Original Post by Bridget Clayton:
It was intriguing to learn about both the pros and cons of hydropower, as well as how it functions. Hydropower provides approximately 16% of the world’s electricity and is used to partially power 48 states (Nunez 2019). Since the 19th century, hydropower has been used to source electricity, and the first hydropower plant was in Appleton, Wisconsin (Nunez 2019). Hydropower is integral to the United States, its communities, and its economies, and the U.S. is one of the top 5 largest hydropower producers in the world (Nunez 2019). Water is so important to our country’s well-being, especially because, “Once a dam has been built and the equipment installed, the energy source – flowing water – is free,” and it is also clean and renewable (Nunez 2019). However, there is a range of downsides to sourcing hydropower.
Dams are used in hydropower to control water flow, and this can take a toll on natural ecosystems. Often, these projects end up “harming wildlife and forcing out residents,” and this was seen when the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River in China forced ~1.2 million people from their homes and “flooded hundreds of villages” (Nunez 2019). On the Columbia River Basin in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, salmon and steelhead fishes’ historic habitats have been reduced by 40% due to dams as their natural runs have been blocked (Nunez 2019). Other problems of hydropower include the release of methane gas from organic materials decaying at the bottoms of reservoirs and low dissolved levels of oxygen (Nunez 2019).
Sourcing water to arid communities can also be particularly difficult, especially as climate change affects the natural water cycle. As we saw in the Watershed (2012) film, the Colorado River is the most dammed and diverted river system in the world (Decena 2012). This particular region has seen “earlier snowmelt and more precipitation falling instead of snow…which leaves less water in the river later in the summer” (Hasenbeck 2019). Due to the changing climate, extensive river diversions and dams, and excessive use for both commercial and residential developments, the river seldom reaches its delta in the gulf of California (Decena 2012). The river supplies water to Los Angeles, for example, which takes about 250-300 miles to reach L.A. residents from the water’s source (Decena 2012). In Colorado, local communities feel the effects of whether water should be allocated to the petroleum and natural gas industries, or if it should be given to the locals (Decena 2012).
Water conservation programs are in effect in the Colorado River system, including both the Yampa River Fund and the Colorado River System Conservation Program. Both of these efforts are significant in that they bring together a range of stakeholders to give their opinions, ideas, and contributions in order to solve community issues. The efforts are collaborative and designed to be implemented for the long-term. The Yampa River Fund focuses on three key actions: boosting river flow during dry years, river restoration, and infrastructure upgrades (Hasenbeck 2019). Areas intended to benefit from the fund are nature, recreation, agriculture, and industrial projects (Hasenbeck 2019). Similarly, the Colorado River System Conservation Program is an “innovative conservation scheme that pays farmers, industries, and municipalities to reduce their use of the river’s waters” (Postel 2014). This program gives stakeholders a say in how they choose to limit their water use and/or make innovative strides in order to meet the Program’s goals. While both of these programs are valiant efforts to curb the Colorado River system’s overuse and depletion, they do not necessarily address the key problem, climate change. These are mitigation efforts resulting from previous poor planning and infrastructure, as well as the continuation of excessive CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere.
Decena, Mark and Robert Redford (Directors). 2012. “Watershed: Exploring a New Water Ethic for the New West.” Kanopy. Retrieved March 3, 2021. Video, 57 min. https://du.kanopy.com/video/watershed
Hasenbeck, Eleanor. 2019. “Yampa River Fund launches this week, aims to keep the river flowing from the Flat Tops to Dinosaur.” Steamboat Pilot & Today, September 27, 2019. Accessed March 3, 2021. https://www.steamboatpilot.com/news/yampa-river-fund-launches-this-week-aims-to-keep-the-river-flowing-from-the-flat-tops-to-dinosaur/.
Nunez, Christina. 2019. “Hydropower, Explained” National Geographic, May 13, 2019. Accessed March 3, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/hydropower
Postel, Sara. 2014. “An Innovative Conservation Fund for the Colorado River.” National Geographic Society, May 6, 2014. Accessed March 3, 2021. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2014/05/06/an-innovative-conservation-fund-for-the-colorado-river/.
Great point in saying hydropower releases methane gas from organic materials decaying at the bottom of reservoirs.
Methane emissions account for roughly 25% of human-driven climate change (Marusic 2020). The gas has a wide variety of sources ranging from oil and gas wells to cattle farming. Roughly 40% of U.S. methane emissions come from the fossil fuels industry and around two thirds of that can be attributed to leaks during production and transportation of natural gas (Webb 2020). In 2016, the EPA adopted several measures under the Clean Air Act to improve regulation of methane emissions. First, the EPA instituted new source performance standards (NSPS) for both the oil and gas industry and landfills requiring the use of certain technologies to be used before new sites could be created or existing sites could be modified (Webb 2020). The EPA also issued a request for information to the oil and gas industry aimed at gathering data on methane emissions in order to develop emissions guidelines for existing facilities (Webb 2020). The Obama administration’s Bureau of Land Management also instituted rules targeting methane emissions. The BLM’s Methane Waste Prevention Rule established new targets requiring 95-98% of methane gasses produced from oil wells to be captured and imposed leak detection and repair requirements to apply to all new and existing facilities on public lands (Webb 2020).
