Homebuyers who are looking to invest in Alpharetta, GA real estate and other properties in the Greater Atlanta area will find a wealth of information on Ann-Marie Sharp’s newly launched website,...
(PRWeb September 18, 2014)
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Altec will showcase its integrated document management solution, doc-link, at the 2014 McGladrey Dynamics Summit beginning September 16 and ending November 6.
(PRWeb September 18, 2014)
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NIAC General Manager Colleen DeMerchant announces the Nuclear Insurance Association of Canada's participation at NICC 2014 where she will moderate as expert panel discussion titled "Lessons...
(PRWeb September 18, 2014)
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Bio Logic Aqua Research Founder Sharon Kleyne Feels Vindicated After Teaching about Computers and Dry Eye for Years.
(PRWeb September 18, 2014)
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MarketResearchReports.Biz include new market research report"Global And China Chemical Reagent Industry Report, 2014-2017" to its huge collection of research reports. Browse All Chemicals...
(PRWeb September 18, 2014)
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New Assay to Test Target Compounds for Anti-Obesity Therapeutics
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August 2014: Ohio Department of Corrections Training Academy "Gets the Lead Out" MT2, LLC’s firing range reclamation removes nearly 100,000 pounds of firing range lead to mitigate potential...
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SMI launches the new SM9541 MEMS low pressure sensor for the stringent medical and industrial markets. With an industry leading accuracy, at less than 1%, design engineers will appreciate the high...
(PRWeb September 18, 2014)
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Current and prospective customers are now able to find even more options of LED light bulbs from GE, Samsung, Lighting Science and TCP in addition to the extensive assortment previously available on...
(PRWeb September 18, 2014)
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Landpoint, one of the nation’s largest land surveying firms, was recently awarded a finalist position in Engineering for the 2014 Southwest regional Oil and Gas Awards.
(PRWeb September 18, 2014)
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Altizon Systems announces closure of its seed funding with global VC firm The Hive™ leading the round along with Infuse Ventures and Persistent Ventures
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Q. Is beer or hard cider most environmentally friendly? Actually, scratch that – of ALL the alcoholic beverages, which is least taxing on the environment?
A. Dearest Jake,
I periodically receive this question, or versions of it, from earnest tipplers all over the country. And also from all over my social events, where acquaintances tend to approach me after their third cocktail with a worried look on their faces. I usually begin with an examination of variables such as the carbon footprint of freight shipping versus pesticides used during farming versus energy intensiveness. That’s about when the acquaintance will make an excuse to leave, and funny, the host usually misplaces my invitation to her next party.
So today I’m instituting a different method when this question arises, Jake. There are so many variables in alcohol production and distribution – and by “ALL the alcoholic beverages,” I assume we’re including beer, cider, wine, liquor, and fermented mare’s milk – that it becomes very difficult to award one the title of “least taxing.” So instead of sloshing around in the details, I’m going to give you some simple drinking guidelines. Follow as many as you can and you’ll be doing all right, no headaches necessary (at least not until tomorrow morning).
1. Look for local
Shipping accounts for a significant chunk of a drink’s carbon emissions, especially if you’re pouring it from a heavy glass bottle. So seek out regional wineries, breweries, and distilleries – lucky for you, the Pacific Northwest is lousy with them – to minimize transport costs. The route your booze takes to reach you matters, too: A recent analysis from a UK efficiency group reported that shipping wine via rail or sea saved 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in emissions over truck shipping. Also worth noting: Some brands ship their wines in bulk via huge plastic bladders, then bottle them near the consumer, thereby alleviating some of their carbon debt.
Don’t forget about the stuff that goes into the vat, either. Craft distilleries often source their grains and potatoes from the area (as opposed to larger brands that may buy a neutral grain spirit from elsewhere to start their concoctions), and some microbreweries are beginning to incorporate local malted barley and hops into their suds. When in doubt, ask – any brand going out of its way to source locally will probably want to tell you all about it. Winemakers, at least, make it easy to trace from whence sprang their grapes.
2. Buy in bulk
The less packaging, the more efficient alcohol is to transport and schlep home – and bulk booze often comes in reusable vessels. For beer, that means a keg is the way to go for parties and a reusable growler that you refill at your favorite brewery is best for smaller groups. For wine, look into refillable wine bottles or even entire kegs, and sample wines on tap if you can find them at local bars. I’m not sure you can (or should) do the same with gigantic bottles of liquor, but let’s all agree that nobody should be buying Pocket Shots.
3. Peer at the packaging
Yes, speaking of packaging: If the bulk route won’t do, you want the lightest containers possible (it’s that shipping cost thing again). Beer cans beat bottles in this regard, and many quality brews can now be had in this form. And as we’ve discussed, wine from an aseptic carton is lighter and more efficient to ship than that from a bottle.
4. Investigate ingredients
What about all those organic quaffs, you ask? Sipping something that skipped the pesticide and petrochemical fertilizer bath is no doubt a good thing, and you’ll find a growing crop of organic beers, wines, and spirits on the shelves these days. Biodynamic wines – which come from vineyards that use organic practices and more, like natural pest management – are also worth a look. Where it gets tricky: It’s not necessarily a better choice to pick a faraway organic bottle with a big carbon shipping footprint over a local potion. Nor should you burn gas driving around town trying to find that big-O label. As we must often do with the organic-local problem, it’s worth asking your neighborhood boozemasters how they work and where they source ingredients.
