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[1THING] Blog: Archive for November, 2013

[ In the Arctic, Rich Fish Stocks Meet Energy Exploration ]

The Barents Sea, an Arctic shelf area north of Norway and Russia, is among the world’s richest fishing grounds, and its fish population is changing as the waters warm. Interest from the oil industry is increasing as well, setting up potential conflicts between oil exploration and fisheries. (See related interactive map: The Changing Arctic.

The Barents is home to the world’s largest stock of cod, with a sustainable catch of about 1 million tonnes (valued at about $2 billion) both for 2013 and 2014. This stock has increased considerably in recent years, both due to favorable environmental conditions and sensible management. Management of the fish resources in the Barents Sea has since 1976 been carried out through the Joint Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission. This joint management regime is generally considered to be successful, as most fish stocks in this area are now in a healthy state.

The Arctic: The Science of Change
Learn more about the issues surrounding a changing region.

In recent years, annual surveys conducted jointly by Norway and Russia have shown that cod are moving farther north and east than ever before*. These are stray individuals, but the main cod concentrations have also moved northwards in a similar way.

The northward migration of cod is a feeding migration: The cod follows its main prey, capelin—a small salmonid fish—and is able to follow it farther because of an increase in sea temperatures and decrease in ice cover. Cod is, however, not likely to cross the shelf-break and move further north into the deep Polar Ocean, as it is rarely found at depths larger than about 500 meters (1,640 feet). (Vote and comment: “Arctic Activity Is Ramping  Up. What Do We Need to Know More About?“)

The conflict between the energy and fishing industries takes place especially in the spawning and nursery areas for fish. So far, the areas close to the main cod spawning grounds in Lofoten/Vesterålen have not been opened to oil exploration, but this has been a hot issue in Norwegian politics for several years.

So far, the recent changes to fish patterns are mostly occurring within feeding grounds: spawning areas and the general migration patterns between spawning, feeding and wintering areas are much more resistant to changes, both in the Barents Sea and elsewhere. Cod and most other major Barents Sea stocks spawn off the coast of Northern Norway, and so far, changes in spawning areas have been minor.

A considerable part of the fishery industry is at or near the spawning grounds, and due to fuel costs, and weather conditions, it is not likely that the fishing areas will change as much as the distribution of fish during the feeding migrations. The division of the quotas for cod and other major fish stocks in the Barents Sea between Norway and Russia has remained unchanged since the 1970s, despite variations in geographical distribution, so it would take a major change in distribution to re-open this issue.

Another stock which has expanded its geographical range northwards in recent years is the mackerel. This species prefers more temperate waters than do cod, but it has in recent years extended its range to the northwest and northeast, and is now found from the Bay of Biscay in the south to the east coast of Greenland in the northwest and the southern Barents Sea in the northeast. Mackerel was this year found in the Norwegian Sea as far north as 75° N.

The reasons for the northward expansion are the same as for cod – increased temperature (particularly in the surface layers where the mackerel is found) and increased stock size. Management of mackerel has proved more difficult than for cod, as the parties involved (The European Union, Norway, Faroes, and Iceland) have not reached an agreement on how to divide the catch quota between them. The stock has, however, so far been able to cope with catches higher than what is advised by the scientists. (Take the quiz: What You Don’t Know About Energy in the Changing Arctic.)

In the Barents Sea and other northern waters, such as those around Iceland and Greenland, there are large areas where fishing has been almost the only offshore activity going on, but where oil exploration could be moving in. As the fish stock changes along with the climate, these very rich fishing grounds will need continued monitoring and cooperation between fisheries and other industries seeking to enter the region.

* In 2012, cod was found as far north as 82° 30’ N 56° E (north of Franz Josef Land) and in 2013, as far east as 78° 30’ N 79° 30’ E (in the northern Kara Sea – and at the same longitude as India!).


[ Friday mystery photo ]

Inyo National Forest covers parts of the eastern Sierra Nevada of California, and the White Mountains of California and Ne


[ Now available: mobile maps of national forests ]

The PDF Maps Mobile App is available as a free download for Android and iOS devices.



[ Veterans want to protect the public lands that help them heal ]

A recent survey conducted on behalf of the nonprofit Vet Voice Foundation found that 75 percent of Western veterans who served in the U.S.



