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United Kingdom CO2 emissions fall to lowest level in nearly a century

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LONDON — A record drop in coal use — coupled with the rapid growth of renewable energy, an expansion of energy efficiency programs, and an increase in burning natural gas for electricity — have driven carbon dioxide emissions in the UK to their lowest levels since the 1920s, according to a new study by the non-profit group, Carbon Brief.

The study said that CO2 emissions in the UK fell 5.8% from 2015 to 2016, driven by a 50% drop in emissions from coal burning. In the past decade, coal use in the UK has fallen by 74%, a major reason why UK carbon emissions are now 36% below emissions levels in 1990, according to Carbon Brief.

The UK’s carbon emissions were 381 MMt in 2016, the lowest level since the 1920s. UK coal usage has been plummeting because of increased use of natural gas, carbon taxes on coal, expansion of renewables, falling energy demand, and the late-2015 closure of the Redcar steel works.

Three coal-fired power plants closed in the UK in 2016, the Carbon Brief report said. The huge drop in coal emissions in 2016 was partially offset by a 12.5% increase in natural gas usage and a 1.5% increase in oil consumption as lower gasoline prices led to UK residents driving more miles.

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‘Spinning sail’ rebooted to cut fuel and make ocean tankers greener

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LONDON — An ocean-going tanker is to be fitted with a type of “spinning sail” invented almost a century ago in a step that could lead to more environmentally friendly tankers worldwide.

The unusual sails are rotating columns fixed to the deck of the ship, whose interaction with the wind provides forward thrust. The trial is backed by Maersk and Shell’s shipping arm.

International shipping runs largely on highly polluting “bunker” fuel and the industry is coming under increasing pressure to play its part in tackling climate change by reducing emissions. Technologies being explored to cut pollution include kites, batteries or biofuels.

The spinning, or rotor sail, was invented by the German engineer Anton Flettner and he put it into practice on two ships, one of which crossed the Atlantic in 1926. It propels the ship because when wind passes the spinning rotor sail, the air flow accelerates on one side and decelerates on the opposite side, creating a thrust force perpendicular to the wind direction.

The rotor sails being installed on a 240 m-long Maersk tanker are modern lightweight versions produced by the Finnish company Norsepower. They will be 30 m tall and 5 m in diameter, the largest rotor sails ever deployed and the first to be used on a tanker.

In favorable wind conditions, each rotor sail can produce the equivalent of 3MW of power, much more than the 50kW of electricity needed to turn it, said Norsepower’s CEO, Tuomas Riski. If the wind direction reverses, the rotation of the sail can be also be reversed.

Riski said that overall fuel savings of 7-10% were expected, equivalent to about 1,000 tonnes of fuel a year: “We are pretty confident we are in this kind of range.” The company has already deployed its rotor sails on a roll-on/roll-off ferry and saw a saving of 6%.

The new sails will be fitted during the first half of 2018, then analysed at sea until the end of 2019.

“The IMO was first charged with acting by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and now, two decades later, the IMO’s latest greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan envisages a further seven-year period to collect data and navel gaze with no commitment to act at the end of all this,” said Bill Hemmings at the NGO Transport & Environment.

However, some shipping companies are already exploring cleaner energy systems, with the cruise liner firm Hurtigruten ordering a pair of hybrid powered ships that will use a battery system to help power them. Another approach is to use the waste heat from a ship’s diesel engines to produce electricity.

The German company SkySails uses large kites to provide wind power to modern shipping, while another, Enercon, fitted four rotor sails to a transport ship in 2010, though Norsepower’s rotor sails will be larger.

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UT researchers link methane in groundwater to natural sources near Barnett wells

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AUSTIN, Texas — Scientists from The University of Texas at Austin have found that high levels of methane in well water from two counties near Fort Worth are probably from shallow natural gas deposits, not natural gas leaks caused by hydraulic fracturing operations in the underlying Barnett Shale.

The research, published in the journal Groundwater, builds on previous studies on well water quality in the Barnett Shale and uses chemical and geographic evidence to tie the elevated methane level in certain water wells to methane in natural shallow deposits.

J.P. Nicot, a research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology, a unit of the UT Jackson School of Geosciences, led the research. Collaborators include researchers from the Jackson School’s Department of Geological Sciences and the University of Michigan.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas. Fracking is a method of artificially producing fractures in wells thousands of feet deep to reach natural gas deposits in shale rock. Methane is also found in much shallower and smaller deposits located hundreds of feet below the ground. These deposits formed when methane from deeper sources moved toward the surface over millions of years. The shallow reservoirs in the study area are in a geologic formation called the Strawn Group.