When the Trump administration took office in early 2017, they immediately took initial steps to dismantle these methane rules. By 2018, the BLM had rescinded its Methane Waste Prevention rule, and as of the time of this post, the EPA is still reviewing its NSPS for methane, but most experts expect them to either rescind or weaken these rules substantially. The EPA administrator recalled its request for information from the fossil fuel industry, indicating the EPA will likely no longer look to regulate existing sources of methane emissions (Webb 2020).
Ironically, some of the nation’s largest oil and gas companies have spoken out against the proposed rule changes. Spokespeople for Exxon, BP, and Shell all expressed a desire to keep the Obama era rules in place. Some industry analysts expect the support for the stricter regulations is based on the idea that natural gas is a cleaner and less greenhouse gas intense option than most fossil fuels. Consequently, the industry is seen as relatively climate friendly and a key stepping stone on the way to a carbon neutral economy (Nuccitelli 2019). Increasing the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions by loosening standards could disrupt this notion amongst the public and place closer scrutiny on the industry’s comprehensive environmental record.
Legal challenges to the Trump administration’s about face on methane have already been initiated. Several U.S. states have challenged the recall of the BLM’s methane rule, and despite the EPA’s best efforts to stay its methane rules pending review, successful legal challenges have allowed those rules to remain in place until the EPA issues a final decision (Webb 2020). The litigation process is likely to drag on long enough that the ultimate fate of these methane rules may lay with the administration in office in 2021 (Nuccitelli 2019).
Environmental Protection Agency. 2019. “Oil and Gas Sector: Emission Standards for New, Reconstructed, and Modified Sources Review”. Accessed March 6 2021.
Friedman, Lisa and Coral Davenport. 2019. “Curbs on Methane, Potent Greenhouse Gas, to be Relaxed in U.S”. The New York Times. Accessed March 6 2021.
Marusic, Kristina. 2020. “Oil and gas methane emissions in US are at least 15% higher than we thought”. Environmental and Health News. Accessed March 6 2021.
Nuccitelli, Dana. 2019. “Key facts about the new EPA plan to reverse the Obama-era methane leaks rule”. Yale Climate Connections. Accessed March 6 2021.
Webb, Romany M. 2020. “The Status of Methane Regulation in the U.S.”. Columbia Law School. Accessed March 6 2021.
Reply by Bridget Clayton:
Your post brought to mind a post that I wrote for my Environmental Foundations and Principles class last quarter. I will post part of it here:
“The Trump administration is undoing a plethora of environmental stipulations as a means of protecting the fossil fuel industry. He has made it clear that human health is less valuable than monetary gains achieved by the industry. I found a statement released in August of this year by the EPA regarding rolling back environmental laws, some of which were put in place by the Obama administration, such as the limitations put in place for methane emissions. I was ultimately disappointed by the EPA’s stance in support of Trump’s efforts to undo the supposed “overregulation” of the fossil fuel industry (Wheeler 2020). I found the following statement to be completely disturbing:
“The first rule removes the transmission and storage segment of the industry from regulation and rescinds the Obama Administration’s inadequately justified regulation of methane. The rule’s amendments also reflect the legal requirement that EPA must find that a pollutant, like methane, contributes significantly to air pollution anticipated to endanger public health before regulating it.” (Wheeler 2020)
In other words, certain air pollutants are allowed to impact human health unless they do so in a “significant” (the meaning of which is left intentionally ambiguous) manner. The lax rules regarding methane are, ironically, worrisome to several big oil companies such as Shell, Exxon, and BP. Shell’s U.S. President, Gretchen Watkins, stated, “The negative impacts of leaks and fugitive emissions have been widely acknowledged for years” (Brady 2020). If neutral gas’ methane emissions are not regulated well enough, this could potentially allow for the argument that coal is an equal or better energy source (Brady 2020).”
Brady, Jeff. “Trump’s Methane Rollback That Big Oil Doesn’t Want.” NPR. NPR, August 13, 2020. Last modified August 13, 2020. Accessed October 6, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/13/901863874/trumps-methane-rollback-that-big-oil-doesn-t-want (Links to an external site.).
Wheeler, Andrew. “ICYMI: The Trump Administration Has Removed Environmental Regulations That Hamstring American Businesses.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed October 6, 2020. https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/icymi-trump-administration-has-removed-environmental-regulations-hamstring-american.