[ 8 ways to make sure your Christmas tree is environmentally friendly ]

The holiday season can invite a number of agonizing decisions, many of which have an impact on our environment. Perhaps the most confusing of all of them is around what some also consider to be the most prized tradition of the holidays: the tree.


[ Natural Gas Reality Check: U.S. Methane Emissions May Exceed Estimates By 50 Percent ]

A new study challenges our understanding of natural gas as a clean fuel, and raises new questions about the U.S. energy boom.

Sure, natural gas (or methane, its main component) burns with less pollution than coal, but release it directly to the atmosphere and it is a highly potent greenhouse gas–at least 25 times worse than carbon dioxide. (See related, “Methane: Good Gas, Bad Gas.”) The study indicates that far more methane is escaping than previously thought from both oil and gas operations and from livestock facilities.

The findings have especially great significance because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been grappling with the uncertainty over how much methane is escaping from the nation’s growing shale gas production. (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Natural Gas.”)

Faced with an onslaught of criticism from the industry that it had overestimated the fugitive emissions, the EPA this year incorporated the industry’s own studies to downgrade its estimate of U.S. methane emissions by 25 to 30 percent. But the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), based on the relatively new data gathered from monitoring stations on tall towers and on aircraft, indicate that U.S. methane emissions instead are actually 50 percent higher than EPA has calculated. (See related blog post: “A Move to Capture ‘Fugitive’ Natural Gas Emissions.”)

The study only captures emissions for two years that were early in the shale boom: 2007 and 2008, so it does not provide enough data to see whether methane emissions are increasing over time as gas production ramps up. It also provides no answer on whether the latest estimated trend in overall U.S. greenhouse gas–that the emissions have been falling as natural gas has replaced coal as an electricity fuel–is incorrect. (See related, “U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Emissions Fall to an 18-Year Low” and “Natural Gas Nation: EIA Sees Future Shaped By Fracking.”)

But in an informative Dot Earth blog post by The New York Times’ Andy Revkin, who has been following the fugitive methane issue for years, the authors say that an analysis of more recent years’ data is in the works. The years 2007 and 2008 were the first time that data for such detailed analysis was available from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) cooperative air sampling network. (Both NOAA and DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, as well as the European Commission Joint Research Center and four other academic institutions, collaborated in the paper.)

“The beauty of the approach we’re using is that, because we’re taking measurements in the atmosphere, which carry with them a signature of everything that happened upwind, we get a very strong number on what that total should be,” said co-author Anna M. Michalak, of the Carnegie Institution for Science. “This paper provides the most solid and the most detailed estimate to date of total U.S. methane emissions.”

Lead author Scot M. Miller, a doctoral student in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard,  called it a “top-down” approach that provides an important check on the “bottom-up” approach of EPA and other regulatory agencies around the world, which perform a kind of accounting to estimate emissions, based on assumptions on the amount of gases that escape from various operations.

He said it was especially telling was the data showing that the highest emissions, and greatest discrepancy with EPA estimates, were over Texas and Oklahoma, two of the biggest states for natural gas production. “It will be important to resolve that discrepancy in order to fully understand the impact of these industries on methane emissions,” said Miller. The researchers did geostatistical analysis, using data on population density, economic activity, as well as weather patterns, and concluded that natural gas and oil operations are a far more likely source of the excess emissions than, say, landfills, which also emit methane. Also, concentrations of propane, a tracer of fossil hydrocarbons, were much higher over those states.

Methane being released from livestock operations (both from the burping of ruminants like cows and from manure) are as much as double what is currently estimated by the EPA, and they may also be contributing to the emissions over Texas and Oklahoma, the paper said. But Marc Fischer, head of Berkeley Lab’s California Greenhouse Gas Emissions Measurement Project (CALGEM), said even if livestock emissions were ramped up several times higher than inventory estimates for the southwest, it wouldn’t be enough to cover the discrepancy the researchers saw. “That’s why it looks like oil and gas are likely responsible for a large part of the remainder,” he said.

The results concur with those in a separate paper Fischer co-authored earlier this year, in which researchers found that tall tower monitoring data showed California’s total methane emissions are 1.3 to 1.8 times higher than the current official inventory by the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

Miller and his co-authors said they didn’t have detailed enough information on the various sectors within the oil and gas industry to target the methane sources more specifically: Is the methane escaping from drilling sites? Or gas processing facilities? Or pipelines?