“Over geologic time, methane has accumulated into these shallower reservoirs,” Nicot explained. “These fresh-water wells are very close to these shallower reservoirs and may be the source of the methane.”

To examine the source and extent of methane in water wells, the researchers analyzed samples from more than 450 wells across 12 counties in the western Barnett Shale. The vast majority of samples—85 percent—showed very low methane levels in the groundwater of less than 0.1 milligrams of methane per liter of water. However, a cluster of 11 wells in Parker County and Hood County had methane levels above 10 milligrams per liter of water, a level that can trigger venting of well water systems to ensure the flammable gas does not become hazardous.

The Silverado neighborhood was at the epicenter of the cluster of wells containing high levels of methane. They are found in a roughly 6-by-8-mile area that also includes wells with low levels of methane.

This finding prompted the researchers to take a closer look at the cluster. Starting at the center of the cluster and working outward until no methane was detected in the water, they took samples from 58 locations and analyzed them to see where the gas originated.

“What we wanted to do was understand how much methane there is and determine the size of the high methane hotspot,” Nicot said.

Methane is produced two ways: thermogenically, from the breakdown of organic material under elevated temperature and pressure; and biogenically, by microbial activity. Biogenic methane is generally generated at shallow depth. Thermogenic methane is always produced at depth, although sometimes the gas can migrate over geologic time to shallower areas.

Researchers used carbon isotope analysis to determine that the methane was thermogenic, which ruled out biogenic sources but didn’t pinpoint whether the gas came from the deeper Barnett or the shallower Strawn. Additional analysis of the samples’ noble gases conducted by members of the same research team and led by University of Michigan researchers linked the methane to the shallow natural gas deposits of the Strawn. The results were complemented by another of the team’s studies in 2015 that found nitrogen isotopes associated with the Strawn.

Although the findings suggest that methane from the Strawn Group is the most likely source for the methane in water wells in Parker and Hood counties, the researchers said they can’t completely rule out that some of the methane may have come from leaks caused by hydraulic fracturing operations. In fact, the researchers suggest that leaks from deep reservoirs might help explain certain cases recorded by other studies where methane levels in water wells are increasing over time and cases where methane is present in water wells where it used to be absent.

For wells where the methane origins are still questionable, the researchers suggest a more extensive sampling and analysis campaign.

The study was funded by Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, a program authorized by the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005.

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Scottish councils invest £1.7 billion into fossil fuel companies

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EDINBURGH – In a departure from the fossil fuel disinvesting trend, Scottish local authorities are pouring £1.7 billion in 52 fossil fuel companies, realizing perhaps its bounty of hydrocarbon resources, according to a news article in the Ferret.

Pension funds for more than half a million council staff are being poured into oil, gas and coal companies. The revelation has shocked pension fund members, angered campaigners and upset trade unionists, who are all calling for fossil fuel investment to be phased out. But the investments have been defended by councils and the industry.

The company given the most money by Scotland’s 11 council pension schemes is the oil and gas giant, Shell, which received nearly £130 million of investments in 2015-16. The coal and mining multinational, Rio Tinto, was given £74 million, BP £64 million and ExxonMobil £44 million.

The Scottish local government pension scheme has 505,769 members and total funds of £35.4bn. Nearly five per cent of its funds were invested in fossil fuels, equivalent to about £3,300 for every member.

Globally, 701 institutions with total investments valued at £4.5 trillion have promised to pull out of fossil fuels. Four local authority pension schemes in England – Haringey, Waltham Forest, Southwark and South Yorkshire – have made commitments to cut their fossil fuel investments.

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EPA spending to sink -31% under Trump’s budget proposal

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WASHINGTON D.C. — President Trump released a partial outline of his 2018 budget, proposing billions of dollars in spending cuts to most government agencies to pay for large increases in military and homeland security spending, resulting in a 1.2% cut in discretionary spending over all.

The EPA is among the hardest-hit agencies. The budget calls for the reduction of EPA spending from $8.1 billion to $5.7 billion, elimination of about 3,200 staff positions — over 20% of the department. It would also eliminate all funding for enactment of the Clean Power Plan, the regulations designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. It would also discontinue funding for climate change research and international climate change programs.

Another prime target: the United Nations. Climate-change initiatives at the United Nations would lose all their U.S. funding.

