allowed serious lapses in its monitoring of oil operations in the Los Angeles Basin, confirming long-standing fears of community activists who say that lax oversight puts Southern California neighborhoods at risk.

A report issued Thursday by the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources found “inconsistent permitting, monitoring and enforcement of well construction and operation” in the agency’s Cypress office.

The internal audit concluded that:

• Since 2007, most oil projects in the L.A. area have not been subject to a required annual review.

• Seventy-eight percent of the projects in the audit did not undergo a required Area of Review, a comprehensive geologic and technical analysis of the oil field involved. Only five projects had undergone such an analysis in the last five years.

• Testing and methods to ensure that fluids injected into the ground don’t contaminate aquifers or drinking water sources are inadequate and need to be updated.

• Well records were often incomplete or missing. At least 47% of the files did not contain information about well casing that is vital to understanding the integrity of wells.

• To complete reports, regulators relied on self-reported information from operators rather than on information the agency could independently verify.

Steve Bohlen, state oil and gas supervisor, acknowledged that the report uncovered “systemic problems” but added that reforms he has instituted are proof that the troubled agency is trying to tighten its enforcement.

He said in a call with reporters that department investigators “dug deeply”‘ through records and documents to assemble the audit.

“The division hasn’t owned up to its responsibility as a regulator in the past,” said Bohlen, who was hired in June. “We are rapidly moving toward doing that.”

The Los Angeles area is home to the nation’s largest urban oil field, with pump jacks and other industrial operations in residential neighborhoods, near schools and across from hospitals and retirement homes. Neighborhood activists have complained for decades about oil operations they say foul air and water and create endemic public health problems.

STAND-LA, an environmental justice coalition of community groups seeking to end oil drilling in neighborhoods, said in a statement that oil operations are putting communities in danger.

“It’s time for the city of Los Angeles and our state regulators to protect public health,” the statement said.

The California Council on Science and Technology in July warned of the risks posed by fracking and other oil operations in the state. Scientists expressed concerns about the density of oil wells and their proximity to humans in the Los Angeles Basin.

About 1.7 million people in Los Angeles live or work within one mile of an active oil or gas well, a report by the council said, and atmospheric concentrations of pollutants near those sites “can present risks to human health.”

The science report recommended an extensive epidemiological study of residents living near oil production sites. California does not regulate how close oil operations can be to residences, schools or hospitals. The report recommends that California adopt a setback requirement.

The Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources conducted its analysis to fulfill a legal requirement to report to the Legislature annually on oil and gas operations. The agency was chastised by elected officials last spring for failing to submit reports for several years.

Thursday’s document included charts showing great fluctuation from year to year in violations and enforcement actions. For example, state inspectors identified 323 unauthorized injections in 2012, but only 12 in 2013 and 17 the year after.

Bohlen explained the wide variances as changes in regulatory emphasis from year to year.

The state agency is also required by the Legislature to report on its Underground Injection Control program, which regulates more than 55,000 wells used to produce oil or inject oil field waste.

State officials are under fire from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for allowing companies to inject oil field waste and other fluids into aquifers protected under federal law. More than 2,500 illegal injection wells were identified around the state, although Bohlen said there were none in Los Angeles County.

He said the department’s ongoing investigation into potential risk to drinking water has led the agency to issue orders to close and seal 23 wells.

Catherine Reheis¿Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Assn., said the report represented “a new era of leadership and transparency, state regulators are now collecting and inventorying a huge amount of information from the state’s oil and gas producers and providing it for public review.”

The data from the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources audit of the L.A. area were compiled more than a year ago, but Bohlen said it has taken time to write the report.

That delay angered environmentalists, who said it’s an example of the state promoting the interests of oil companies over public health.

“State officials endangered California’s drinking water by sitting on knowledge of this systemic failure of oil industry oversight for more than a year,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The Brown administration kept these disturbing findings from the public and still hasn’t started taking corrective action,” Kretzmann said. “Regulators have let the oil industry virtually drill at will in the L.A. area, and those poorly regulated injection wells pose an enormous risk to underground water.”

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A False Choice Between Farms and Fish


Diverting precious water from California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is misguided — and the Senate must stop it from happening.