5. Support sustainability
Some companies promote pretty whiz-bang sustainability measures: turning beer leftovers into electricity, using on-site solar panels, reclaiming and reusing brewing water, tapping geothermal energy, and many more. We should be applauding and rewarding this kind of thing with a toast or two.
6. Make your own
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The most local (and fun) drink of all is the one you brew/ferment/distill yourself. If you’re at all into DIY foodstuffs, Jake, you could find great success with your own nano-brew, hard cider, or hey, even prison wine. I’m not one to judge what tickles your palate.
Filed under: Food, Living
I’ve been asked a lot lately about how environmental justice works in practical measures. Making the case for considering race and civil rights in environmental policy, or when planning for climate adaptation, sounds good in theory, but how does that actually play out on the ground?
Environmental justice at the very least entails community residents have meaningful involvement when city planners and government officials start making decisions about changing the landscape. Ideally, it means having residents of the communities that have historically been left out of such processes lead the planning.
As the saying goes among community folks normally left out of these planning processes, “If you’re not at the table, then you’ll be on the menu.” Planners and policymakers are used to eating amongst themselves. Many haven’t caught up with that whole notion that the lunch counter needs to be integrated.
Fortunately, though, there are examples of where these integration exists — and effectively. They can be found in the EPA’s Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJCPS) cooperative agreements program. The goal here is to build equitable development into urban and rural planning efforts by assembling as many stakeholders as are willing — residents, government officials (local, state, federal, tribal), business and industry reps, academics. But with an emphasis on the residents. These collaborative projects seek to ensure that disadvantaged communities don’t become the feasts of profit-hungry developers who might be insensitive or oblivious to residents’ needs.
To qualify for the grants, organizations have to use the EPA’s Collaborative Problem-Solving (CPS) model, which was drafted and finessed based on successful community-led, federally-assisted revitalization projects dating back to the 1990s. One of the best examples can be found in the small city of Spartanburg, S.C., where the community nonprofit ReGenesis Project used a small EPA grant for $20,000, way back in 1997, to breathe life back into the predominantly African-American and blighted Forest Park and Arkwright communities.
Harold Mitchell, a Spartanburg local, had been trouble-shooting with his Forest Park/Arkwright neighbors about how to address the crime and drugs in their community — both growing problems, as was the case in many cities large and small throughout the 1990s. While other cities chose to get tough by ramping up many of the criminal justice policies that spawned the mass incarceration crises we have today, Mitchell chose to examine the roots of crime: poverty and poor health. He found that his neighbors were suffering from a number of health problems resulting from an old fertilizer plant and a waste dump in their midst.
Pulling the community together to form ReGenesis, Mitchell worked with EPA, city and county officials, and business leaders to embark upon an ambitious campaign to revitalize the community’s help. Seventeen years later, Forest Park and Arkwright are virtually brand new. The former fertilizer plant and dump have been replaced with new, sorely needed health facilities, affordable housing to replace the blighted stock, and a recreational center, complete with botanical gardens and other green perks. ReGenesis was able to pull over $300 million from foundations, investors, and other government agencies to make this happen.
Let’s walk that back: In order to address crime and drug use, community residents leveraged a $20,000 grant into hundreds of millions of dollars for a complete community makeover.
The Spartanburg example helped inform the formula EPA created for its collaborative problem solving program (EJCPS) for vulnerable communities. It’s what community folk in Turkey Creek, Miss., used to lead preservation and rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster. It’s also the model that Harambee House Inc. used as one of the first organizations in the EJCPS program to address environmental problems among black communities in Savannah, Ga., back in 2004. Harambee has helped pull off similar progress by utilizing Spartanburg’s model, and they have worked in remote partnership with ReGenesis so they continue to build and improve upon the concept.
This equation comes from Harambee:
Community Building + Capacity Building + Citizen Engagement in Policy-making + Government Actions =
Sustainable Environmental and Social Change
This is a solid formula for how environmental justice can work as policy, if given a shot and some patience. It can also be applied, and really should, for climate change adaptation and resilience planning.
This year’s EJCPS 12 grant recipients will follow and hopefully improve upon the equation. You can read about what they’ll be doing here. A few samples:
The Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors plans to use the formula to address the ongoing problem of toxic lead exposure, a legacy of the old housing stock found throughout Mississippi Delta region. Kids in the state also get it from the abuse of pesticides and toxic chemicals from nearby farms and factories. Lead exposure not only stunts children’s neurological development, but also has been linked to violent behavior later in life, according to some scientists.
In North Carolina, the Greensboro Housing Coalition will use the collaborative approach for a plan to improve housing conditions for low-income families, leverage resources for mold and lead abatement, strengthen inspection enforcement policies, and create safer dwellings for immigrant workers and families.
None of this will be easy — it took Spartanburg almost 20 years to achieve its results. It’s not the same as just parachuting developers in topave and build over whatever’s already there, which, I’m sure, would be quicker. But the outcome of the collaborative problem-solving model is a community residents can live with — because they’re at the table, not on the menu, which means everybody eats.
Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy
Things I have learned while waiting for trains to come: if you’re someone who is interested in how working buildings adapt over time, train stations provide examples of just about every bad thing that can happen. The most dramatic has to be New York’s Penn Station, which is so difficult to navigate that I’m convinced the whole subterranean complex must be haunted by the vengeful ghost of the gilded cupcake of a station that used to be there.
