The number of earthquakes in the U.S. has risen dramatically since the advent of widespread hydraulic fracturing for the recovery of oil and natural gas. In both North America and Europe, concern that such activity could cause damaging earthquakes is rising and the debate shows signs of becoming another unscientific brouhaha fueled by ignorance and fear. It has been known for many years that fracking can cause seismic activity, as can damming rivers, mining minerals and pumping oil from underground. Is fracking being subjected to unfair criticism? Several new reports and a multi-national study, just published in the journal Science, attempt to take an objective, scientific view of the problem.
Back in 2005, the IPCC Working Group III Special Report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage declared that the storage of naturally and industrially produced carbon dioxide in depleted hydrocarbon reservoirs and aquifers was considered an essential component of the strategy to combat the build-up of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere. It seemed like an easy solution, pump CO2 captured from nasty coal power plants and other high volume greenhouse gas sources back into the underground reservoirs that oil and gas has been extracted from. After all, those geologic formations held hydrocarbons for millions of years—now the pumped out oil fields are just sitting there, waiting to be put to use. That was until testing was done on rock from actual cap strata. It would appear that infusing rock layers with CO2-saturated aqueous fluid can alter the properties of caprock, leading to the escape of the sequestered carbon back into the environment.
Over the past 50 years or so, the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of the mainland of Antarctica, has experienced rapid warming and the collapse of a number of ice shelves. A new temperature record derived from an ice core drilled on James Ross Island, has triggered a reassessment of what triggered the recent warming trends. This new core provides the best record of climate events on the peninsula going back at least 20,000 years, and may extend back as far as 50,000 years. From this new data a team of researchers has constructed the most detailed history of climate on the Antarctic Peninsula known to science and it has revealed a number of interesting things. Most important of these is the fact that this area undergoes bouts of rapid warming periodically and that things were at least as warm on the peninsula 2,000 years ago. So much for “unprecedented” warming on the Antarctic Peninsula.
With the IPCC getting ready to churn out yet another frightening report based on consensus science in 2013, it is interesting to note that many things have changed since the previous report (AR4). For example, oxidation is a major factor in atmospheric chemistry and can impact many environmental issues: stratospheric ozone loss, acidification of water and soil, air quality, cloud formation and, naturally, climate change. In the AR4 report the only atmospheric oxidation factors included were ozone (O3), the hydroxyl radical (OH) and the nitrate radical (NO3). In a recent scientific report, measurements from a Finnish forest revealed a previously unknown atmospheric oxidant that promotes production of sulfuric acid—one of the main precursors for the formation and growth of aerosol particles and clouds. Scientists are still unsure what this mysterious chemical compound is, they refer to it as oxidant X.
Remember the 2010 BP Gulf Oil disaster? For 83 days it dominated news broadcasts in the US and was followed with interest around the world. Ecological activists wailed that the Gulf would never recover, alternative energy advocates demanded all off shore oil production be shut down, and the Obama administration quickly reversed its plans to open up more coastal areas for oil exploration. Now things have gone strangely silent regarding the worst ever US oil spill. A report commissioned by the reparations fund director pronounced Gulf fisheries mostly recovered and a number of scientific reports found that both oil and natural gas released by the spill had amazingly disappeared. Some environmentalists are still howling but the crisis seems to have passed much more quickly than even the most optimistic predictions.
Carbon monoxide, CO, is a trace gas that is important in atmospheric chemistry. It indirectly influences climate and has significant effects on methane and ozone levels. CO is a byproduct of combustion—particularly the incomplete burning of fossil fuels and biomass—and conventional wisdom says that humans, with their tendency to set things on fire, should be responsible for releasing much of the gas into the atmosphere. Little is known about the abundance and sources of CO prior to the industrial age, or about the importance of anthropogenic activities have had. A new study in the journal Science presents a 650-year-long record of CO atmospheric concentration using samples from Antarctic ice cores. Reconstructed past CO variability and its causes have come up with a shocking fact: CO levels are at a 2,000 year low. Apparently, humans actually prevent wildfire, reducing the release of carbon monoxide and, consequently, CO2.
Like an overly familiar maniac from a series of Hollywood slasher movies, CO2 has lost most of its ability to scare the public. Carbon dioxide's diminishing fright mojo has sent climate change alarmists—and those in the media who lend them mindless support in trade for salacious headlines—casting about for a next gas molecule to scare the public with. A few trial balloons have been floated for oxides of nitrogen (NOx) but the rising star in the global warming shop of horrors is methane (CH4). Aside from having a familial relation ship with CO2 based on carbon, CH4 is a known greenhouse gas and is produced almost everywhere on Earth by decaying organic matter. Most recently, there were panicked warnings that Arctic seabed methane stores were being destabilized. The hype over methane has gotten so out of hand that a news focus article in Science (which is not a hot bed of climate change skepticism) has publicly stated the situation is being exaggerated.
There are two major things the peoples of the world can do to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and protect the environment, and they don't involve wind or solar power. The first is to build new nuclear power plants, as people in Europe, Asia and elsewhere are doing apace. The second is to insist that your next automobile is either a pure electric or a plug-in hybrid. Auto manufacturers from Detroit to Shenzhen are racing to bring new vehicles to market, while forward looking cities like New York and Paris are installing recharging stations in anticipation of the electric future. As stated in The Energy Gap, electric and hybrid vehicles are the only way to cure the world's fossil fuel addiction.
There is another contender in the alternate energy, renewable fuels sweepstakes that combines aspects of solar energy and biofuels. Most solar technologies are aimed at producing electricity, but a new class of solar chemical reactors aims to make liquid fuels from air, water, and sunshine. This could, in theory, provide a carbon neutral replacement for liquid fossil fuels. The catch? The process is costly and unlikely ever to compete with gasoline produced from fossil fuels without a punishing tax on carbon emissions.
The search for ways to reduce carbon emissions has led to government grant money for schemes ranging from promising to wacky. Recognizing that there is no currently viable replacement for fossil fuels, with the possible exception of nuclear power, the US and other countries with large coal deposits are desperately looking for ways to continue burning coal without incurring the wrath of nature or the IPCC. Clear evidence of the seriousness of this effort is evident in this week's special edition of Science, dedicated to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology.
Every now and then you see a statement like “a great future source of energy is hydrogen.” Such statements are lies—hydrogen is only an energy carrier or transfer media and not a substance capable of providing new energy. Hydrogen will never be a source of new energy here on Earth until we figure out how to make nuclear fusion work. This is because chemical uses of hydrogen, be it fuel cells or internal combustion (IC) engines, only work if you start out with free hydrogen: H2 .