Coal fired power plants in North America

NYS targets an end to coal power

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator

It’s been just over a year since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made public his administration’s decision to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the state. A formal ban was established in June 2015. While Cuomo’s politics and record may be controversial on some fronts, he has most certainly shown important leadership in some facets of energy policy. Significantly, activists and environmental advocacy groups have been especially strong during the Cuomo administration, pressing the governor daily to take seriously the responsibility and planning that New York State must demonstrate in light of the realities of climate change.

On Wednesday, January 13, 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his annual State of the State address. Among the high points of the talk was a commitment to a full phase-out of coal-burning power plants by 2020. Coal, once more affordable alternative to other fossil fuels, is no longer an attractive option from both an economic and environmental standpoint. Despite advances in scrubber technology, coal burning still emits more particulate waste into the atmosphere than other fuels, and leaves behind copious quantities of fly ash containing radioactivity and heavy metals. Historically, fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, and flue gas desulfurization materials have been disposed of in landfills. While current disposal methods using landfill liner technologies do attempt to safeguard against groundwater contamination, during earlier decades, these waste products from burning coal were buried in unlined pits, some of which are now actively leaching into waterways and groundwater.

Existing coal burning power plants being shut down, but what’s next?

In New York State, many old, polluting coal plants are now only partially in service or completely shuttered. They did at one time, however, have the capacity to supply over 2100 MW of power to the state. While it’s generally accepted from an economic and environmental standpoint that New York should be transitioning away from coal, the next steps are more fraught with controversy. Several communities, such as those around the likely-to-be-closed Dunkirk (Chautauqua County, 520 MW),  as well as Huntley (Niagara County, 380 MW), and Cayuga (Tompkins County, 315 MW) power plants feel that a repowering of these plant with natural gas provides an important economic stabilizer for the surrounding communities. Another smaller coal-burning plant, Greenidge Generation (Seneca County, 107 MW) has been shuttered for several years. A recent local economic development initiative to re-start that plant with a conversion to natural gas met with considerable resistance from environmental groups. This development also resulted in a notification from the US Environmental Protection Agency indicating that proper procedure for restarting the plant had not been followed, setting back the timetable on the project indefinitely.

Coal Burning Power Plants in North America, Zoomed in to NYS

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Cayuga Power, which has been operating at a deficit for several years as a coal burning plant, is subsidized through a surcharge that is levied on every ratepayer within the system, with each monthly bill. According to The Sierra Club, these subsidies amount to over $4M a month charged to NYSEG ratepayers for the Cayuga plant, alone. Elected officials, as well as citizen groups concerned with the impacts of natural gas on the environment, are pressing for other viable options to repowering the plant from coal to natural gas, currently estimated to cost over $500M for the Cayuga Plant, alone. These options include solar power – or, in the case of the Cayuga power plant, upgrades to a short stretch of transmissions lines for less than $100M, in lieu of repowering. In either case, the upgrade costs would be passed on to the consumer. Transmission line upgrades would actually obviate the need for the power plant itself, conserving the energy that is now lost through inefficiencies in the system. Repowering the plant would also necessitate the construction of a highly controversial 7-mile-long pipeline from the Town of Dryden, which would significantly raise the carbon footprint of Tompkins County through due to predicted fugitive methane emissions. The power utility, itself, New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) has said that they prefer the option of upgrading the lines, rather than converting the plant to run on natural gas. Another study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis also found the Cayuga repowering proposition unviable. Proponents of repowering cite the impacts that shutting down the plant would have on the local Lansing School district, which–unlike any of the surrounding school districts–has benefited for several decades from tax revenues generated by the plant.

Environmental concerns about continuing to invest in fossil fuel technologies like natural gas as an alternative to coal include the entire life cycle of methane extraction, from the air and water quality risks that occur during the process of unconventional drilling (high volume hydraulic fracturing), to environmental and public health impacts of pipelines and compressor stations that convey the gas to the power plants, to the addition of CO2 to the atmosphere as a byproduct of natural gas combustion at these fossil-fuel burning plants.

Of course, energy conservation and making lifestyle changes to how we individually, and collectively, approach energy consumption are at the heart of the changes that need to occur if we are to slow climate change caused by the dramatic upswing of methane and CO2 in the atmosphere during the past 50 years.

New York State’s Renewable Energy Agenda

Cuomo and the State Legislature have shown additional and ongoing interest in moving New York towards a clean energy future. They have been establishing appealing tax incentives for renewable energy, including:

Cuomo’s REV, or Reforming the Energy Vision, attempts to take a comprehensive look at an energy strategy across many sectors of New York. REV targets for 2030 include a goal of 50% of all NYS’s energy being met by renewable sources, a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas levels based on 1990 levels (and an overall emission cut of 80% by 2050), and based on 2012 levels, a 25% reduction on building energy use. The strategy also looks to support the growth of the clean energy sector, energy education to residents and businesses, natural resources protection, and job creation in the energy sector.