In more remote areas, where train travel has dropped to almost nil, it’s common to pass an ornate boarded-up train station. Sometimes it will sit next to a cinder block hut that serves as the working station; sometimes there is no station at all. In the wake of de-institutionalization and the erosion of low-income housing programs, train stations, like a lot of other public spaces, became de facto homeless shelters, and more than a few cities decided that it would be simpler to close the stations than to fix homelessness.
Chicago’s Union Station is somewhere in between those two options. The great hall — which was cinematically immortalized in such scenes as the “baby carriage bouncing down the steps that was totally ripped off from the Battleship Potemkin” in the gangster film The Untouchables — is still there, but traffic doesn’t flow through it anymore. In the late ’60s the Beaux Arts concourse that connected the Great Hall to the train tracks was demolished in order to make room for a skyscraper. The real work of the station was moved into a warren of tunnels underground, which were decorated, in keeping with the fashion of the time, in the generic, linoleumed, low-ceilinged style familiar to anyone who has spent a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms.
By cutting away everything that was useful about the building and only leaving what was most beautiful, the Great Hall became an amputated limb that the city of Chicago had chosen to hang onto for sentimental reasons. The first time I passed through the station, in the late ’90s, it took me a while to even find the hall. When I did find it, it was dim, cold, and empty, except for a colony of homeless people who glared at me balefully as I walked as quietly as I could around the perimeter of the hall, taking in the architecture. But my footsteps echoed through the space like someone dropping bricks onto a tile floor.
The next time I saw it, in 2012, it was — like so many big old spaces that no one quite knows what to do with – being rented out as an event space. The benches were gone and instead there was a pop-up shop selling luxury menswear. Today, the benches were back – and they had people sitting in them, with carts of luggage and children chasing each other across the floor like flocks of sparrows. The great hall was still far away from where the trains actually came and went, but passengers were using it now.
Union Station was also busier than I had ever seen it before. In the 2008 recession, Chicago, like a lot of American cities, saw the number of people using its public transit system skyrocket, to the point where it expanded platforms outside of several elevated train stops so that they could fit more passengers. The same thing was also happening at Union Station. Train traffic has already expanded past the small ’70s-era underground concourse, and it’s expected to increase by 40 percent between 2011 and 2040.
Dealing with this after having sold so much space to a skyscraper developer is a little awkward –- especially since routing passenger trains underground is a tricky business if you like breathing. The station is trying to figure out how to fit more train platforms into the space that it had left and working on converting train platforms that were being used to ship mail for passenger use.
I would linger, but I’ve got to get going. The six-hour layover in Chicago between the second leg of a cross-country journey — which I have historically used as an excuse to explore, replenish my train food supply, and eat lots of pizza — isn’t happening, because my train got routed behind so much freight on the way here. I’ve got less than an hour, which means that I have to go downstairs and get ready to board.
There is an unmistakable shift in train culture as soon as we board the California Zephyr. And the Zephyr is a sightseeing train — it’s on one of the most stunning train routes in North America, and so there’s plenty of passengers on holiday, instead of just people trying to get from one place to the next. As I walk to my seat, I see a college-age woman reading On the Road. Why not? It’s definitely easier to read a quintessential car travel memoir on a train than it is while driving a literal car.
I, unfortunately, am not on holiday. I brought a wireless hotspot with me, because I had this picturesque vision of myself taking the train and gaily posting things to the internet as the train wound its way up through the Sierras, but forgot the part about America being a large and sparsely internetted place, and definitely not the kind of place where you can upload a large photo to a remote server from just anywhere. I struggle with an internet connection that flickers in and out as, around me, adorable senior citizens flirt and card shark each other.
I try to be calm about this. Surely, I can manage to navigate this sporadic connectivity – downloading research and posting while the train passes through urban areas, and just writing when we’re going through the wilderness of no connection. But this proves tricky. Cities appear and disappear in a matter of minutes. I start to want to be an adorable senior citizen. I want to play cards, and read mysteries, and drink tiny bottles of wine purchased from the café car.
When night falls, I realize that I forgot about one critical characteristic of the California Zephyr – at night, it’s so cold you feel like you’re trying to fall asleep in a walk-in freezer. The pros have brought pillows and blankets and even full sleeping bags with them. I finally manage to get to sleep after putting on a stocking cap, scarf, and all of the sweaters in my luggage.
Every few hours, there’s a stop along the route where passengers are allowed to get out and walk around. I have been cautious about doing this, both because you have to be careful not to get between a smoker and the door – they will trample you – and because I’m addicted to the strong wifi connection that I get when the train is sitting at the station.
But after two nights of sleeping on the train, I’m getting progressively more and more stiff. And I’m getting hungry. I’ve eaten all the food I packed and I didn’t have a chance to buy more food in Chicago. When the loudspeaker announces that the train is going to be stopping for 20 minutes I pack up my laptop and get in line outside the door.
When I step onto the platform, I get a distinct feeling that something is up with Denver. I passed through the city once, and it was not fun. It felt like a suburb without end. There was endless driving, and missing of freeway exits. It would not have even occurred to me that Denver had a downtown, but stepping out into the platform, it is clear that Denver is busy creating one, or rebuilding it.
