The Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry roughly 830,000 barrels of tar sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast in the US, has been one of the most polarizing issues in American politics over the past few years. Environmentalists recognize that the pipeline will do little more than encourage continued tar sands extraction, one of the most carbon-intensive oil production methods on the planet. Supporters of heavy industry see the pipeline as a crucial piece of infrastructure that will create a more robust economy including jobs and increased energy security (although the Keystone would produce very few permanent jobs). President Obama has stated that the future of the pipeline project depends on whether or not it will contribute further to climate change.
This week, the EPA weighed in on the State Department’s environmental impact statement, using authority granted by the Clean Air Act (CAA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The letter sent to the State Department from the EPA outlines their findings that the pipeline would indeed contribute to climate change. The production, transport, and refining processes, and the burning of the final product would result in an additional 1.3 -27.4 million metric tons of CO2 each year. On the high end, that’s equivalent to the GHG emissions from 5.7 million passenger vehicles or 7.8 coal-fired power plants. With oil prices currently lower than most economists expected, construction of the pipeline would make it cheaper to transport tar sands oil than the current method of shipping it by rail, and would most likely result in increased tar sands production.
Although Congress has voted many times in attempt to pass the pipeline without presidential authority, the project remains to be approved. The President has vowed to veto any attempt to force the pipeline into construction before environmental assessments were turned in and considered. The EPA’s comments all but confirm that the pipeline will contribute to climate change, in the face of massive skepticism and denial from supporters of the project. The letter may give the president the confidence he needs to stand up to fossil fuel interests and knock down further attempts at its passage. To learn more about the effort to block the construction of the pipeline, click here, here, and here. You can also take action with Green America, urging President Obama to veto the pipeline
The world’s most popular product relies on poverty wages, as low at $0.27 per iPhone.
Apple made headlines last week when it announced record-setting profits from its most recent business quarter (Oct-Dec 2014, Apple’s fiscal Q1).
$74.6 billion revenue
$18 billion in pure profit
$142 billion net cash reserves
74.5 million iPhones sold
Apple fiscal Q1 numbers, as reported by BBC
These figures blew past many analysts’ predictions and Apple’s previous records for the same quarter last year.
On the micro level, there are also some important numbers to pay attention to:
Number of workers in “final assembly” plants: 500,000
Hours worked per week: 72 – 105
Hours are higher during peak production seasons. The following calculations are based on 84 hour work weeks. (12 hour days, 7 days per week).
Monthly base wage: $244 (1530 yuan)
Overall monthly wage (including overtime): $582 (3650 yuan)
Hourly wage: $1.62 per hour (10.13 yuan/hour)
Labor cost per iPhone assembled: $0.27
Recommended living wage: $725 (4537 yuan)
Calculated by Asia Floor Wage for a 48 hour work week.
Recommended Hourly Wage: $3.77 (23.6 yuan)
Recommended labor cost per iPhone assembled: $0.63
Cost difference for assembly labor per iPhone: $0.36
Exchange rate used: $1 = 6.26 yuan
Explanation of Calculations:
According to Apple, 1.5 million people work in their supply chain, a third of which work in “final assembly” mega-factories. This means that during the same three months Apple set these financial records, 1 million Apple workers made the parts for these phones and 500,000 put them together.
Workers at one assembly factory make base wages of 1530 yuan ($244) per month (This is the minimum wage in Suzhou, China). With lots overtime, workers can increase these earnings to roughly 3650 yuan ($582) per month, according to a 2014 investigation by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM). This was at Pegatron, one of Apple’s main suppliers in China, which handles the final assembly of Apple’s iPhones. Other final assembly plants include Foxconn and Quanta.
The living wage in China, as calculated by the Asia Floor Wage in 2013, is approximately 4537 yuan ($725 USD, PPP). This is based on working 48 hours per week at a rate of about $3.77 per hour.
