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by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer

From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

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.

CONTACTS: U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, www.bsee.gov; Shell Oil, www.shell.us; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org.

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.

Dear EarthTalk: How are environmentalists putting drones to use to help further their causes? -- Joe Martin, Baltimore, MD

Conservationists are utilizing drone or “unmanned aerial systems” (UAS) technology to gather highly detailed imagery and other environmental data that is traditionally challenging to obtain. Wildlife biologist John Takekawa and his team at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center (WERC), for example, are using drones to obtain aerial images of San Francisco Bay marshlands.

“It’s very hard to get some of the data sets in some of these areas that are remote or hard to reach in the marshes,” Takekawa explains. “If you have something that can fly over and get sensors that can report back to your computer, that’s what we’re looking for in exploring these types of technologies.”

Dr. Amy Woodget, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Worcester in the UK, uses her small Draganflyer X6 UAS to collect high-resolution imagery of river channels. The images map the physical conditions within the rivers, including the channel topography, water depth and surface flow patterns, data all crucial for gauging river health and habitat conditions essential to the survival of local wildlife.

“The results obtained using UAS technologies provide unprecedented levels of detail concerning these physical river habitat parameters, with high levels of accuracy and precision,” Woodget says.

Drones are also helping preserve the Peruvian Amazon forest, where illegal gold mining and logging has cleared mahogany, Spanish cedar and other old-growth trees. Carlos Castaneda, coordinator of the Amazon Basin Conservation Association’s Los Amigos Conservation Concession, monitors the 550-square-mile Los Amigos reserve in southeastern Peru, home to a large diversity of plant and animal species, including palm swamps, bamboo thickets, giant otters, harpy eagles, spider monkeys and jaguars. Small drones weighing less than five pounds enable detection of any deforestation within the area.

Considering that more and more drones are being launched for conservation research, Linda Rothschild, an evolutionary biologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, was concerned when she found out that UAVs sometimes get lost in coral reefs or other sensitive habitats. “As I started to hear about this, I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be useful if the UAV was biodegradable, so if it crashed somewhere that was sensitive, it wouldn’t matter if it dissolved,’” Rothschild says.

So Rothschild created a biodegradable drone with a team of students in the 2014 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The team’s prototype took its first short flight in November 2014 at the iGEM competition in Boston. The drone, which resembles a cardboard cup holder, is made primarily of mycelium grown by New York-based Ecovative Design. The team grew cellulose leather-like sheets to coat the mycelium body and then covered the sheets with proteins sourced from the saliva of paper wasps—a water resistant material that the insects use to cover their nests. The biodegradable drone body is certainly a step forward, though the drone still uses a standard battery, motor and propellers.

Rothschild’s dream is to make a UAV where every part is made with something biodegradable, but for now, she says, “realistically, this is going to be much more of a hybrid vehicle.”

CONTACTS: WERC, www.werc.usgs.gov; Los Amigos Conservation Concession, www.amazonconservation.org/ourwork/conservation.html; iGEM, www.igem.org.

Dear Earthtalk: What advantages do so-called “vertical farms” have over traditional gardens and farms? -- Sylvia Pleasant, Washington, DC

When Dickson Despommier’s book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century was first published, there were no vertical farms. Now, it’s an exciting movement in U.S. food production, providing pesticide-free leafy greens and herbs to a fast-growing population.

Indoor vertical farms use LED (light emitting diode) lighting for efficient photosynthesis in place of sunlight, and can grow plants year round—in half the time and with far less water compared to outdoor, open-field farms. There’s also no risk of genetically modified (GMO) seed contamination or crop failure due to weather conditions like drought.

“On average, we’re growing in 16 days what otherwise takes 30 days in a field—using 95 percent less water, about 50 percent less fertilizers, zero pesticides, herbicides and fungicides,” says David Rosenberg, chief executive and co-founder of AeroFarms. “People don’t want chemicals on their food. And we’re able to offer them a residue-free product with no pesticides.”

Aerofarms is currently constructing what will be the world’s largest indoor vertical farm. The $30 million, 69,000 square-foot complex in a former steel mill in Newark, New Jersey’s Ironbound District will grow up to two million pounds of kale, arugula and other greens annually. At the groundbreaking ceremony in July 2015, New Jersey Acting Governor Kim Guadagno said: “By 2050, there will be nine billion people who need to eat every day. And the solution is right here on the property you’re standing on.”

Vertical Harvest’s three story, 13,500 square-foot vertical farm is also now under construction in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. With an average annual snowfall of 450 inches, one might not equate the mountainous region with year-round local food, but Vertical Harvest’s tiny 1/10 acre lot next to a parking garage aims to grow up to 100,000 pounds of tomatoes, herbs and greens annually. It would take a traditional outdoor farm five acres, or 50 times the land area, to grow that much food. “We’re replacing food that’s being grown in Mexico or California and shipped in,” explains Penny McBride, a Vertical Harvest co-founder. “We feel like the community’s really ready for a project like this. Everybody's so much more aware of the need to reduce transportation, and people like to know their farmer and where food’s coming from.”

In 2013, FarmedHere opened its vertical farm in an abandoned warehouse in the industrial Chicago suburb of Bedford Park. The farm, which was the first of its kind to receive USDA national organic certification, has been successfully distributing its produce to an extensive array of grocers within the Greater Chicago area, including Whole Foods, Mariano’s, Shop & Save and Pete’s Fresh Market. FarmedHere reuses 97 percent of its water, uses no herbicides or pesticides, and takes advantage of indoor growing technology to create optimal-tasting plants.

“The plants have better nutrients, better growing conditions, and actually we can tweak the taste with lighting and with nutrients, with temperatures, with turning lights on and off at certain times of the day and with humidity,” said Paul Hardej, who founded FarmedHere with his wife, Jolanta. “We have conducted a lot of blind tests with the best chefs in Chicago and we found our products to be a winner.”

CONTACTS: AeroFarms, www.aerofarms.com; Vertical Harvest, www.verticalharvestjackson.com; FarmedHere, www.farmedhere.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at:  www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail us your question: earthtalk@emagazine.com

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