The budget would slightly increase funding on drinking and wastewater infrastructure, including a $4 million increase for the State Revolving Funds, which are meant to ensure clean water for local communities and prevent contaminated drinking-water crises like the one in Flint, Mich.

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Atmospheric CO2 emissions to rise less in 2017, but still larger than previous average

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MAUNA LOA — The Met Office forecast of the annual rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide suggests that the 2017 rise will be smaller than that in 2016, but still larger than the previous average.

The annual mean CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa in 2017 is forecast to be 406.75 ± 0.61 ppm, which is 2.46 ± 0.61 ppm higher than 2016.  This rise is smaller than the rise of 3.39 ppm measured between 2015 and 2016, but larger than the average rise of approximately 2.1 ppm over the previous decade.

The 2015-2016 CO2 rise was the largest in the 50-year Mauna Loa record.  It was forecast to be 3.15 ± 0.53 ppm, on the basis of ongoing anthropogenic emissions and the temporary effect of the 2015-16 El Niño event in weakening tropical land carbon sinks.  The 2016 annual mean CO2 was forecast to be 404.45 ± 0.53 ppm, which compares with the measured 2016 mean concentration of 404.28 ppm. That successful forecast was a collaboration between the Met Office and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are rising year-on-year due to emissions from burning fossil fuels and deforestation. The annual rise temporarily becomes faster during El Niño events, due to reduced tropical land carbon uptake resulting from warm, dry conditions.  Since El Niño conditions had ended by mid-2016, the land carbon sink is expected to have currently returned to its usual magnitude.  However, carbon sinks only offset approximately 50% of anthropogenic emissions, so atmospheric CO2 still continues to rise annually.

There is also a seasonal cycle in atmospheric CO2 due to uptake by ecosystems in the northern hemisphere summer, and release in winter. In 2017, the maximum monthly value is forecast to be 409.86 ± 0.61 ppm in May, and the minimum monthly value 403.72 ± 0.61 ppm in September.

The annual CO2 rise forecast is based on observed emissions of CO2 from human sources, along with a statistical relationship with observed and forecast sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean – these are a commonly-used metric of the magnitude of El Niño / Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events and correlate with variability in the rate of rise of CO2.

A key part of the 2016 forecast was the inclusion of the role of El Niño.  A simple extrapolation of the previous trend of 2.1ppm/year would have underestimated the annual CO2 concentration as being 402.9 – 403.1 ppm, with the September minimum incorrectly expected to be below 400 ppm. It has been proposed that an apparent steadying of the rate of rise from 2002-2014 was due to the temporary slowdown in global mean surface temperature increase, and that without this, the annual rate of rise would have been expected to increase.  Nevertheless, the annual rate of rise would still not be expected to have exceeded 3 ppm without the El Niño.

The additional effect of the El Niño meant that the rise in CO2 concentration in 2016 was larger than previous years despite the fact that global emissions had increased much more slowly.  It was also larger than the rise following the previous major El Niño event in 1997/98, even though the 2015/16 El Nino was not larger than the 1997/98 event. This is because human emissions have increased by approximately 20% since then.

CEO Darren Woods: ExxonMobil is committed to environment and clean energy

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HOUSTON – ExxonMobil’s new CEO renewed his company’s commitment to environmental compliance and clean energy at the CERAWeek conference in Houston.

“I believe the assumption that affordable energy and a cleaner environment are a zero-sum game is mistaken,” explained Woods. “It underestimates the power of technology. The zero-sum view is a static one, and the world of energy is anything but static. But technology changes the equation.  It makes a dream – growing the economy while reducing emissions – a reality.

Woods then outlined a series of progressive steps that ExxonMobil is taking in the clean energy sector:

  • Take carbon capture and storage. It is a technology we have invested in – and will continue to. We currently have an interest in about one-quarter of the world’s carbon capture and storage capacity.
  • Last year, we announced a technology partnership to research whether carbonate fuels cells can be used to more economically capture carbon dioxide at scale – enabling widespread use.
  • By capturing CO2 in gas-fired power generation before it is emitted, this potential game-changer enables us to envision a future in which hydrocarbon use and de-carbonization go hand-in-hand.
  • In the manufacturing process area, we recently announced a new technology we call “cMIST” that enables us to more efficiently dehydrate natural gas. cMIST reduces the surface footprint for this process by 70%.  It also reduces energy use and emissions.
  • Our scientists are working with MIT, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Texas and Georgia Tech – among others – to advance fundamental research that could significantly reduce emissions and profoundly shape our energy and environmental future.
  • Through our work with Georgia Tech, we have pioneered a new membrane for the process of reverse osmosis that enables us to convert oil and natural gas to higher-value fuels and chemicals. If we can scale it, this breakthrough could reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions up to 45 million tons, annually.
  • We are incorporating fuel-saving technologies into a portfolio of innovative products that enable cars and trucks to go further with less, including advanced synthetic lubricants, improved tire liners and lightweight plastic body parts. If these existing technologies and others were applied to a third of the vehicles in this country, it would avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 8 million cars from the road.
  • Our new polymers can make plastic films that are strong but light and thin. This helps to safely preserve food for longer, reducing spoilage, and ultimately reducing emissions.
  • We are a leader in cogeneration – a technology that uses waste heat to generate steam and reduces the need to burn fuel and emit more. ExxonMobil’s cogeneration capacity worldwide is the equivalent of the annual energy needed to power 2.5 million U.S. homes. That’s a sizeable environmental savings.
  • In addition, we are deploying an entire suite of technologies at our refineries and chemical plants to strengthen our environmental performance: new systems to recover gas that would otherwise be flared; specialized cameras to detect fugitive emissions so that they can be stopped; advanced burners to minimize emissions.
  • In the area of climate regulation, policies fostering transparent, uniform carbon prices that allow market forces to drive effective solutions, minimize administrative burdens and promote global participation can be effective.
  • We worked with Stanford to develop new software for estimating the potential impact injection wells could have on seismic fault lines.

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EPA head discounts human activity as main driver of climate change

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WASHINGTON D. C. — The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency said that he is not convinced that carbon dioxide from human activity is the main driver of climate change and said he wants Congress to weigh in on whether CO2is a harmful pollutant that should be regulated according to a Reuters news article.

“I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact,” he told CNBC.

“So no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” Pruitt said. “But we don’t know that yet, we need to continue to debate, continue the review and analysis.”

“We can be pro-growth, pro-jobs and pro-environment,” Pruitt said Wednesday afternoon in a Houston speech at IHS Markit’s CERAWeek, a gathering of energy executives.

The Senate confirmed Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency over the objections of Democrats and environmentalists worried he will gut the agency, as the administration readies executive orders to ease regulation on drillers and miners

Scientists immediately criticized Pruitt’s statement, saying it ignores a large body of evidence collected over decades that shows fossil fuel burning as the main factor in climate change.

The Supreme Court unleashed a fury of regulation and litigation when it ruled in 2007 that greenhouse gases are an air pollutant that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Two years later, the EPA declared carbon dioxide and five other heat-trapping gases to be pollutants.

Pruitt said the Supreme Court’s decision should not have been viewed as permission for the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

Pruitt has previously said the EPA should not regulate CO2 without a law passed by Congress authorizing it to do so. The Republican-controlled Congress could potentially issue a strong signal to the EPA that carbon dioxide should not be regulated by the agency, a move that would undermine many Obama-era rules aimed at curbing emissions.

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MIT: Turbulent ocean currents bringing up carbon trapped in deep caverns

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CAMBRIDGE — At high latitudes, such as near Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, the ocean’s surface waters are cooled by frigid temperatures and become so dense that they sink a few thousand meters into the ocean’s abyss.

These ocean waters are thought to flow along a sort of conveyor belt that transports them between the surface and the deep in a never-ending loop. However, it remains unclear where the deep waters rise to the surface, as they ultimately must. This information would help researchers estimate how long the ocean may store carbon in its deepest regions before returning it to the surface.

Now scientists from MIT, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the University of Southampton in the U.K. have identified a mechanism by which waters may rise from the ocean’s depths to its uppermost layers. Their results are published in the journal Nature Communications.

Through numerical modeling and observations in the Southern Ocean, the team found that topographic features such as seamounts, ridges, and continental margins can trap deep waters from migrating to flatter, calmer parts of the ocean. The underwater chasms and cliffs generate turbulent flows, similar to wind that whips between a city’s skyscrapers. The longer water is trapped among these topographic features, the more it mixes with upper layers of the ocean, swirling its way back toward the surface.

“In the abyssal ocean, you have 4,000-meter sea mountains and very deep troughs, up and down, and these topographic features help create turbulence,” says Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “What seems to be emerging is that water comes back up from the abyss by spending a lot of time in these places where turbulence is really strong.”

