I made this post quickly to address claims that “well there’s nothing you can do for the environment if you don’t tell people to put solar cells on their roof..” Here are some issues which get either zero or far too little attention from the most public enviornmental groups but are huge issues with relatively favorable cost/benefit ratios. Why isn’t someone pushing for better policies on these? Beats me. There are, of course, many more. But here are a few.
It’s not that hard to figure out if you just think.
Yes, these do sometimes get some attention, but they’re far from being the focus of most enviornmental organizations. If only half of the BS stunts installing a few solar panels or protesting nuclear energy could be diverted to tackling such issues… Well, that’s just not going to happen.
Flaring - The practice of burning off gas and other hydrocarbons from oil production is becoming an increasingly large source of CO2. Flaring is simply the act of burning gas in an open flame, usually on a stack. No energy is recovered and the gas simply goes to waste. Why is it done? On occasion, flaring may be a necessity, such as if an exploratory well hits an unexpected gas pocket and there is no way to contain the gas. Releasing the gas would be both dangerous and worse for the environment, because methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than Co2 (although methane is sometimes vented as well).
So why would oil companies just burn perfectly good natural gas? The reason is usually economic. The price of the gas (or in some cases other hydrocarbons) is not high enough to generate profit from building the pumping systems and pipelines to actually use it.
What can be done?
A lot of flaring occurs in Africa, where oil drilling produces surplus gas that cannot be efficiently transported to market. This is a double tragically because in addition to the unnecessary pollution, the gas and the loud and bright flames only make life harder for those who live in the area and are almost always poor to begin with.
The nations where this often occurs have taken steps to reduce flaring, but they have been far too few. Oil companies do have the resources to build pipelines to take away usable gas, if they were required to by the nations whose resources they exploit as well as the governments of the world. Alternatively they could use it to produce electricity on-site, which would be great for those who live in the area and lack basic utilities. If it is simply not possible to use the gas, it can also be forced back into the ground under pressure generated by turbines fueled by a small portion of the gas. This is not only environmentally beneficial but it does not squander a precious resource for the future.
Green groups have taken little interest in this, although there has been some. They may find an unexpected ally, as the World Bank has been the largest single body working to reduce gas flaring. For the areas where flaring occurs, requiring better management of this resource by the (highly profitable to begin with) petroleum companies would be both beneficial to both the enviornmental and quality of life.
Underground Coal Fires – Something you hardly hear about but produces a huge amount of greenhouse gas. More info here.
Landfill Gas - The decay of organic waste in landfills as well as in sewage treatment plants, agricultural waste “ponds” and other manmade waste facilities is far lower in volume then CO2 emissions but up to 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas. Thus collecting burning the methane can not only produce usable energy, but actually have a negative effect on greenhouse gases. By how much? By some estimates methane from man made waste could account for as much as 8% of the relative greenhouse gas production. Compared to a lot of sources that is very significant.
What can be done?
It can be collected from landfills and using modern vacuum collection systems it can be done so quite efficiently. Sewage treatment plants are even easier and agricultural waste can also be used as a source if it is consolidated into landfills, which is sometimes done anyway. Even better, the burning of the methane from landfills can generate electricity. Although it would not nearly be enough to replace other sources, the reduction in coal burning would certainly help. Methane produces a third less CO2 then coal and can also be used to fuel more effecient plants. It can be used as part of municipal gas service as well. Better still, since most landfills are already administered by local governments and since the activities which generate the most methane are already regulated heavily, much of the would would be able to make a near term difference relatively easily.
A landfill gas plant on nominally sized city landfill produces far more energy than several 400-foot wind turbines. It is not greenhouse neutral, it is greenhouse NEGATIVE. The cost to benefit ratio is extremely favorable. More info.
Dioxins - Or to be more technically correct, Polychlorinated dibenzodioxins. If you take all the scary claims about nuclear waste such as “We are passing this on to future generations”, “it’s been proven that even small amounts can impact health”, “There’s no way of getting rid of it once it’s in the environment”, “it causes mutations, birth defects, illnesses of all kinds and cancer.” These claims can easily be made true by crossing out the word “nuclear waste” and replacing it with “dioxins” these chemicals have been shown to have a very appreciable effect on biological systems, they are easily to uptake and are biologically concentrated. They are not broken down by the body and they are only very slowly excreted. They are very stable in nature and don’t break down under normal circumstances. The dioxins from today will be there millions of years from now.
They are produced mostly by some chemical processes but the largest source is overwhelmingly the high temperature burning of organic materials. Nearly half comes from waste incineration with a large portion of that coming from medical waste incineration. Other sources include fossil fuel burning, fossil fuel refining and burning of wood.
What can be done?
Since waste burning is relatively small in terms of overall material burning and because it is the primary source of dioxins it is the logical place to go after the problem. Dioxins can be removed by scrubbers or destroyed by secondary flu gas burners. This is relatively inexpensive and proven technology. Deployment to waste incineration plants would not be difficult since many are already operated by local governments. Medical incineration is also a large source relative to the size of the operation. Since the volume produced is relatively low requiring treatment of exhaust would have a very high benefit for a small cost.
Ship Pollution – exhaust from large ships such as tankers, freighters and even cruise liners is not a very large source of CO2, but is a surprisingly large source of other pollution which can effect human health and the environment. Ships generally burn the cheapest oil avaliable. This heavy, dirty oil gets the job done but is far dirtier than would be allowed for most land-based activities. Ships are also not required to have any kind of exhaust scrubber, making them far dirtier than newer power plants.
What can be done?
Controlling the activities of ships in international waters can be difficult and often requires complex treaty arrangements, however countries like the US and other nations could have a huge effect by enforcing enviornmental requirements for ships which wish to come to port in a given country. As things currently are, few countries recognize or in any way govern the fuel systems or exhaust of their shipping traffic.
This entry was posted on Monday, February 4th, 2008 at 2:42 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Enviornment, Good Science, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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