New York is taking important steps for a cleaner energy future, but should continue to put more resources towards incentives for renewable resources, as well as outreach and education to municipal, residential, and commercial energy consumers.

We have very little time to waste.

Aliso Canyon natural gas leak - Photo by Environmental Defense Fund

A Climate Disaster – California in state of emergency as a result of massive natural gas leak

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

A natural gas well equipment failure in southern California has resulted in the largest point release of methane to the atmosphere in U.S. history. California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a California state of emergency for the incident, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has identified the site as the single largest source point of global warming.1 Since October 23, 2015 the failure has been reported to be releasing 62 million cubic feet of methane per day – 110,000 pounds per hour – for a total of about 80 million metric tons thus far. (A running counter for the natural gas leak can be found here, on Mother Jones).2,3 This quantity amounts to a quarter of California’s total methane emissions, and the impact to the climate is calculated to be the equivalent of the operation of 7 million cars.

SoCalGas (a subsidiary of Sempra Energy) reports that nothing can be done to stop or reduce the leak until February or March of 2016. As a result, the nearby community of Porter Ranch has been largely evacuated (30,000 people) due to health complaints and the rotten egg smell of tertbutyl mercaptan and tetradydrothiophen. Air quality sampling, being assessed by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard and Assessment (OEHHA), measured volatile organic compounds, specifically the carcinogen benzene, at concentrations below acute toxicity health standards.4 Exposure to benzene even at low levels presents a risk of cancer and other health hazards. Locals have complained of headaches, sore throats, nosebleeds and nausea. The LA County Department of Public Health has ordered SoCalGas to offer free temporary relocation to any area residents affected. About 1,000 people are suing the company.5 A fly over of the site has been posted to youtube by the Environmental Defense Fund, and can be seen here. The video uses a FLIR camera to take infrared video that shows the leak.

Site Description

CA gas storage and Aliso Canyon natural gas leak

Figure 1. California active natural gas storage fields most active in 2014

The source of the leak is a natural gas storage well operated by SoCalGas in the Aliso Canyon oil field – a drained oil field now used to store natural gas. SoCalGas is the largest natural gas utility in the U.S., distributing natural gas to 20.9 million.4 Aliso Canyon is the largest gas storage field in the state, but there are numerous other gas storage fields in the state that could present similar risks. In Figure 1, to the right, California’s other currently active gas storage fields are shown. Injection volumes of natural gas are summed and averaged over the area of the field, and the Aliso Canyon is shown to have injected over 1,000,000 cubic feet per km2 of natural gas since the beginning of 2014. Other high volume fields include Honor Rancho, McDonald Island Gas, and Wild Goose Gas.

The failed well, known as Standard Sesnon 25, is marked with a red star in the map of gas storage wells shown below (Figure 2). The well was drilled in October of 1953. Reports show that pressures in the well bored reached 2,516 PSI in 2015. If you use the map to navigate around the state of California, it is clear that there are numerous other natural gas storage facilities in California, with wellbore pressures similar to or higher than the reported pressure of Standard Sesnon 25 and other wells in the Aliso Canyon Field. Beyond California, the state of Michigan is reported to have the most natural gas storage by volume, at 1.1 trillion cubic feet.6 The incident that caused the leak was a well casing failure, although the cause of the well casing failure has not yet been identified. There have been numerous editorials written that have painted SoCalGas as a model for contemporary corporate greed and corruption for several reasons, including the removal of safety valves, reports of corrosion, and lack of resources for inspections and repairs.7 Rather than this being a unique case of criminal neglect, casing failures are a statistical likelihood for wells of this age. Well casing failures are a systemic issue of all oil and gas development. Every well casing has a shelf life and will fail eventually.8 Additionally, leaks from gas storage wells have occurred at other SoCalGas natural gas storage facilities in California, such as Montebello and Playa Del Rey.

Figure 2. California’s gas storage wells. The size of orange markers indicates wellhead pressure, as reported in 2015. Blue markers show the volume of gas injected in 2014/2015. The Aliso Canyon leak at ‘Standard Sesnon 25’ natural gas storage well is marked with a red star. Click here to manipulate the map. After expanded, use the “Layers” menu to visualize the data with colored markers rather than size. 