The concrete on the train platform is freshly poured and still a light, porcelain gray. The train station is a huge white cupcake of a building that has been renovated into what could have plausibly have been the interior of the station when it opened in the 1890s, but probably wasn’t. The upper floors have been turned into a hotel. There’s an ornate bar with dark paneling, shuffleboard tables, a bookstore, a fancy ice cream shop, a breakfast place that is packed with people, and a coffee shop that also looks very nice but, as it turns out, serves not very good coffee. I don’t even care. I’m so amazed that any American city has put this much time and money and thought into a train station. And it is brand new – the shops at the newly renovated station only opened a month ago.
In all the years I’ve spent waiting for Amtrak, I’ve waited for trains in stations that felt designed to maximize human discomfort: South Station in Boston, with its endlessly looping Homeland Security announcements and its metal chairs that screech bloody murder if anyone so much as wiggles in them; Penn Station, with its interminable hallways and the smell of fried food cooked deep underground; the station nearest to my parents’ house, which isn’t even a station – more like a low wall next to a parking lot. I have never had access to anything so glamorous as a bar, and I wish it was open, so that I could order a thousand cocktails and drown out all those times I have shivered in a basement with only a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise to keep me alive.
When I walk back out to the platform, I notice that the train station is surrounded by cranes and half-finished tower buildings. It’s part of a larger transportation and development project – high-density housing downtown, and a light rail system stretching out from it to the burbs that is one of the most ambitious of its type.
I have to take a strange pathway to get back onto the train – the only door is one that has been left open in the back of one of the sleeping cars. As I walk to my seat, the train lurches forward and I realize that I almost got left behind. “What just happened?” I say to the train attendant. “I thought you were going to blow the whistle before you left.” She shrugs. “You can’t hear it from inside the building,” she says.
So there’s that. I almost got left behind to start a new life in Denver. As it is, I’m all out of snacks. It’s time to break down and finally go to the dining car.
Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Living
On a hazy morning last September, 144 American and Chinese government officials and high-ranking oil executives filed into a vaulted meeting room in a cloistered campus in south Xi’an, a city famous for its terra-cotta warriors and lethal smog. The Communist Party built this compound, called the Shaanxi Guesthouse, in 1958. It was part of the lead-up to Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, in which, to surpass the industrial achievements of the West, the government built steelworks, coal mines, power stations, and cement factories — displacing hundreds of thousands and clearcutting a 10th of China’s forests in the process. Despite its quaint name, the guesthouse is a cluster of immense concrete structures jutting out of expansive, manicured lawns and man-made lakes dotted with stone bridges and pagodas. It also features a karaoke lounge, spa, tennis stadium, shopping center, and beauty salon.
The guests at the compound that week were gearing up for another great leap: a push to export the United States’ fracking boom to China’s vast shale fields — and beyond. Attendees slid into black leather chairs behind glossy rosewood tables, facing a stage flanked by large projector screens. Chinese businessmen wore high-waist slacks with belts clasped over their bellies. I watched as one thumbed through business cards bearing the logos of Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Halliburton. Behind closed doors, a select group of Chinese and American officials and executives held a “senior VIP meeting.” Outside, a troop of People’s Liberation Army guards marched in tight formation.
The U.S.-China Oil and Gas Industry Forum, sponsored by the U.S. departments of Commerce and Energy, as well as China’s National Energy Administration, has convened for the last 13 years. But the focus turned to shale gas in 2009, when President Obama and then-President Hu Jintao announced an agreement to develop China’s immense resources. The partnership set the stage for companies in both countries to forge deals worth tens of billions of dollars.
Here at the 2013 conference, the first American to take the podium was Gary Locke, the U.S. ambassador to China at the time. He wore a dark suit and a striped red-and-purple tie; his slick black hair glistened in the fluorescent light. “From Sichuan to Eagle Ford, Texas, from Bohai Bay to the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Ohio, U.S. and Chinese companies are investing and working together to increase energy production in both countries,” he proclaimed. U.S. and Chinese companies were so tightly knit, Air China had recently started offering nonstop flights between Beijing and Houston, “making business trips much quicker for many of you gathered here.”
The soft, static voice of a Chinese interpreter seeped from the headphones as young women in red vests quietly passed through each row, pausing to pour hot tea, their strides almost synchronized. Tiny plumes of steam arose from the teacups lining each table, like miniature smokestacks. It seemed fitting, because underlying all the talk of new energy was an urgency to wean China from its decades-long addiction to coal. Locke promised that shale gas would do just that: “We can make further strides to improve energy efficiency, produce cleaner energy, increase renewables, and increase supply,” he asserted. “Unconventional gas, especially shale gas, is just the start.”
There are two main reasons behind China’s newfound zeal for gas. As Michael Liebreich, the founder of New Energy Finance, an energy market analytics firm now owned by Bloomberg LP, put it, “One is to feed the growth. There has to be energy and it has to be affordable in order to continue the growth machine. But the other one is that they’ve got to get off this coal.”
Constituting a whopping 70 percent of China’s energy supply, coal has allowed the country to become the world’s second-largest economy in just a few decades. But burning coal has also caused irreparable damage to the environment and the health of China’s citizens. City officials have been forced to shut down roads because drivers are blinded by soot and smog. China’s Civil Aviation Administration ordered pilots to learn to land planes in low-visibility conditions to avoid flight delays and cancellations. Scientists wrote in the medical journal The Lancet that ambient particulate matter, generated mostly by cars and the country’s 3,000 coal-fired power plants, killed 1.2 million Chinese people in 2010. In late 2013, an eight-year-old girl in Jiangsu Province was diagnosed with lung cancer; her doctor attributed it to air pollution. And earlier this year, scientists found that up to 24 percent of sulfate air pollutants — which contribute to smog and acid rain — in the western United States originated from Chinese factories manufacturing for export.