Knowing there are hotspots where deep waters return to the surface may help scientists identify regions where carbon, once absorbed from the atmosphere and stored deep in the ocean, rises and is released back to the atmosphere.

“The general understanding is that abyssal waters take few to several thousand years to resurface,” says lead author and MIT postdoc Ali Mashayek. “If a considerable amount of such upwelling occurs rapidly along sloped boundaries, continental margins, and mid-ocean ridges, then the timescale of recycling of abyssal waters can be shorter.”

In February 2009, collaborators from WHOI deployed a tracer in the Southern Ocean, about 1,000 miles west of Drake Passage, as part of a project called DIMES (Diapycnal and Isopycnal Mixing Experiment in the Southern Ocean) to analyze the mixing of ocean waters.

“They released a blob of dye, like a drop of milk in a coffee cup, and let the ocean mix it around,” Ferrari says.

Over two years, they sampled the tracer at various stations downstream from where it was released, and found that it experienced very little turbulence, or mixing, in parts of the ocean with few topographic features. However, once the tracer crossed Drake Passage, it encountered seamounts and ridges, and “all of a sudden, it started to spread in the vertical quite fast, at three times the rate predicted by Munk,” Ferrari says.

What was driving this accelerated mixing? To find out, the team, led by Mashayek, developed a numerical model to simulate the Southern Ocean region — no small task, as it was unclear whether such a model could have high enough resolution to reproduce a tracer’s small-scale movements amid a vast volume of seawater.

Looking more closely at their simulations, the researchers observed that regions with topography such as seamounts and ridges were essentially trapping the tracer for long periods of time, buffeting and mixing it vertically, before the tracer escaped and drifted through calmer waters.

“Mixing-induced upwelling is globally relevant,” Mashayek says. “If our finding in the Southern Ocean extends to other mixing hotspots around the globe, then it will somewhat reshape our understanding of role of turbulent mixing in ocean overturning circulation. It also has important implications for parameterization of mixing processes in climate models.”

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Argonne National Laboratory invents reusable sponge that soaks up oil

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CHIGACO — Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have invented a new foam, called Oleo Sponge, that easily absorbs oil from water, but is also reusable and can pull dispersed oil from the entire water column—not just the surface.

“The Oleo Sponge offers a set of possibilities that, as far as we know, are unprecedented,” said co-inventor Seth Darling, a scientist with Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials and a fellow of the University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering.

We already have a library of molecules that can grab oil, but the problem is how to get them into a useful structure and bind them there permanently. The scientists started out with common polyurethane foam, used in everything from furniture cushions to home insulation. This foam has lots of nooks and crannies, like an English muffin, which could provide ample surface area to grab oil; but they needed to give the foam a new surface chemistry in order to firmly attach the oil-loving molecules.

Previously, Darling and fellow Argonne chemist Jeff Elam had developed a technique called sequential infiltration synthesis (SIS), which can be used to infuse hard metal oxide atoms within complicated nanostructures.

After some trial and error, they found a way to adapt the technique to grow an extremely thin layer of metal oxide “primer” near the foam’s interior surfaces. This serves as the perfect glue for attaching the oil-loving molecules, which are deposited in a second step; they hold onto the metal oxide layer with one end and reach out to grab oil molecules with the other.

The result is Oleo Sponge, a block of foam that easily adsorbs oil from the water. The material, which looks a bit like an outdoor seat cushion, can be wrung out to be reused—and the oil itself recovered.

At tests at a giant seawater tank in New Jersey called Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility, the Oleo Sponge successfully collected diesel and crude oil from both below and on the water surface.

“The material is extremely sturdy. We’ve run dozens to hundreds of tests, wringing it out each time, and we have yet to see it break down at all,” Darling said.

Oleo Sponge could potentially also be used routinely to clean harbors and ports, where diesel and oil tend to accumulate from ship traffic, said John Harvey, a business development executive with Argonne’s Technology Development and Commercialization division.

“The technique offers enormous flexibility, and can be adapted to other types of cleanup besides oil in seawater. You could attach a different molecule to grab any specific substance you need,” Elam said.

The team is actively looking to commercialize the material, Harvey said; those interested in licensing the technology or collaborating with the laboratory on further development may contact partners@anl.gov.

Argonne scientists Anil Mane, Joseph Libera and postdoctoral researcher Edward Barry also contributed to the development of the Oleo Sponge. Preliminary results were published in a study in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A, titled “Advanced oil sorbents using sequential infiltration synthesis.”

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