Category Archives: Environment

Activists call on US Secretary of State to Stop the Tar Sands.

Climate activists made their way to London as the US Secretary of State John Kerry came to Lancaster House this morning (Thursday 11 April) for a meeting on the G8. Activists from People & Planet, 350.org, Platform, UK Tars Sands Network, UKYCC, Campaign against Climate Change, Rising Tide North America and even Gulf Coast activists from Houston, Texas were there to greet Kerry at 8am and send him a clear message:

‘We don’t want your tar sands!’

Activists from all over UK gather outside Lancaster House, London at 8am.

Activists from all over UK gather outside Lancaster House, London at 8am.

Activists from Houston, Texas tell us about actions happening in the US.

Activists from Houston, Texas tell us about actions happening in the US.

Kerry will soon be deciding on the future of the Keystone XL pipeline. This pipeline, if given the go-ahead, will run through the heart of America transporting tar sands from their source in Canada to refineries in Houston, Texas, paving the way for this unconventional, dirty fuel to come to Europe.

In the US, Kerry and President Obama have been met by Canadian First Nation’s people including communities who live on the path of this pipeline calling for the end of tar sands extraction and the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. We stood in solidarity with our allies in Canada and the US to give Kerry a clear message: reject the Keystone XL and keep tar sands out of Europe.

Student Activists from People & Planet demanding No Tar Sands in Europe.

Student Activists from People & Planet demanding No Tar Sands in Europe.

“It was really exciting to see young people from organisations all over the UK coming together to call for action” said Izzy Braithwaite, medical student and National Coordinator for Healthy Planet UK. Simon Howlett, co-director of UKYCC expressed how great it was to meet Gulf Coast activists from Texas – the pipeline’s destination, “it reminds you how important this campaign is and that we’re all in this together”. Rob Abrams, People & Planet activist from Swansea left the protest feeling invigorated, “I’m as ready as ever to take part in People & Planet’s new Fossil Free campaign and to put pressure on our universities to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry. It’s time to cut our ties with an industry that cares more about it’s profits than the lives of millions living in zones vulnerable to climate change.”

Silent Spring’s 50th Birthday

A couple of months ago, I wrote a review of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962. In her book, she challenges the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world. I compared her passion for communicating these issues with Josh Fox’s documentary, Gaslands, 2010. 50 years on and nothing has changed, energy companies still have a grip on the policy makers and the policy makers prioritise power and wealth over the safety of the people who elected them.

After writing this review, I have come across many criticisms of Carson, her

Rachel Carson

poetic style of writing and her intent to murder African children . There are even websites dedicated to dismissing Carson’s scientific claims such as rachelwaswrong.org.

 

A recent blog post in TIME, highlighted once more how much backlash Carson received just before her untimely death due to breast cancer in 1964.

Carson was attacked for being a female scientist and like a scene from 1984, was accused of being an accomplice of the communist regime.

”Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.

—Letter to the editor of the New Yorker [cited in Smith 2001, 741]”

DDT

Silent Spring highlights the toxic effects of DDT use on animals, particularly birds. After attention was drawn to these concerns, in 1972, the resulting movement succeeded in getting DDT banned in the U.S. Carson’s main critics linked her call of the dangers of DDT to the death of millions in Africa.

DDT had been effective in eradicating malaria- carrying mosquitoes and was sprayed heavily on houses in developing countries. However, due to the over-use of DDT, mosquitoes have developed a enzyme that makes them resistant to the pesticide, proving it useless.

There is no global DDT ban. DDT is indeed banned in the U.S., but malaria isn’t exactly a pressing issue there. Africa didn’t cut back on pesticides, in fact, the opposite occurred. As the pesticide companies got to participate in the United Nations agency through a system called the “Industry Cooperative Program,” they provided advice on pest control, unsurprisingly recommending significant pesticide usage.

These pesticide industries preferred to blame Carson instead of the fact that mosquitoes were becoming resistant to their own product, DDT.