“The air quality in China has reached a kind of tipping point in the public consciousness,” says Evan Osnos, The New Yorker’s former China correspondent and author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. “The entire Chinese political enterprise is founded on a bargain: We will make your lives better, if you’ll allow us to stay in power.” As more Chinese citizens demand clean air and water, China’s leaders and foreign businessmen have taken drastic measures to get rid of pollution. Some local officials have tried to wash away soot by cloud seeding, a process in which chemicals are rocket-launched into clouds to make it rain. One company is developing a column of copper coils that will use electric charges to suck soot out of the air like a Hoover. Environmental officials in the northern city of Lanzhou attempted to level its surrounding mountains to let the wind blow the soot away — not to be confused with the city’s actual plan to demolish 700 mountains in order to expand its footprint by roughly the area of Los Angeles.
But China’s push to wean itself from coal has also triggered a rush to develop alternative power sources. The natural gas that lies deep within its shale formations is now a top contender. By current estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, China’s shale gas resources are the largest in the world, 1.7 times those in the United States. So far, fewer than 200 wells have been drilled, but another 800 are expected by next year. By then, China aims to pump 230 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually from underground shale — enough to power every home in Chicago for two years. By 2020, the country expects to produce as much as 4.6 times that amount. It’s moving at “Chinese speed,” as one energy investment adviser put it — the United States took roughly twice as long to reach that volume.
Yet just as fracking technology has crossed over from the fields of Pennsylvania and Texas to the mountains of Sichuan, so have the questions about its risks and consequences. If fracking regulations in the United States are too weak, then in China the rules are practically nonexistent. Tian Qinghua, an environmental researcher at the Sichuan Academy of Environmental Sciences, fears that fracking operations in China will repeat a pattern he’s seen before. “There’s a phenomenon of ‘pollute first, clean up later,'” he says. “History is repeating itself.”
When my colleague James West and I traveled to China last September, it didn’t take long to see the toll of the country’s coal addiction: James had a burning cough by our second day. On a bullet train from Beijing to Xi’an (roughly the distance between San Francisco and Phoenix), we whizzed along at 150 miles per hour through some of China’s most polluted pockets, including the northeastern city of Shijiazhuang, where the smog registers at emergency levels for a third of the year — twice as often as in Beijing. A thick miasma hung heavy, clinging so low to fields of corn that it was hard to see where the earth met the dark, gray sky. Every few minutes we passed another giant coal-fired power plant, its chimneys spewing a continual billow of thick, white smoke.
By the time of our trip, villagers living near fracking wells had already complained about the deafening noise of drilling machinery, the smell of gas fumes, and strange substances in their water. One night last April, in a small southwestern town called Jiaoshi, an explosion at a shale gas drilling rig rattled residents awake, triggering a huge fire and reportedly killing eight workers. In the wake of the accident, an official from the Ministry of Environmental Protection said, “The areas where shale gas is abundant in China are already ecologically fragile, crowded, and have sensitive groundwater. The impact cannot yet be estimated.”
“We call this Shale County,” the driver shouted to us in the backseat as he steered the four-wheel-drive SUV up a steep mountain in Sichuan Province. The clouds faded as we climbed, revealing a quilt of farmland dotted with pingfang, or flattop houses. We drove down a road lined with new hotels, small restaurants, and hardware stores — the markings of a boomtown. Roughly the size of Minnesota, the Sichuan Basin — where many of China’s experimental fracking wells are located — is home to some 100 million people, many of them farmers. It’s not the only part of China with shale gas, but fracking requires a lot of water, and with a subtropical climate and proximity to the mighty Yangtze River, Sichuan has that, too, making it the nation’s first fracking frontier.
With each turn, the road became narrower and muddier, until we stopped at a gate behind which a tall red-and-white drilling rig shot up as high as the lush mountains surrounding it. We were at a shale gas well owned by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of the nation’s largest energy companies and its leading oil producer. Most of China was on holiday that week to commemorate 64 years since Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic, but out here there was no sign of rest. Workers in red jumpsuits drove by in bulky trucks. A drill spiraled 3,280 feet underground in search of shale gas, screeching as it churned around the clock.
An engineer whom we’ll call Li Wei greeted us, peering out from under a hard hat. In his mid-20s, with a brand new degree, Li worked for a Chinese energy firm partly owned by Schlumberger, the Houston-based oil service company. Last July, Schlumberger opened a 32,000-square-foot laboratory in the region devoted to extracting hydrocarbons from shale gas resources. Like many other engineers at China’s new wells, Li had never worked on a fracking operation before. We watched as he shooed away neighborhood kids playing by a brick structure straddling a pool marked “hazard” as though it were their tree house.
At first, Li said, drilling here didn’t go so smoothly: “We had leaks, things falling into the well.” They had to slow down operations as a result. Still, the team planned to drill and frack about eight other new wells in the area in the coming months.
China’s early fracking operations face many risks, but the incentives to keep drilling are too good to pass up. Based on early sampling, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Liebreich estimates that China is currently extracting shale gas at roughly twice the cost of the United States. Analysts expect those costs to fall as China gains experience, but even at current levels, shale gas production has been up to 40 percent cheaper — and geopolitically more desirable — than importing gas. As China’s demand for natural gas continues to grow — between 2012 and 2013 it grew at 15 times the rate of the rest of the world’s — domestic reserves will become increasingly important, says Liebreich: If China can continue to extract shale gas at the current cost, that “would be a game-changer.” The “golden age” of natural gas that took root in North America, the International Energy Agency declared in June, is now spreading to China.