Growing up on his family’s pear ranch in the rich delta headlands a two-hour drive east of San Francisco, Brett Baker spent idyllic days roaming the orchard, picking wild blueberries, and fishing the fertile marshes and streams of nearby Steamboat Slough.

Brett Baker (Photo: NRDC)

Fish and fruit remain near the heart of Brett’s life even now, especially when he serves his wife and their young daughters fresh-caught smallmouth bass with a dollop of homemade pear chutney. “Just a diced Bartlett pear, some fresh homegrown tomatoes, a little bit of onion, and a jalapeño pepper,” he told me on a recent sunlit day, amid the pampas grass, cottonwoods, and pepper weed of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Not too surprisingly, Brett, a sixth-generation pear farmer with a biology degree, soundly rejects the false choice between farms and fish that some policymakers in Washington, D.C., want to force on the people of California. “It shouldn’t be farms versus fish,” Brett said. “Both need fresh, clean water.”

That’s exactly why the U.S. Senate needs to kill H.R. 2898, a pernicious bill the House passed in July, which pits big agricultural interests against wildlife habitat and all they support. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing on the legislation October 8. This bill needs to be rejected.

The bill would misdirect delta waters, starving marshes, rivers, and streams. It would gut essential protections for fish and other wildlife, threatening thousands of fishing jobs that depend on healthy salmon habitat. It would shunt aside California’s own environmental safeguards. And it would derail an effective program to restore the San Joaquin River, which once hosted the state’s second-largest salmon run.

Little wonder President Obama has threatened to veto this misguided legislation if it makes it out of Congress. It shouldn’t survive the Senate. Here’s why.

California is listing through its fourth year of epic drought, the region’s worst in centuries. And it’s exacerbating a long-term problem. In dry years and wet, the state uses more water than its rivers and underground aquifers can sustainably provide. How big is the gap? Enough to cover the entire state of New Hampshire with water a foot deep.

Our response, though, can’t be to divert even more precious water to corporate agricultural interests, leaving even less for fisheries and wildlife. If we’re smarter about how we use water in California, the state will have all it needs.

Wise management means using recycled water to irrigate landscapes and crops. It means capturing stormwater in urban areas, replacing turf grass with native and drought-tolerant plants, and upgrading plumbing fixtures and appliances with a new generation of water-saving gear. And it means investing in more efficient irrigation systems and techniques for the agriculture industry, which accounts for 80 percent of water use by the people of California.

Farmers like Brett Baker know how well all this can work.

He remembers splashing around in the flooded orchard during irrigation time as a boy. In his teens, though, his family installed sprinklers that target the root systems. The pear trees get all the water they need, but evaporation has been cut roughly in half, reducing overall water use by roughly 15 percent. That means real savings for the family orchard — and real benefits for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and all it supports.

On a cloudless late August day in the delta, a great blue heron glided low over the cattails, a reminder of the rich bounty of wildlife the region struggles to support. The delta connects the headwaters of two of California’s biggest rivers — the Sacramento and the San Joaquin — to the San Francisco Bay and, from there, the Pacific Ocean.

The delta relies on seasonal rains and annual snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east. But it’s clinging on to survive as the result of decades-old dam and diversion projects that send too much of the delta’s water to the almond, produce, and fruit farms to the south and, further still, to the urban centers of Southern California.

That leaves the San Francisco Bay suffering a perpetual shortage of water. In good years for rain and snowfall, about half of the water is diverted away from the delta. Even more is diverted when precipitation is short, as in drought years like this one.

The diversions all but dried up the San Joaquin River decades ago. Following a 1998 NRDC lawsuit, though, California developed a plan to restore the San Joaquin and the salmon, sturgeon, and other fish that depend on its flow. We’re making good progress and need to stay with the program, not abruptly change course midstream.

We don’t need bad legislation like H.R. 2898, which would take us in exactly the wrong direction. “Water really is the lifeblood of California,” says Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with NRDC’s water program. “When we use water more efficiently, we’re helping to make sure that we can sustain our economy and save these special places and wildlife and the communities that depend on them.”

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