Response

Fixing the problem is therefore much more complicated, overall, in this specific case. Since the well casing has ruptured deep underground, natural gas is leaking in the annular space outside the borehole and spewing from the topsoil surrounding the well head. To stop the leak the production pipe must be plugged below the rupture. All attempts to plug the well from the surface have failed due to the high pressure within the borehole, a 7” inner diameter of the production pipe. Therefore, a relief well is being drilled to intersect the well casing, to inject a mud-chemical cocktail intended to plug the well far below the casing failure. Updates on the response, claims information, and the location of the Community Resource Center can be found here. Additionally, Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency, which means federal support and a requirement of the state of California to cover the costs.9

The state response to the natural gas leak has included numerous agencies. According to documents from California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the agencies leading the response are the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), the Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), California Air Resources Board (ARB), California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CalOSHA), the California Energy Commission (CEC), and the CPUC. DOGGR is conducting an independent investigation of the incident. The investigation will include a third party analysis for root-cause issues. CARB is monitoring total methane emissions while the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment with CalEPA are collecting and reviewing air quality data. Coordinated response information can be found on the CalOES site. SoCalGas has submitted a proposal to regulators to raise customer rates in order to raise $30 million for a more proactive approach to inspections and repairs.10

This event is the largest, but is not the first major methane/natural gas leak to occur at a wellsite. Leaks can result from a number of natural and anthropogenic (man made) causes. Besides the natural degradation of well integrity with age, acute events can also cause casing failures. There are documented cases where seismic activity has caused casing failures.

As a result of an earthquake natural fractures in the region can grow and disrupt well bores. In areas of dense drilling, fracture stimulations that propagate improperly or intersect unknown faults. When two wells become interconnected, known as “downhole communication” or a “frack hit” when it occurs due to hydraulic fracturing, spills and leaks can occur due to over-pressurization. In many states, these risks are mitigated by having setbacks between wells. California, the most seismically active state, has minimal setbacks for drilling or fracking oil and gas wells. In previous research, FracTracker found that over 96% of new hydraulic fractures in 2013 were drilled within 1,200 feet of another well, which would even violate setback rules in Texas!

Climate Impacts

Natural gas is hailed by the fossil fuel industry as the bridge fuel that will allow the world to transition to renewables. The main argument claims natural gas is necessary to replace coal as our main source of generating electricity. Burning both coal and natural gas produce carbon dioxide, but natural gas is more efficient. For the same amount of energy production, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide emissions. The legitimate threat of climate impacts comes from fugitive (leaked) emissions of methane, before the natural gas can be burned. Since methane is a gas, it is much harder to contain than oil or coal. Methane is also more insulating than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (34-86 times more insulating), making it a more potent greenhouse gas. The leaked natural gas from the Aliso Canyon well is currently equivalent to 7,000,000 tons of CO2 (Updated here, on Mother Jones).

Current estimates show methane is responsible for 25% of the world’s anthropogenic warming to date. Proponents of the bridge fuel theorize that if methane leakage can be kept under 4% of total production, natural gas power generation will provide a climate-positive alternative to coal. EPA estimates set the leakage rate at 2.4%, but independent research estimates actual rates up to 7.9%.11 The EDF has been conducting an $18 million project focused on quantifying methane leaks from the natural gas industry. A team of 20 researchers from 13 institutions conducted the 2 year study measuring emissions from the Barnett Shale. Details can be found on the Environmental Defense Fund’s Page.12

Natural Gas Leak References

  1. Goldenberg, S. (2016). A single gas well leak is California’s biggest contributor to climate change. The Guardian. Accessed 1/6/16.
  2. Environmental Defense Fund. (2015). Aerial Footage of Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak. via YouTube. Accessed 1/5/16.
  3. Lurie, J. (2016). Thousands of Californians are Fleeing an Enormous Methane Leak. Here are 8 Things You Need to Know. Mother Jones. Accessed 1/6/16.
  4. CalOES. (2015). Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak. Accessed 1/8/15.
  5. BBC. (2015). California state of emergency over methane leak. Accessed 1/8/15
  6. Ellison, G. (2015). Michigan has most underground natural gas storage in U.S. MLive. Accessed 1/8/15.
  7. Reicher, M. (2015). SocalGas knew of corrosion at Porter Ranch gas facility, doc shows. LA Daily News. Accessed 1/5/16.
  8. Ingraffea et al. (2013). Assessment and risk analysis of casing and cement impairment in oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania, 2000-2012. PNAS. Vol.111 no.30.
  9. Cronin, M. (2015). Why Engineers Can’t Stop Los Angeles’ Enormous Methane Leak. Accessed 1/4/16.
  10. CUUC. (2015). Appendix A. Accessed 1/5/15. [please note that some CPUC files are being taken offline for unknown reasons]
  11. Howarth et al. (2011). Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations. Climatic Change. 106:679-690.
  12. Song, L. (2015). Texas Fracking Zone Emits 90% More Methane Than EPA Estimated. InsideClimate News.

