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Issue No. 18 - October 15, 2013

1. Post-treatment Pennsylvania fracking wastewater found to be radioactive

Impacts of Shale Gas Wastewater Disposal on Water Quality in Western Pennsylvania
A new peer-reviewed study from Duke University has revealed high levels of radioactivity, salts and metals in river water and sediments downstream from a Pennsylvania treatment plant that accepted wastewater from shale gas operations in the state (Duke University press release, abstract, full study).

The scientists analysed water and sediment samples downstream from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility in western Pennsylvania and compared them to samples taken upstream of the plant and to untreated wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations. They confirmed that some of the plant's effluent was derived from the Marcellus shale flowback water, which is known to be high in salinity and radioactivity.

The study found radium levels of about 200 times background levels in the river sediment downstream from the plant, levels not normally found outside of radioactive waste disposal sites.

“Although the facility’s treatment process significantly reduced radium and barium levels in the wastewater, the amount of radioactivity that has accumulated in the river sediments still exceeds thresholds for safe disposal of radioactive materials," said Anver Vengosh, the study leader and professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University, "Years of disposal of oil and gas wastewater with high radioactivity has created potential environmental risks for thousands of years to come.”

The study also revealed high levels of salts and metals. One of the salts found was bromide, which is not toxic but which can trigger the formation of toxic halomethanes when combined with chlorine. This combination is likely to occur in downstream purification of drinking water supplies.
In June 2013, scientists from Duke University published another peer-reviewed study (see SGBI No. 11) which found elevated levels of methane, ethane, and propane in private drinking water wells within 1 km of shale gas drilling operations.

2. IPCC increases greenhouse gas multiplier for methane

Methane leaks in Boston area
Methane leaks in Boston area
In its recent report, which declared with 95% certainty that global warming is occurring as a result of man's activities, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) increased by nearly 40% its previous estimation of the global warming potential (GWP) of methane (CH4) emissions compared to an equivalent mass of carbon dioxide. 

The following articles explain this change as it relates to fracking:
The IPCC states that over a hundred-year timescale, methane is 34 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Over a 20-year timescale, with carbon feedback taken into account, fossil methane's global warming potential is 87.

Some scientists, such as Dr. Drew Shindell, climatologist with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, advocate taking the aerosol effect of methane emissions into account and consider that the global warming potential of methane is 105 times that of carbon dioxide over a twenty-year timescale.

Governments and industry use multipliers when calculating their greenhouse gas emissions. As the websites for Cosain (the Irish Carbon Trading Platform) and the Irish EPA show, Ireland still uses a multiplier of 21 to calculate the greenhouse gas effect of its methane emissions. This multiplier is now nearly 20 years out of date, and at least 60% too low.

As Joe Romm points out in the Think Progress article above, the use of a 100-year timescale is not realistic, given that the global warming tipping point is approaching at a faster pace:

"Significantly, although the 100-year GWP is by far the most widely used, the IPCC drops this mini-bombshell 86 pages into the report:

'There is no scientific argument for selecting 100 years compared with other choices (Fuglestvedt et al., 2003; Shine, 2009). The choice of time horizon is a value judgement since it depends on the relative weight assigned to effects at different times.'

The IPCC reports that, over a 20-year time frame, methane has a global warming potential of 86 compared to CO2, up from its previous estimate of 72. Given that we are approaching real, irreversible tipping points in the climate system, climate studies should, at the very least, include analyses that use this 20-year time horizon."

See SGBI issue Nos. 9, 12, and 14 for more on methane emissions from shale gas extraction and related climate change concerns.

3. Mary Robinson: "Major fossil reserves must be left in the ground"

Mary Robinson

In an interview with the Guardian ahead of the publication of the IPCC report, Mary Robinson called for world leaders to accept the reality that avoiding runaway climate change will require leaving fossil fuel reserves undeveloped:

"There is a global limit on a safe level of emissions. That means major fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground."
Mrs. Robinson highlighted the Declaration on Climate Justice, issued on September 23, 2013 by the global High Level Advisory Committee to the Climate Justice Dialogue, of which she is a member. The Climate Justice Dialogue is a joint initiative of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice and the World Resources Institute that aims to "mobilize political will and creative thinking to shape an ambitious and just international climate agreement in 2015".

Excerpts from the Declaration on Climate Justice:

"Giving voice: The world cannot respond adequately to climate change unless people and communities are at the centre of decision-making at all levels – local, national and international. By sharing their knowledge, communities can take the lead in shaping effective solutions. We will only succeed if we give voice to those most affected, listen to their solutions, and empower them to act.

A new way to grow: There is a global limit to the carbon we can emit while maintaining a safe climate and it is essential that equitable ways to limit these emissions are achieved. Transforming our economic system to one based on low-carbon production and consumption can create inclusive sustainable development and reduce inequality. As a global community, we must innovate now to enable us to leave the majority of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground – driving our transition to a climate resilient future."

The Declaration on Climate Justice echos the conclusions of the report Unburnable Carbon 2013: Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets, issued in April 2013 by Carbon Tracker and the London School of Economics, which found that:
"Between 60-80% of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are ‘unburnable’ if the world is to have a chance of not exceeding global warming of 2°C."

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