However, workers in Apple’s supplier factories, do not work 48 hours per week, especially during peak production times. SACOM’s investigation found that some workers at Pegatron worked for 10 weeks without a rest day and often for 12-15 hours a day, sometimes up to 17-18 hours a day. This means that during peak production time, workers at Pegatron were working between 84 and 105 hours per week. This is more than double a typical workweek around the world.
Taking a conservative estimate of (12 hours/day, 30 days per month) workers earn approximately 10.13 yuan/hour, or roughly $1.62 per hour. This is less than half the recommended living wage of about 3.77 per hour.
According to a 2008 study published by MIT’s Sloan school of Business, which looked at the value chain of iPods, the assembly time required for one device was 10 minutes, or six iPods per hour. Which means, if comparable, the cost of labor per iPhone assembled is roughly 27 cents.
Apple’s profit margin, or the money in pure profit it makes on every iPhone sold, is 39.9%, according to BBC. The industry average for consumer electronics is below 10%, according to Standard & Poor’s. The iPhone 6 costs between $199 and $749 at Apple’s online store, which means that depending on which phone you buy and the amount of storage you elect, Apple could be pocketing somewhere between $79 and $299 in profit. Apple’s margins are high for any sector, let alone a sector that requires the work of millions of human beings to make a product. The per piece labor of just $0.27 (for assembly) helps explain how Apple is able to achieve these remarkable margins.
Labor is one of the highest costs that any business will incur in any sector. One of the reasons, and usually the primary reason, a business may choose to manufacture in one particular country is the relative “cheapness” of labor costs there—meaning low wages. But at what point does the pursuit of lower wages move from a “savvy business scheme” to full-on exploitation?
In China, where Apple’s iPhones are made, wages are relatively low. So low in fact that workers must rely on overtime pay to get by. Electronics brands argue that workers like to work overtime so they can save for their future, but if workers base wages were raised to provide a living wage to begin with, would they elect to work such exhausting hours?
In these mega-electronics factories, there are typically 2 shifts, day and night. Workers either work 12 hours during the day, or 12 hours straight through the night. This often does not include time that workers may need to dress/undress, pass through security, or attend pre- or post-shift meetings. With either shift, little time is left over for recreation, personal development, or even rest.
In fact, in a recent BBC expose of Pegatron, one of the most apparent problems was the amount of workers falling asleep on the job, some while operating or working near dangerous equipment.
A recent letter written by nine non-profit and workers organizations called on brands to address the poverty wages in the manufacturing sector by paying “living wages, according to a credible benchmark, throughout their operations and supply chains… and structur[ing] their business relationships with suppliers, both in terms of price and volume, in such a way that living wages can feasibly be paid.” For electronics in China, this would mean paying the living wage for 48 hours of work–not poverty wages that rely on excessive overtime to get even close to this figure.
$1.62 per hour, or less, is just too little to compensate someone who works six+ days a week, for 12+ hours a day, in exhausting and often dangerous conditions. As documented by Green America and allies, toxins are prevalent in Apple supplier factories (many of which are suppliers for Apple’s competitors as well), and workers are developing cancer and other devastating diseases as a result. Apple announced in 2014 that it would ban two harmful chemicals in its final assembly plants to protect workers, however, there are hundreds of hazardous chemicals used in electronics manufacturing, particularly at parts and semiconductor manufacturers.
The trade-off workers in these factories must make for these meager wages is one that arguably no worker in the United States would willingly accept.
So when does the pursuit of lower wages move from a “savvy business scheme” to full-on exploitation? In the case of Apple, who made $18 billion in profit last quarter and who could spend just 36 cents more per iPhone to ensure living wages, it’s painfully clear it has crossed this line. And what better company to fix this error than the most profitable company in the history of the world?
 This estimation is imperfect. It does not include the cost of labor further down the supply chain, at parts manufacturing plants. (Though the MIT study estimates these workers earn even less than assembly workers, due to greater competition among parts manufacturers). It also bases the assembly time required on iPods, not iPhones. Finally, it relies on exchanging yuan to US dollars, a rate that is not constant. ($1=6.26 yuan was the exchange rate at the time of writing.)