Feature Image: Aliso Canyon natural gas leak – Photo by Environmental Defense Fund

Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

Quick Sand: Frack Sand Mining in Wisconsin

Each silica sand mine displaces 871 acres of wetlands and more than 12 square miles of forests and agriculture land in Wisconsin to provide the shale gas industry with fracking proppant.

By Juliana Henao, Communications Intern

Silica sand is used by the oil and gas industry as a way to prop open the fractures made during fracking – and is also referred to as a proppant. The industry’s demand for silica sand is steadily increasing (i.e., 4-5K tons per shale lateral, +86 tons per lateral per quarter), directly affecting the Great Lakes, their ecosystems, and land use. Silica sand is often found in Wisconsin and Michigan, which have felt the effects of increased sand mining demands through altered landscapes, impacted ecosystem productivity, and altering watershed resilience; these impacts will only continue to increase as the demand for silica sand increases.

To better understand frack sand mining’s current and potential effects, FracTracker’s Ted Auch and intern Elliott Kurtz, with generous support from the Save The Hills Alliance, explored mining and land use changes data in West Central Wisconsin (WCW). In their research paper, Auch and Kurtz show the current and future environmental impacts of increased sand mining in WCW in order to supply the oil and gas industry with sand. Not only does this research illustrate what is at risk in the WCW landscape, it also showcases what sand mining has already done to the region.

Key Frack Sand Mining Findings

Land alterations due to silica sand mining in WI

Sixteen percent, or 2,396 square miles, of the West Central Wisconsin (WCW) is made up of wetlands or open waters. These and the other existing WCW landscapes are unquestionably profitable. The forests buffer climate change impacts – to date accumulating between 4.8-9.8 billion tons of CO2 assuming they are 65-85 years old – and have a current stumpage value of $253-936 million.

The 25 producing silica mines in this region occupy 12 square miles of WCW and have already displaced:

  • 3 mi2 of forests
  • 7 mi2 of agricultural land-cover
  • 1.36 mi2 of wetlands (equal to 11% of all mined lands)
    Formerly, these wetlands were one of three types:

    • 18% (158 acres) forested wetlands
    • 41% (353 acres) lowland shrub wetlands, and
    • 41% (361 acres) emergent/wet meadows
Breakdown of the current landscape types near these expanding mines, based on an analysis of satellite imagery

Breakdown of the current landscape types near these expanding mines, based on an analysis of satellite imagery

Why Wisconsin?

There are more than 125 silica sand mines throughout WCW, a stretch of ~16,000 square miles. Previously, the mining industry focused their efforts in Oklahoma and Texas’s Riley, Hickory/Brady, and Old Creek formations, where the land is not as agriculturally or ecologically productive as WCW. Now, more and more mines are being proposed and built in the WCW region. We wanted to determine what this change would mean for such an ecosystem diverse area of Wisconsin – many of which are considered “globally imperiled” or “globally rare” including oak savanna, dry prairies, southern dry-mesic forests, pine barrens, moist cliffs and oak openings.

The St. Peter Sandstone – along with the early Devonian and much smaller Sylvania Sandstone in Southeastern Michigan – is the primary target of the silica sand industry. Carbon-rich grassland soils cover 36% of the St. Peter, where they aid the ecosystem by capturing and sorting 20.9 tons of CO2 per year, as well as purifying precipitation inputs. This ecosystem, amongst many others around sand mining activities, will be dramatically altered if silica sand mining continues at its increasing rate. We will see CO2 capturing levels drop from 20.9 tons to 10.6 tons per acre per year if the highly productive temperate forests are not reassembled and reclaimed to their original acreage, as well as a significant loss (75%) in agricultural productivity on sites that are not reclaimed properly.

Out-of-state mining companies are settling into Wisconsin and displacing the land at a very high rate. As the president of Iowa’s Allamakee County Protectors Ric Zarwell told us by email “Frac sand mining companies do not come from the area where I live.  So efforts to destroy landscapes for frac sand are going to involve Neighbors Opposing Invaders.”

A high demand in silica sand from the shale gas industry will continue to drive this influx of mining companies into WI, providing a potentially collapsed ecosystem in the future. Factors at play include additional – and often much larger – mines under consideration, the average shale gas lateral grows by > 50 feet per quarter, and silica sand usage will grow from 5,500 tons to > 8,000 tons per lateral (i.e., 85 tons per quarter per lateral). Auch and Kurtz’s research paper describes in detail where how much silica sand might be needed in the future, as well as a detailed set of maps depicting land cover and usage in WI.