All that growth comes with a steep learning curve. Fracking requires highly trained engineers who use specialized equipment to mix vast quantities of water with chemicals and sand and shoot it into the ground at high pressures, cracking the dense shale bed and releasing a mix of gas, water, and other sediments to the surface. That’s why service companies like Schlumberger and Halliburton have much to gain: China needs technology and know-how — and is willing to pay handsomely. “Selling the picks and shovels for the gold rush would be the analogy,” Liebreich says.
No wonder, then, that multinational oil and gas giants have pounced. In 2012, Royal Dutch Shell inked a contract with CNPC. A company executive pledged to invest around $1 billion a year for the next several years in shale gas. BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Hess also have signed joint ventures to explore shale prospects with Chinese energy companies. In return, Chinese companies have invested in U.S. fracking operations. Since 2010 the Chinese energy company Sinopec, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), and the state-owned Sinochem spent at least $8.7 billion to buy stakes in shale gas operations in Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming. Chesapeake Energy alone got $4.52 billion out of its deals with CNOOC.
“The reason Chinese oil companies have gone after Chesapeake in the past year was because they wanted to apply the technology to tap the world’s No. 1 shale gas reserves in China,” Laban Yu, a Hong Kong investment analyst, told Bloomberg News. Whether or not China will be able to replicate the American shale gas revolution, it is clearly determined to try.
One humid and drizzly night, James and I found ourselves in Chongqing, a hilly metropolis on the Yangtze whose population is more than triple that of New York City. Chongqing’s GDP grew an astonishing 12.3 percent in 2013, 4.6 points higher than the runaway Chinese economy as a whole. Its skyline looks like every major world city smashed into one — including near full-size replicas of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building. The area is also home to castles modeled after those in France’s Loire Valley, as well as “Foreigner Street,” a 24/7 theme park where visitors can wander through an Egyptian pyramid haunted house, play mahjong by a Venetian canal, or sing karaoke under Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer. Foreigner Street also boasts a 1,000-toilet public bathroom, the world’s largest.
Chongqing is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, in both height and sprawl, with a half-million new residents arriving each year. It is something of a gateway to China’s vast and relatively undeveloped west, booming like Chicago in the late 19th century. Its per capita natural gas consumption rate is one of the highest in the country and is currently rising by 8.5 percent a year, according to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Much of the natural gas produced in Sichuan’s fields ends up here. The city’s officials expect that the municipality will need 530 billion cubic feet of natural gas by 2015 — 2.5 times the figure in 2011.
Chongqing’s urban center is only 200 miles from the mountainside fracking fields we visited, but it might as well have been a different planet. From our hostel, we followed the neon lights until we reached Jiefangbei, a glitzy shopping district named after the tower it encircles, built in the 1940s to commemorate victory over the Japanese during World War II. Now banks, hotels, and skyscrapers dwarf the monument, their electric facades flashing the night sky, their tops fading into the clouds. People clutching umbrellas hurried past the Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Gucci stores that were studded with giant lightbulbs.
Chongqing’s unbridled growth is paralleled by a widening wealth gap and rampant corruption. It’s a place where laobans — bosses — reserve $100 tables and drink $200 bottles of Moët & Chandon at nightclubs mere blocks from where porters haul shipments of clothes or steel goods from the riverbanks to shops atop the city’s steep hills for a few pennies. It’s also so overrun by triads — Chinese mafias sometimes deployed by the government as backup muscle — that when the city cracked down on crime in 2009, one criminologist estimated that at least 77 officials were arrested for colluding with gang members and protecting them from the law.
“Let some get rich first, and others will follow” is the philosophy that has driven China’s economic reforms since 1979. But the disparity between rich and poor has grown so much that, during a meeting of China’s top political advisers earlier this year, one attendee opined that the quality of life for 90 percent of peasants was no better than it was 40 years ago, in part due to burdensome medical expenses and limited access to education. In April, researchers at the University of Michigan calculated that in 2010, China’s Gini coefficient — a measure of income inequality — was 0.55, compared to 0.45 in the United States. The United Nations considers anything above 0.4 a threat to a country’s stability.
“You’ve got this ‘damn the torpedoes’ development strategy that sets out all sorts of quotas, expectations, and productivity targets that are not constrained or balanced in any way by environmental protection or public participation to hold people to account,” says Sophie Richardson, director of Human Rights Watch’s China program. Throw in corruption, she adds, and you see a toxic mix, one that has contributed to an unprecedented level of social unrest. By the latest official estimate, China has an average of 270 “mass incidents” — unofficial gatherings of 100 or more protesters — every day. In a 2014 study of mass incidents, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that they were usually sparked by pollution, land acquisitions, labor disputes, and forced demolitions.
Fracking may soon join that list. Protests have already stymied drilling operations in Sichuan. From 2010 to March 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported, Shell had lost 535 days of work at 19 of its shale gas wells due to villager blockades or government requests to halt operations. “There are a lot of people in China who don’t want to take political risks — they have too much at stake,” Osnos says. “But when it comes to something as elemental as their health, and that’s what pollution really is about, then they’re willing to take a risk.”
