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The environmental costs and benefits of fracking: The state of research

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The environmental costs and benefits of fracking: The state of research

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On July 30, 2014, the United States did something that had been legally prohibited for nearly 40 years: It exported domestically produced crude oil. While minor exports had occurred through the years and the July shipment involved some technical sleight-of-hand (the product was classified as lightly refined “condensates”), it was one of the first significant oil shipments since Congress banned exports in the wake of the 1974 oil embargo.

Respecting the law up to now has been easy, given America’s declining domestic oil production and thirst for imported oil — in 2006, the country imported 3.7 billion barrels. What changed between then and now all comes down to one word: fracking, the popular name for hydraulic fracturing. Combined with horizontal drilling, the technique has powered a boom in U.S. energy production, unlocking substantial petroleum and natural gas deposits trapped in shale formations. A lot of this is good news: U.S. consumers and industry rarely complain when energy prices fall, and reducing imports from unstable parts of the world has considerable appeal. Natural gas also releases half as much carbon dioxide as coal, allowing it to potentially serve as a “bridge fuel” to the cleaner energy supported by the majority of Americans.

U.S. oil production, 2000-2014 (U.S. EIA)

Despite these advantages, fracking remains highly controversial, in large part because of the potential damage it poses to human health and the environment. Reports of fracking operations contaminating aquifers are widespread, and research has found indications of higher rates of silicosis among well workers, an increase in congenital defects to children born nearby, and elevated cancer risk due to air pollution. Even earthquakes have been linked to fracking operations. Such concerns have led a number of towns to try to ban the practice, and fracking has become one of the central issues in the 2014 battle for Colorado’s governorship, a crucial swing state.

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Air Pollution in China

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Air Pollution in China

Coal is the leading culprit of air pollution in China. A recent University of Leeds study sponsored by Greenpeace East Asia traced PM2.5 (fine particles with a diameter under 2.5µm) in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and found the amount of PM2.5 released into the air in 2010 alone was more than ten million tons.

The study also confirmed that the majority of air pollution happens when certain gases are discharged into the air and turn into fine particles. And coal burning contributes most of these gases.

China's epic climb to the world's second-largest economy has had devastating health impacts. Another research project co-authored by Greenpeace on the health impacts of coal power plants shows that PM2.5 pollution from the 196 coal-fired power plants in the capital region of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei caused 9,900 premature deaths and nearly 70,000 outpatient visits or hospitalizations during 2011. 75% of the premature deaths are caused by the 152 coal-fired power plants in Hebei Province.

Air pollution will remain a serious problem in China as long as coal continues to be the country's major energy source.

PM2.5 concentration levels have particularly endangered public health in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an. The PM2.5 concentration levels in all four cities exceed World Heath Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines. This means higher health risks to the cardiovascular system, cerebrovascular system and an increase in the probability of cancer and premature death.

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