A web page on JunkScience.com features a live Malaria Death Clock next to a photo of Rachel Carson, holding her responsible for more deaths than malaria has caused in total. The website RachelWasWrong.org, features photos of deceased African children along the side of every page.

“At one level, these articles send a comforting message to the developed world: Saving African children is easy. We don’t need to build large aid programs or fund major health initiatives, let alone develop Third World infrastructure or think about larger issues of fairness. No, to save African lives from malaria, we just need to put our wallets away and work to stop the evil environmentalists” (www.fair.org)

Carson simply wanted to bring some balance to the use of powerful chemicals at a time when ecology was barely considered a science and industry had license to do whatever it wanted in the name of progress. She was the first to recognise that these energy and pesticide industries had a terrifying grip on policy.

“If Silent Spring gave birth to the modern green movement, the critical reaction to it created the blueprint for how industry would defend itself against environmentalism.” Whether it’s pesticides, shale gas or tar sands, the battle plan has been the same: question the science, attack the scientists’ credibility and warn of unbearable costs.

However, these costs may not be as unbearable as one might think. And so I’ll finish with a quote from Carolina Lucas, Green Party MP from the Friends of the Earth conference (London, Sept 15th 2012) “what happens if climate change isn’t real and we’ve built a better future for no reason?”

Further reading:

http://www.rachelcarson.org/Biography.aspx#.UGbmqbKPUs0

http://science.time.com/2012/09/25/how-silent-spring-became-the-first-shot-in-the-war-over-the-environment/

http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3186

http://www.environmentandsociety.org/exhibitions/silent-spring/personal-attacks-rachel-carson

Green Light to Frack in the UK

‘’ Ministers have been advised to allow the controversial practice of fracking for shale gas to be extended in Britain, despite it causing two earthquakes and the emergence of serious doubts over the safety of the wells that have already been drilled,’’ writes Fiona Harvey, Environmental Correspondent for the Guardian in April 2012.

The hydraulic fracturing of shale rock, which has been blamed for causing earthquakes and polluting ground water and has generated fierce opposition from environmentalists, should proceed as long as it is monitored carefully and is accompanied by measures to minimise carbon emissions, said the chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith of Finsbury.

Creating fissures in the bedrock can lead to seismic activity.

Creating fissures in the bedrock can lead to seismic activity.

Cuadrilla Resources, Britain’s first shale gas exploration license holder, claims a 1200km2 area around Blackpool, Preston and Southport contains enough methane to meet national gas demand for at least 65 years, reducing prices for British consumers and creating thousands of jobs. This is said to lead to £120m in business rates being paid to local councils over 30 years, £5-6bln in tax revenues for the government and up to 5,600 new jobs created with an average salary of £55,000.

Cuadrilla Resources, a joint venture between Australian drilling firm AJ Lucas

Mark Miller, Cuadrilla's chief executive "We are pleased that the experts have come to a clear conclusion that it is safe to allow us to resume hydraulic fracturing, following the procedures outlined in the review."

Mark Miller, Cuadrilla’s chief executive
“We are pleased that the experts have come to a clear conclusion that it is safe to allow us to resume hydraulic fracturing, following the procedures outlined in the review.”

and American private equity firm Riverstone, announced a 500m2 area of the Bowland sedimentary rock basin in West Lancashire, for which it holds shale gas exploration licenses. This area holds a total potential resource of 5.66 trillion m3 of natural gas which is more than 10 times the existing UK gas reserves.

Beside the potential danger of contaminating our precious water supplies, greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas operations could be much greater than emissions from conventional gas drilling. This is because more natural gas (methane), which exerts a powerful greenhouse effect in the atmosphere, is likely to escape when the rocks are split to extract it.

Green groups argue that fracking will put carbon-cutting targets out of reach, by locking in high-carbon emitting infrastructure and crowding out investment in renewables. “We should be developing the huge potential of clean British energy from the sun, wind and waves, not more dirty and dangerous fossil fuels,” says executive director of Friends of the Earth, Andy Atkins. The wave of extreme energy extraction methods that is sweeping across the planet, driven by rising energy prices and constrained supplies, is forcing similarly rapid changes in the world around us.