Love is patient, love is kind, love is…EXPENSIVE. But it doesn’t have to be. We’ve been slightly brainwashed into a default belief that building a memorable life together means spending on entertainment—forgetting that memories are free. So here are a few date ideas that inspire closeness and allow you to create vivid memories, all while remaining financially and environmentally responsible.
Depending on the culinary skills of both you and your partner, you can try a tried and true simple recipe, or branch out and learn a new style of cuisine. Preface this with shopping together for organic, local ingredients to create a full experience. And the best thing about making food is that you get to eat it afterward.
We’ve managed to encase the majority of our existence between asphalt and concrete. Escaping the concrete jungle with a significant other will be immensely refreshing for you both. Pack a lunch and enjoy it while listening to living things rather than machinery. Nature was Earth’s first masterpiece, go see it.
Volunteering is so rewarding on a personal level that volunteering together can’t help but magnify the feeling. Find a cause you share a soft spot for and get involved! Animal shelters, soup kitchens, and nursing homes are always looking for volunteers. The experience will be incredible and who knows, you may come home with a puppy.
Have a digital camera that doesn’t get much use? Of course you do, even if it’s your smartphone. Uncover each other’s artistic eye by taking photos of one another in candid moments, or posed next to something you both find interesting. The two of you will build a network of meaningful places that, when passed, will bring a memory and a smile.
Experiencing art and/or learning together helps create a heightened connection. The humdrum of daily life can become boringly predictable. Seeing art through the eyes of another, experiencing history, or learning about nature together allows you to see a side of your partner you don’t often see. Art openings and museums are often free!
Whether you use your own bikes or rent, there’s no shame in getting tourist-y where you live. Chances are you zoom by interesting things daily. Whether it’s a waterfront, park, monument, or cafe—explore! A bike ride with a significant other will help you both stop and be mindful of the beauty around you, and each other. Added bonus: exercise.
“Let’s stay in, watch a movie, and I’ll give you a back massage.”—there is no evidence in recorded human history that this has ever ended badly.
In a world that has desperately tried to turn dating into an online survey, you can set your relationship apart by remembering to connect as humans. Money saved creating these more thoughtful moments can lead to better, more frequent vacations, a home remodel, or unique socially responsible investing opportunity.
Growth in the solar industry continues to surprise even the most optimistic supporters of the technology. In a world still dominated by fossil fuels, clean energy advocates have had a hard time describing the litany of benefits of a power source that doesn’t involve the combustion of hydrocarbons and the release of greenhouse gases. But now, according to a new report from Deutsche Bank, getting your electricity from the sun seems to be catching on across the world. The bank predicts that solar will reach grid parity with other sources of electricity in all 50 states by 2050.
What is grid parity, you might ask? It occurs when the price of an alternative source of power is equal to or less than the price of electricity from the traditional utility grid. In 10 states, the price of powering your home with rooftop solar panels is already lower than the price of grid electricity. With the 30% investment tax credit (see below) currently in place, it is estimated that 47 states will reach grid parity by 2016. Even if the tax credit were reduced to a level of 10%, Bloomberg predicts that by 2016, at least 36 states will have reached grid parity for solar.
The investment tax credit for solar (ITC) plays a large roll in the plummeting costs of acquiring customers, financing and installing residential and commercial solar systems. The government offers a 30% credit for residential and commercial solar systems. Since the credit began in 2006, annual solar installation has grown by over 1,600%. The ITC is slated to drop to 10% in 2016, and is an important driver of the growth and cost reductions solar has enjoyed over the past decade. Though the clock is ticking for the ITC, Deutsche posits that the cost of financing will fall from 7-9% to 5.4% in 2015. It is unclear whether or not an expiration of the ITC will lead to a reversal of the recent growth observed. A ten-year extension of the credit at 30% would all but guarantee that the solar industry will continue its upward trend.
