Dear EarthTalk: There’s a lot of talk about the potential for renewable energy sources like solar and wind. But cheap, abundant coal is still going to power the world for a long time. How can we harness the energy from coal without emitting our way into a much warmer future? — Sally Ristau, Erie, PA
Today, coal still accounts for some 40 percent of worldwide electricity generation. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that global demand will continue rising to record levels, topping nine billion metric tons annually by 2019. And, despite efforts by China to moderate coal consumption, China still accounts for three-fifths of this short-term “demand growth.” Meanwhile, India and other countries in Asia are also ramping up their coal use, offsetting declines in Europe and the U.S.
“The world is not going to stop using coal…so we have to change how the world does use it,” says Eric Redman, an outspoken advocate for realistic clean energy solutions and co-chair of the Seattle-based Summit Power Group. He says that the key is in teaching the world how to utilize carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies, which take carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions out of smokestacks and reuses them or stores them in forms so they won’t enter the atmosphere and exacerbate climate change.
In October 2014, Canadian utility SaskPower launched the world’s first full-scale “clean coal” plant in Saskatchewan. Named one of National Geographic’s “10 Energy Breakthroughs of 2014 that Could Change Your Life” and winner of the 2015 “POWER Plant of the Year” award, the Boundary Dam Power Station Unit 3 CCS project has now exceeded expectations, capturing 135,000 metric tons of CO2 in less than a year. The plant is on target to absorb as much as a million metric tons of CO2 annually.
And in June 2015, SaskPower opened its Capture Test Facility, a lab that lets researchers test equipment, chemical innovation and engineering designs in a highly controlled environment. Other companies are also using the facility to develop and test CCS technologies for potential use in their own power plants.
Other promising CCS technologies in the works include coal gasification, whereby energy from coal is converted into a gas that can be burned as CO2 is removed, and the Polaris Membrane System, which uses a specially-designed membrane to capture 90 percent of the CO2 emitted from a coal-burning power plant.
These technologies are indeed promising, but cost still remains the main obstacle to making CCS mainstream. “It is obviously cheaper to dump something in the atmosphere (for free) than to pay the capital and operating costs of capturing and sequestering it,” says Summit Power’s Redman. “There are very few mechanisms currently available to help pay those costs,” he says, adding: “Globally we’ve so far spent on carbon capture and sequestration less than one percent of what we’ve already spent on renewable energy, so naturally we are not yet very far down the CCS cost curve.”
And while many environmentalists shudder to think that we will continue to burn coal at all, we may not have a choice. “I think most climate experts would agree that the maximum realistic deployment of renewables, efficiency and nuclear power will not, by themselves, allow us to limit atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 450 parts per million by mid-century,” says Redman, adding that CCS is both necessary and ultimately inevitable. “But we need to move more rapidly.”
CONTACTS: IEA, www.iea.org; Summit Power, www.summitpower.com; SaskPower, www.saskpower.com. Photo above: The forward-thinking Canadian utility SaskPower is pioneering carbon capture and storage (CCS) from its coal-fired Boundary Dam power plant in Saskatchewan.
Dear EarthTalk: How is that being around trees and other plants can help us feel good? — Amy Mola, Greenville, SC
Trees are known to improve air quality by capturing six common air pollutants and toxic gases: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and lead. In fact, a single tree can absorb 10 pounds of air pollutants per year. In a study published in 2014, U.S. Forest Service scientists and collaborators calculated that trees are saving more than 850 human lives a year and preventing 670,000 incidents of acute respiratory symptoms. The researchers valued the human health effects of the reduced air pollution at nearly $7 billion every year.
“We found that, in general, the greater the tree cover, the greater the pollution removal, and the greater the removal and population density, the greater the value of human health benefits,” says Dave Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service.
More recently a 2015 study from the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) in Barcelona, Spain, found that children exposed to more greenery — as measured by satellite imagery of their schools and neighborhoods — demonstrated better attention skills and memory development. While the association was partly mediated by reductions in air pollution, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, one of the study’s authors, noted that he and the study’s other researchers don’t think it’s all air pollution: “I think it’s also some kind of direct effect…you see quite a beneficial effect of green space on mental health.”
Numerous recent studies have focused on the positive effects that exposure to trees and nature has on our mental health. A recent study published in the journal Nature combined satellite imagery, individual tree data, and health surveys from 31,109 residents of the greater Toronto, Canada area, and found that people who live in areas with higher street tree density report better health perception compared with their peers living in areas with lower street tree density.
“People have sort of neglected the psychological benefits of the environment,” says Marc G. Berman, an author of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. “I’m very interested in how the physical environment affects the brain and behavior.”
Such studies correlate to the “biophilia hypothesis” associated with German-born American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson. The hypothesis proposes that humans have evolutionary biological and psychological needs attached with the natural world. According to the book, The Biophilia Hypothesis, co-edited by Wilson and Yale social ecology professor Stephen R. Kellert, relentless environmental destruction could have a significant impact on our psychological and spiritual quality of life.
“Why do people bring flowers to the hospital all the time? Is it just superficial? Is it just a nice gesture, nice but not important? I would suggest that it is a much deeper recognition of the healing effects associated with affirming life,” Kellert told Yale 360. With over 80 percent of Americans living in urban areas, this newer research implies an indispensable need for growth and implementation in urban tree planting, urban greening and biophilic design in educational institutions and places of business for enriched physical and mental health.