Despite being touted as a cleaner alternative to dirty coal, fracking in China comes with plenty of environmental problems. The country’s shale gas lies deeper underground and in more complex geologic formations than those deposits in the flatlands of Pennsylvania, North Dakota, or Texas. As a result, researchers estimated that the Chinese wells will require up to twice the amount of water used at American sites to crack open the reserves. Indeed, researcher Tian Qinghua points out that it’s hard to imagine how there will be enough water to support an American-style fracking boom in a country with less water per capita than Namibia or Swaziland, where land twice the size of New York City turns to desert every year. Today more than a quarter of the country has already dried up, the equivalent of about a third of the continental United States.
An engineer who formerly designed cigarette and paper factories in the 1990s, Tian — who is in his 50s with spiked hair, rectangular glasses, and a professorial air — traces his environmental conversion back to the time he trained a group of technicians from Burma at a sugar factory in Yunnan Province. If they built a factory like this one back home, they asked him, would their river become black like the Kaiyuan River? “I began to doubt my career,” he told us, sipping hot green tea out of a glass beer stein. “All the factories I designed were heavy polluters.” He quit his job and began pursuing environmental research. “I wanted to pick a career I could be proud of by the time I retire,” he said.Anatomy of a Fracking Site Illustration: Leanne Kroll. Animation: Brett BrownellDrillers inject high-pressure fluids into a hydraulic fracturing well, making slight fissures in the shale that release natural gas. The wastewater that flows back up with the gas is then transported to disposal wells, where it is injected deep into porous rock. Scientists now believe that the pressure and lubrication of that wastewater can cause faults to slip and unleash an earthquake.
In addition to his concerns about fracking’s enormous appetite for water, Tian also worries about its waste: the chemical-laden water that comes back out of the rock with the natural gas. In the United States, it is typically stored in steel containers or open pits and later injected underground in oil and gas waste wells. In China’s early wells, wastewater is often dumped directly into streams and rivers. If fracking — most of which takes place in China’s breadbasket — contaminates water or soil, Tian argues, it could jeopardize the nation’s food supply. In a seismically active area like Sichuan, leaks are a major concern: Even a small earthquake — which, emerging evidence suggests, wastewater injection could trigger — might compromise a well’s anti-leak system, causing more pollution. In the past year alone, more than 30 earthquakes were recorded in the Sichuan area.
In 2012, Tian and his team from the Sichuan Academy of Environmental Sciences proposed environmental standards for fracking in the province. Lacking financial and political support from the government, the proposal languished in the bureaucratic process and never became law. In June, Beijing officials announced that China will adopt new standards for shale gas development before the end of this year. But without proper enforcement, Tian says the standards will not necessarily prevent China’s growing fracking industry from discharging waste and pollution — a cost he fears the environment can’t afford.
Back at the guesthouse compound in Xi’an one evening, after the conference had adjourned for the day, we sat for a lavish banquet of salty braised greens, fried eggplant, steamed fish, and roasted pork. A thin film of soot clung to the marble floors, tablecloths, and curtains.
I shared a table with Ming Sung, a lean, wispy-haired man in his late 60s who serves as the Asia-Pacific chief representative for Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based partnership between environmental advocates and the private sector that’s focused on reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Sung, who spent 25 years as an engineer and manager for Shell, now splits his time between Texas and China, helping U.S. and Chinese oil and gas companies lower their emissions.
Sung told us that shale gas, despite its reputation as a cleaner fuel, could be a huge pollution problem, if the technology wasn’t handled correctly. For example, he says, if “you don’t seal the wells properly, methane will leak.” Although natural gas can generate electricity at half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal, methane is as much as 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas over a 20-year-period. (Some scientists argue that carbon dioxide is still more potent because it lasts longer in the atmosphere than does methane, which has an atmospheric lifetime of 12 years.) The EPA estimates that drilling for natural gas emits 0.04 to 0.30 grams of methane per well per second in the United States, the annual greenhouse gas equivalent of as many as 24 million cars.
But beyond the mechanical risks of fracking, there’s a more fundamental problem: Shale gas might not even significantly reduce China’s coal dependence. In the United States, fracking proponents have argued that natural gas is crucial to help with the shift from the dirtiest fossil fuels to renewable resources. But that argument falls apart in China. Unlike what happened in the United States, the Energy Information Administration’s future projections of China’s energy demand suggest that in 2040, coal will continue to dominate while natural gas, even with a golden era, will fuel only 8 percent of demand. “The whole pie is growing so rapidly that you still see a very carbon-intensive mix,” says Rachel Cleetus, a senior economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. As China continues to grow its economy and expand its cities, it will need every resource it can get — coal, gas, solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. James Fallows, a senior correspondent at The Atlantic who spent many years covering China, notes that the Chinese government “is pushing harder on more fronts than any other government on Earth” to develop energy sources other than coal. “The question is, will they catch up? Who will win that race between how bad things are and how they’re trying to deal with them?”
Despite all these unknowns, the Obama administration is now encouraging other countries to tap their shale reserves. A year after Obama and Hu announced their shale gas agreement, in 2010, the State Department launched the Global Shale Gas Initiative, an “effort to promote global energy security and climate security around the world,” as one researcher put it. As a JPMorgan research memo stated, “Unless the popular environmental concerns are so extreme, most countries with the resources will not ignore the [shale gas] opportunity.”