David Allen, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources at the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved in the new study, says that further regional measurements and analyses, and source-specific studies, are needed to identify how methane emissions might be reduced. (See related, “Natural Gas Stirs Hope and Fear in Pennsylvania,” and interactive, “Breaking Fuel From Rock.”) Allen is leading a research team, funded by the Environmental Defense Fund and nine natural gas producers, that is attempting to get a better handle on methane emissions in the industry. (See related, “For Natural Gas-Fueled Cars, A Long Road Looms Ahead,” The New Truck Stop: Filling Up With Natural Gas For the Long Haul,” “Trading Oil for Natural Gas in the Truck Lane.”)

Allen’s team published a paper in PNAS based on data from 190 production sites throughout the United States, including the first-ever direct measurements of some sources. It appeared to reach a hopeful conclusion, that methane control equipment being used at the well completion sites reduced emissions 99 percent. (See related blog, “Natural Gas Study: Allays Fears for Some, Inspires Hot Air From Others.”

But Allen noted in testimony at a Senate hearing earlier this month that the team also found emissions from certain types of pneumatic devices, which control devices such as valves on well sites, had emissions from 30 percent to several times higher than EPA estimates.

In an email, Allen said that the new study by Miller and colleagues makes “an important contribution by using a large number of measurements of ambient methane concentrations to estimate methane emissions to the atmosphere.” But he said more work is needed.

“Fossil fuel production and processing and animal husbandry are large and complex activities, with a large number of potential emission sources,” he said. “So, a logical follow-up question is which sources within these sectors are responsible for the emissions. Some emission sources may be more important than others.”



[ These Arizona bighorn sheep look pretty excited to be home ]

They say you can’t go home again. But then, they probably aren’t bighorn sheep.



[ Wind Turbine Bird Deaths Cost Duke Energy $1 Million ]

It’s a slow turn, but the Obama administration seems to be steering the wind power industry toward killing fewer birds. The latest sign: For the first time, a wind power company is paying for neglecting to do what it could to protect birds, including golden eagles. (See related blog post: “Federal Study Highlights Spike in Eagle Deaths at Wind Farms.”)

The company is Duke Energy Renewables, subsidiary of energy giant Duke Energy. The bird deaths – 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected birds, including hawks, blackbirds, larks, wrens and sparrows – occurred at two Duke Energy Renewables wind farms in Wyoming.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, which brought the prosecution  under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act :

“Under a plea agreement with the government, the company was sentenced to pay fines, restitution and community service totaling $1 million and was placed on probation for five years, during which it must implement an environmental compliance plan aimed at preventing bird deaths at the company’s four commercial wind projects in the state.  The company is also required to apply for an Eagle Take Permit which, if granted, will provide a framework for minimizing and mitigating the deaths of golden eagles at the wind projects.”

The government had charged that Duke “failed to make all reasonable efforts to build the projects in a way that would avoid the risk of avian deaths by collision with turbine blades, despite prior warnings about this issue from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).”

The feds did add that “to its credit, once the projects came on line and began causing avian deaths, Duke took steps to minimize the hazard.”  In a statement, Duke said it installed radar to detect eagles in flight and instituted other means that allow it to shut down turbines when eagles are spotted, among various measures. (See related post: “Wind Farm Faces Fine Over Golden Eagle Death.”)

Top of the World and Campbell Hill were some of the first wind sites we brought into service, during a period when our company’s and the wind industry’s understanding of eagle impacts at wind farms was still evolving,” said Tim Hayes, environmental development director at Duke Energy Renewables.

Duke said that after it began monitoring for eagles and curtailing power production as necessary, “more than a year passed without any known golden eagle fatalities” at the sites near Casper, Wyoming.

The American Wind Energy Association called the plea deal “a clear example of a wind company taking responsibility for unforeseen impacts to wildlife and providing conservation measures to not only offset those impacts, but also with respect to other sources of impact existing in the landscape today.” The agreement, the industry group said, “will help advance the knowledge of wind wildlife interactions to further reduce the industry’s relatively small impacts.” (See related post: “Thousands of Songbirds Killed at LNG Plant: Unusual, but Not Unprecedented.”

—Pete Danko

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and has been republished with permission.


[ Montana is close to its first new wilderness designation in 30 years ]

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act could give Montana its first newly designated wilderness area in 30 years, as a public lands bill containing that and other protections was passed unanimously out of a Senate committee o



[ Friday mystery photo ]

As we commemorate the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death, we should also remember his legacy of protecting wild lands.