In April last year, around Cuadrilla’s main Blackpool site, there was a tremor measuring magnitude 2.3 and in May one measuring magnitude 1.5. These tremors are enough to be felt but do not in themselves cause serious damage.

Cuadrilla has admitted that operations at its Preese Hall well were responsible for two earth tremors

Cuadrilla has admitted that operations at its Preese Hall well were responsible for two earth tremors

An independent panel commissioned by the government said the controversial method of obtaining natural gas should no longer be permitted unless a strict new system is set up to detect warning tremors in the rock.

The controversial drilling method is now likely to be given the green light with Ministers set to accept the advice that it could be extended with new controls

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published an independent expert report recommending measures to mitigate the risks of seismic tremors from hydraulic fracturing. An effective monitoring system and a traffic light control regime are among measures recommended by the report

The report recommends the following measures to mitigate the risk of any damaging seismic activity from future shale gas operations in the Bowland Basin:

  • That the hydraulic fracturing procedure should include a smaller pre-injection and monitoring stage.
  • That an effective monitoring system to provide near real-time locations and magnitudes of any seismic events should be part of any future hydraulic fracturing operations.
  • That future fracking operations for shale gas should be subject to a “traffic light” control regime. A red light at activity levels of magnitude of 0.5 or above means fracking should be stopped and remedial action taken. Unusual seismic activity, even at lower levels, should be carefully assessed before operations proceed.

Estimates of the amount of shale gas in the UK vary widely. Cuadrilla puts the potential resources in Lancashire alone at 200 trillion cubic feet – an amount that could supply the whole of the UK’s gas needs for more than five decades.

In order to wring the maximum from the UK’s resources, there will need to be six to eight wells per square mile around each of the tens of sites to be explored, including as many as 800 in Lancashire and more in areas such as Sussex.

But using more conservative methods, the British Geological Survey put the likely resources at 4.7 trillion cubic feet, one-40th of the company’s figure. Even then, only about 5% to 10% of that figure is likely to be recoverable.

What is the energy minister’s response to this?

Member of the Conservative Party, also bought a castle in Scotland for £2.5 million

Member of the Conservative Party, also bought a castle in Scotland for £2.5 million

Energy Minister, Charles Hendry believes that the proposed operations in the UK are safe. He claims that shale gas drilling in the UK is governed by one of the most robust and stringent regulatory frameworks in the world.

Each fracking application must go through the local planning application process and before any drilling occurs, proposals must also be scrutinised by the Environment Agency to make sure there is no risk to the environment, and in particular to water sources; by the health and safety executive for safety; and by the DECC to ensure best use is made of the resources.

As part of this process, operators are required to disclose the content of fracking fluids to the Environment Agency. Cuadrilla has published this information and nearly all, 99.96%, of the fluid used has been made up of fresh water and sand. The remaining 0.04% was made from polyacrylamide, commonly used in cosmetics. Other additives which might be used in future operations include hydrochloric acid, typically at a concentration of 0.125% or biocide at a concentration of 0.0005%, which can be used if needed to purify the water used in the process.

The House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee agree that there was no evidence that fracking poses a direct risk to underground water aquifers, provided the drilling well is constructed properly.

Promoters of shale gas concentrate on debunking the water contamination theory but fail to mention the carbon footprint of shale gas extraction and burning.

Minister Hendry feels that if we reduce our dependence on foreign fuel, it’ll buy us more time to invest in renewable energies and nuclear power, however, he’s not ruling out coal and gas in the future. As an energy source, fracking “potentially ticks the boxes on energy security, on availability and on cost”.

I find it most unlikely that the government has any real grasp on this.

Shining a Light on Pollution

Hormones, such as estrogen found in water supplies have been seen to cause feminization of aquatic animals, reducing fertility. Other studies have suggested that long term exposure to low levels of estrogens in drinking water may adversely affect human health.