Toward the end of our trip, we visited a village near Luzhou, a port city on the Yangtze with a population bigger than Los Angeles. We met a middle-aged woman named Dai Zhongfu, who told us that in 2011, Shell and PetroChina set up a shale gas well right next to her house. Standing under the shade of her plum tree and sporting a cropped haircut and a navy blue windbreaker, Dai said that occasionally someone would show up here and take a water sample from her well. They never identified themselves or returned with the results. By the time we arrived, Dai and her neighbors had grown wary of outside visitors; when we first met, her neighbors mistook us for water testers and advised her not to bother talking to us.
As the drilling continued, Dai said, her groundwater started to run dry, and now only rain replenished it. She doubted the water was fit for drinking. “After you use it, there’s a layer of white scum clinging to the pot,” she said. They couldn’t even use it to cook rice anymore. “You tell me if there’s been an impact!”
When I asked Dai why she and her neighbors hadn’t protested, she said, “You know that we rural folk really have no recourse,” she said. The drilling was over, and now that the well was producing, all that was left were a few surveillance cameras and a concrete wall. “Now there’s no chance they’ll pay attention to us — where we get our drinking water, how we use it,” Dai said. “People here have been abused so much that they’re afraid.”
This story was supported by a Middlebury College Fellowship in Environmental Journalism and a grant from the Fund for Environmental Journalism.
Additional research by Lei Wang. Translations by Evan Villarrubia, Y.Z., and friend. Video camera icon designed by Thomas Le Bas from the Noun Project. Video production by James West. Web production by Jaeah Lee.
Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Living, Politics
On Sept. 22 and 23, the United Nations will host separate daylong conferences on two issues of incalculable importance to the future of humanity: population and climate change. Though the two meetings will take place just one day apart, neither is likely to refer to the other. And that will be a missed opportunity, because scientific research increasingly affirms that the two issues are linked in many ways.
The population gathering in the General Assembly on Sept. 22 will mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994. The next day’s summit has been convened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for government and business leaders to brainstorm ideas for addressing climate change.
The coincidence of these meetings occurring a day apart offers a teachable moment for the global decision-makers gathering in New York. Actions to promote the well-being of women might produce mutually reinforcing benefits in both areas.
Population, the lives and status of women, and climate change are rarely linked at the United Nations—or in any other intergovernmental conversations, for that matter. Intuitively, it’s easy to understand that the growth of world population from 1 billion people at the start of the Industrial Revolution to 7.3 billion today has something to do with the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
But most of the climate change the world is currently experiencing stems from decades of carbon-intense development by the world’s wealthier countries. These countries’ populations are growing much more slowly (and in a few cases not at all), compared to those of poorer countries with low greenhouse-gas emissions. So what’s population got to do with climate change today?
That’s a question researchers are beginning to answer. Published science presents growing evidence for climate-population linkage that is complex, far more nuanced than the conventional “rich-versus-poor” debate, and worth working to understand.
The Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment, a project of the Worldwatch Institute, is assembling an international group of researchers to help evaluate recent scientific evidence on how family planning might contribute to environmental sustainability—and long-term human well-being. Our objective is to widen and diversify the scientific discussion, while helping to clarify population-environment linkages for better public and policy-maker understanding.
We are in the early days of this work, but already some conclusions are emerging that are germane to this week’s two U.N. meetings. One is that the body of international research on climate and population is reasonably extensive, and it is growing. Much of this literature is published in peer-reviewed journals, not only in the United States and Europe but in developing countries. Researchers take the linkage seriously and explore multiple aspects of it. The output goes well beyond how population growth might affect emissions. Some papers explore how human density, distribution, and numbers influence adaptation to climate change and contribute to interactions between climate and such critical issues as future food security and freshwater availability.
In just the last five years, scientific reports (such as this peer-reviewed paper and this think-tank report) have suggested that feasible differences in future population growth could make for significant differences in future emission rates. Economic development is anticipated to increase per-capita emissions even in currently low-emitting countries—as demonstrated by the experience of India and China. That makes near-term population growth rates significant for long-term emission trends.
On a more positive note, one recent think-tank study suggests that recent reductions in fertility in Brazil, China, and some other countries help explain why global deforestation has slowed—and thus contributes a lower share of global greenhouse gas emissions today than in the past.
And recognition of such links is not restricted to researchers. Many governments of least-developed countries themselves recognize population size or density as impediments to climate-change adaptation, as noted by these two peer-reviewed studies.
A case study in Ghana concluded that gender also matters to adaptation. (Samuel Codjoe, coauthor of this post, is also a coauthor of the Ghana study.) As women gain power in their societies—for example, through education and the capacity to decide for themselves whether and when to have children—they may be able to enhance the resilience of those societies in the face of a rapidly changing climate.
Though our project has much work ahead to assess the scientific evidence on this linkage, what we have seen so far at least suggests that the United Nations and other world bodies would do well to open both minds and conference venues to the question of how population and climate might influence each other.
Population growth and global warming are both likely to continue for many decades. Yet both trends can be slowed through programs that improve reproductive and sexual health while helping women make their own choices about childbearing. It makes sense to see how the trends relate, and to what extent improved reproductive health and family planning access might carry mutual and synergistic benefits in both the population and climate arenas.
Robert Engelman, former president of the Worldwatch Institute, now directs the Institute’s Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment. Samuel Codjoe is director of the Regional Institute for Population Studies at the University of Ghana, and a collaborating researcher in the assessment.
Filed under: Climate & Energy
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