Dear EarthTalk: Is off-shore drilling any safer for the environment today given lessons learned from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico? — Leslie Jackson, Bern, NC
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010 resulted in 11 lost lives and hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Various failures resulted in the loss of well control: an explosion, fire and an ongoing spill. Five years later, the U.S. Department of the Interior reports that there are more floating deepwater drilling rigs working in the Gulf of Mexico today than prior to that devastating spill, and drilling activity is only expected to steadily grow.
In light of this, and in response to the findings of investigations into the tragedy, the Interior Department announced a proposal earlier this year that will encompass “the most ambitious reform agenda in the Department’s history to strengthen, update and modernize offshore energy regulations.”
Proposed regulations include enhanced industry standards for blowout prevention technologies and reforms in well design, well control, casing, cementing and subsea containment. U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) Director Brian Salerno noted that new regulations would also provide oversight of equipment performance and operations through third party verification and real-time monitoring viewed onshore. “Both industry and government have taken important strides to better protect human lives and the environment from oil spills, and these proposed measures are designed to further build on critical lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and to ensure that offshore operations are safe,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
While the Interior Department has yet to finalize its proposed regulations, this month the BSEE gave Shell Oil approval for two Applications for Permits to Drill (APD) to conduct limited exploratory drilling in the untouched waters of the Chukchi Sea off of Alaska’s northwest coast. The Chukchi provides nutrients and pristine habitat for a multitude of organisms, says the U.S. Audubon Society, ranging from walruses, ice seals and whales to millions of seabirds and the top predator mammal, the polar bear.
“Without question, activities conducted offshore Alaska must be held to the highest safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards,” Salerno said. “Without the required well-control system in place, Shell will not be allowed to drill into oil-bearing zones.”
Shell will be limited to drilling only the top sections of wells and barred from drilling into oil-bearing zones until they have their capping stack, equipment placed over a well in the event of a blowout, on site. Shell’s capping stack is currently on the M/V Fennica icebreaker ship in Portland, Oregon, where it had to stopover for repairs to its hull after an underwater collision. If and when the vessel is capable of being deployed in the Chukchi Sea and Shell is able to satisfy the capping stack requirement, the company may submit an Application for Permit to Modify the APDs and request to drill into oil-bearing zones.
Just recently, Greenpeace activists suspended themselves from St. John’s Bridge in Portland to create a “human barricade” to prevent the M/V Fennica from departing to Alaskan waters. While Greenpeace’s executive director Annie Leonard said that the activists are prepared to stay suspended from St. John’s Bridge for as long as it takes to save the Arctic, most environmentalists aren’t holding their breath.
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been seeing this ad on TV a lot by SeaWorld claiming they don’t take orcas from the wild and that orcas live just as long in captivity as they do in the wild. Are these claims true? — Mary Cleveland, Coral Gables, FL
SeaWorld has faced criticism and plummeting profits after the release of the 2013 documentary, Blackfish, which tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Although wild capture was outlawed in the U.S. in 1972, killer whales continued to be seized in foreign waters: Tilikum was caught, at age 2, off Iceland in 1983. Today, SeaWorld asserts that its population of killer whales has been successfully producing healthy offspring since 1985, and the success of this program has made it possible for them to care for and display killer whales to the public without collecting a killer whale from the wild in 35 years.
For its part, SeaWorld disputes the negative accusations. Earlier this summer, SeaWorld San Diego released a study contrasting current published data for survival and reproductive activity of known-age Pacific Northwest killer whales since 1975 with the life history of killer whales in SeaWorld’s care. The study concluded the average life expectancy for SeaWorld’s killer whales is 41.6 years; average life expectancies for Southern and Northern Resident killer whales are 29.0 and 42.3 years, respectively.
“Our animals are living as long as wild populations,” says Dr. Todd Robeck, vice president of theriogeneology at SeaWorld and the primary author of the study. “The data shows without a doubt that our animals live as long as the ones in the wild.” Additionally, the study indicates that average calf survival rate to age 2 in the Southern Resident killer whale population is 79.9 percent, less than SeaWorld’s 96.6 percent average.
“Although emotion will always be a part of the debate as to whether killer whales, or any other species, should be maintained in human care, it is absolutely necessary to have validated facts when an argument for or against is being made on scientific grounds,” says study author Kevin Willis, vice president for biological programs for the Minnesota Zoo. “Based on the available data, it is now clear that it cannot be truthfully argued that killer whales should not be maintained in captivity because they have a shortened life expectancy relative to their wild counterparts,” Willis adds.
Animal rights groups have been quick to criticize SeaWorld’s study. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) points out that another study published in April 2015 in the journal Marine Mammal Science found that the median life expectancy of 83 killer whales kept in captivity from 1961-2014 in the U.S. was only 12 years. The study also determined that 118 killer whales kept in facilities outside the U.S. during those same years were found to have a median lifespan of just four years.
“Contrary to what the authors of this study — three of whom are SeaWorld employees, while the fourth works for a zoo — would have people believe, the average age of the orcas who have died at SeaWorld is 13 years, and only one orca at SeaWorld — Corky, who was captured in the wild –has actually reached SeaWorld’s claimed ‘average life expectancy’ of 41.6 years,” reports Jared Goodman, PETA’s director of animal law.
“Every single orca who has perished at SeaWorld died far short of how long they are expected to live, though it is in fact hard to call it ‘living’ when their ‘life’ consists of being forced to perform circus-style tricks in a tiny concrete tank. SeaWorld’s claims simply don’t hold water.”