Zebrafish that have been genetically modified to contain Green Florescent Proteins sensitive to estrogen can detect the effects of low concentrations of estrogenic endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) present in our waterways. Until now, it has been known that environmental estrogens alter hormone signalling in the body that can induce reproductive abnormalities in humans and wildlife. In 2002, a team at Mahavir Hospital and Research Centre, Hyderabad, India, showed how estrogen in the environment causes male infertility. They evaluated semen parameters such as ejaculate volume and sperm count of 21 infertile men and 32 control men, finding that environmental estrogens were present in the semen of infertile men.

But does estrogen affect other areas besides the reproductive system?

In January 2007, Song Houyan and Zhong Tao, two professors at Fudan’s molecular medicine lab, Beijing, cloned estrogen-sensitive genes and injected them into the fertile eggs of zebrafish. The genetically modified fish becomes a biosensor by glowing green when placed in water that is polluted by estrogen. This small tropical fish has become one of the favoured animal model systems for studying gene function, as they have transparent embryos, making it easier to see morphological changes during development. This transparency also means researchers can make use of a naturally fluorescing protein called GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein) – which can be used to label individual cells, organs or even organelles.

In a report by scientists at the University of Exeter this year ‘’Biosensor Zebrafish Provide New Insights into Potential Health Effects of Environmental Estrogens’’, Environmental Health Perspectives, the team used cloned estrogen-sensitive genes in zebrafish to detect the affect of environmental estrogens on signalling mechanisms in a whole body system rather than just the reproductive system. This study was led by Okhyun Lee at the College of Life and Environment Sciences, University of Exeter. The team found that exposure of the zebrafish larvae to endocrine disrupting chemicals induced specific Green Florescent Protein expressions in a wide variety of tissues including the liver, hearth and skeletal muscle. These tissues had not been established previously as targets for estrogen in fish. It was also observed that tissues reacted differently to different chemicals suggesting different potential health defects.

Through this study, the team at Exeter have developed a powerful new model for the understanding of toxicological effects, mechanisms and health impacts of environmental estrogens in vertebrates.

A Science Lesson from a Mould Inspector

An unwanted visitor settled into our flat a couple of weeks ago and he goes by the name of Mould, ugly, black, fury mould. With disgust, I made a complaint to the landlord and he put us in contact with a mould inspector (his name was Sukh and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t specialise in mould… but today he is the mould-master!).

After a quick inspection of our flat he was assured that we had a serious ventilation problem this followed a fascinating lecture about the creation of water vapour in our home.

We create up to 11 litres of water a day inside our homes, it’s true, I checked.

Water vapour source in an ‘average’ house per day Approximate water generated (in litres)

4/5 people asleep

1.5

2 people active

1.6

Cooking

2.6

Washing up

1.0

Washing clothes

4.0

Drying clothes

4.5

Bathing/washing

0.5

Approximate total 15.7 litres

This water is created through breathing, laundry, cooking and showering. The water vapour follows the rules of convection and makes its way to the colder area of the room i.e. our window pane, where it loses energy and transforms into water droplets, harbouring an environment loved by many kinds of mould.

In old buildings where single paned windows are used, this excess water is usually released into the atmosphere. If I ever had a complaint for double glazing, being good at what they do would be one.

Sukh explained to us that our flat was producing its own weather system, we were essentially creating rain. There was little to stop me raising my arms and shouting ‘Let there be Thunder!!!’ but I don’t think we’ve gotten that advanced yet.

I wonder did Kate and Leo consider proper ventilation?

The warmer the air in our flat the more water it can hold. If our kitchen was 10ᵒC, believe me, sometimes it’s colder, it can hold 7.6g water per kg of dry air but if we heated the air to 20ᵒC it can hold 15.3g water per kg of dry air. At this point the air is said to be saturated i.e. it’s holding the maximum amount of water.

Relative Humidity (RH) is calculated by what portion of actual water vapour is in the air compared to the maximum amount that can be held at a given temperature. So air, at 10ᵒC could hold 8g of water at its maximum but if in reality only 4g was actually found, the RH would be 4/8 x 100 = 50% i.e. the air is 50% saturated. For mould to be a happy camper, a RH of 75% or higher is required and my home appears to be the best vacation spot.

When asking Sukh if we should be cautious of the dangers of mould in the home, he replied ‘’I’m not qualified to give health advice but I would not stay here’’ as he walked towards the front door.

Thankfully, we haven't gotten that bad yet!

Turns out that the black, slimy mould on our window sill is not great as it can produce toxins known as mycotoxins, it’s called Stachybotrys Chartarum. However, this only affects people with lung damage or compromised immune systems. As we’re a healthy-ish bunch of students, the worst that could happen would be hay fever like systems or a slight cough. Still, it better be gotten rid of.

I leave my appointment with Sukh the mould master feeling slightly disappointed. My dreams of creating more interesting weather systems in the home such as hail or typhoons will never come true as he will be installing an extractor fan on the side of our flat that pumps in dry air.

So my future looks like it’ll be mostly dry with some sunny patches and warm spells… Probably for the best.

Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde uses a smoke machine, combined with moisture and dramatic lighting to create an indoor cloud effect.

To end this blog, here’s a joke to make you cringe: What do you can a person who’s not into tractors anymore? An extractor fan! Get it?

Ireland’s Fracking Future

Local's express their concern for their safety

Pat Rabbitte TD Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources

So far neutral on the subject of hydraulic fracturing.

claims to be neutral on the subject of Hydraulic Fracturing in Ireland, however, he has asked the EPA to look into the pros and cons of this new technique of extracting fossils fuels from underground (their final report expected in 2014). He also consulted the chief executive of Tamboran about a different tax regime for onshore drilling, so he’s definitely considering it.

The Australian shale gas exploration company Tamboran has been granted a licence to explore the potential for extracting natural gas from the North West of Ireland (North Leitrim and South Fermanagh), with claims of finding reserves of up to 4.4 trillion cublic feet worth €116 billion (£96.5 billion). An Irish company called Langco (Lough Allen Natural Gas Company) has also been granted a licence.

Tamboran’s chief executive Richard Moorman has confronted protesters and with a €7 billion euro investment, has made promises to operate at the highest standards during the controversial fracking process by strictly monitoring air and water quality as well as seismic conditions. Tamboran promises not to use chemical additives in any fracking process in Ireland. Will this be enough?

The pros so far are: 3000 jobs for the next 40 years and a long term supply of fuel which would attract international businesses to Ireland. So it might be a bright light for the Irish economy, not necessarily for sustainable development.

Tamboran outlined plans to start drilling in Leitrim from 2014 for 40 years, hauling out 2.2 trillion cubic metres of natural gas. Fracking is expected to start a year earlier in the North of the border as the regulatory process is ‘’much more tuned up’’ there, according to Moorman. Production is expected to peak at 2025 with 150 wells, maximum employment would be 600 with 400 million cubic feet of gas produced daily. Mr. Moorman claims that this is enough to supply 80% of Ireland’s current needs.

An Irish doctor, Dr. John O’Connor campaigned to highlight health problems associated with oil exploration in Canada and is now expressing his concern over the risk of water contamination due to Hydraulic Fracturing in Ireland. A study by the University of Austin, Texas, found that most of the pollution from Hydraulic Fracturing came from the evaporation of ‘produced’ water, water that has been pumped into the well and released, containing all the fracking fluids and other chemicals.

Hydraulic Fracturing is opposed by the locals in Leitrim and Fermanagh, forming a group called ‘No Fracking in Ireland’. A new cross-border umbrella organisation called Good Energies Alliance Irelandhas also been set up to campaign against Hydraulic Fracturing on the whole island.

Some questions I have for Mr. Moorman,

  1. How can you promise that none of the fracking fluids will end up in the drinking water supply? If unexpected fissures form in the rock due to intensive drilling, how are you going to stop the area from being contaminated?
  2. It is proven that only 75% of the water that is pumped into the well returns to the surface for every fracking process, where is this water going?
  3. When you are disposing of waste water, it is kept in water storage ponds where a lot of the chemicals are released into the air, are you covering your costs of air pollution?