As fossil energy becomes more expensive relative to alternative sources and more people turn to the possibility of producing energy from the sun, new sources of mainstream funding should begin to find the solar industry. The fragmented, latticed network of installers, financiers and producers will begin to consolidate and drive growth even further. According to the International Energy Agency, more than half of the electricity generated in 2050 will likely come from solar. China represents the largest market for the growing solar industry, with the US coming in second. Other emerging markets such as India are stepping up with plans to invest heavily in solar energy in the coming years as well.
Falling oil prices are stirring concern that clean energy advancement is at risk, but oil is not a major generator of electricity and does not directly compete with solar power. Recent growth in the solar industry is unprecedented and does not appear to be at risk of slowing down in the near-term.
The transition to a solar-dominant electricity landscape is good news for the climate-minded. There are obvious emissions involved with the production, transport, and installation of panels, but the fact remains that solar represents a technology and not a fuel. Once in operation, a rooftop equipped with solar panels will produce emission-free electricity for its entire lifetime. The climate benefits of solar energy can only go as far as the industry can, and now is the right time to show your support. The Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act, sponsored in part by Green America, seeks to extend the ITC, along with several other key tax credits for renewable energy sources and energy efficiency updates for a ten-year period so that clean technologies can continue to compete and grow in the global energy marketplace. To learn more, please visit. www.cleanenergyvictorybonds.org.
Bisphenol-A (BPA) gained notoriety in the 1990s as scientists studies began to draw lines between its use in many types of consumer plastics and hormone disruption, which can lead to problems with brain and nervous system development, obesity, and cancer. Today, manufacturers often turn to bisphenol-S (BPS) as a substitute that’s intended to be less toxic. However, researchers at the University of Calgary have found that BPS may also be toxic to the human brain.
In a study published in January in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Calgary research scientist Dr. Deborah Kurrasch and her team found evidence that BPS “caused alterations in brain development leading to hyperactivity in zebrafish.”
“I was actually very surprised at our results. This was a very, very, very low dose, so I didn’t think using a dose this low could have any effect,” said Kurrasch in a press statement.
Kurrasch and her team exposed zebrafish embryos to the low levels of BPS found in Alberta’s Bow and Oldman Rivers.
“In the second trimester, brain cells become the specialized neurons that make up our brain. What we show is that the zebrafish exposed to BPA or BPS were getting twice as many neurons born too soon and about half as many neurons born later, so that will lead to problems in how the neurons connect and form circuits,” said Kurrasch.
Although Kurrasch and her team say that more research is needed to prove the link between BPA and BPS exposure and brain damage in humans, they advise pregnant women to limit exposure to BPA and BPS. These bisphenols can be found in #7 plastics, coatings on receipt paper, and food-can and beverage bottle linings, among other places. If an item says “BPA-free,” the researchers recommend contacting the manufacturer to ask if the item contains BPS.
Meanwhile, Green America is monitoring legislative developments to see if a bill worth supporting—one that offers meaningful protections against BPS and other toxic chemicals in consumer products—is introduced in 2015.
The Chemical Safety Improvement Act, introduced in 2014 by Senator David Vitter (R-LA) and the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), failed to provide the measures needed to safeguard human and environmental. Fran Teplitz, Green America’s co-executive and policy director, says that while the weak and outdated 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) desperately needs to be replaced, its replacement must be effective.
“Our eyes are on the Senate to see what progress may be possible this year to protect people and the planet from toxic chemicals,” she says. “We hope this is the year we see strong legislation that will protect our most vulnerable communities, allow states to pass their own strong laws on toxic chemicals, empower the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate chemicals as needed, as well as promote the further development of green chemistry. With troubling new research findings, like those on BPS, it is clear that toxic chemical reform must be a national priority.”
Stay informed about Green America’s work on safer chemical policy by subscribing to our e-mail newsletter.
Today, Internet retail giant Amazon announced the first steps in moving to 100% wind power for the servers that power Amazon Web Services (AWS), its hosting subsidiary. In response to activists (including tens of thousands of Green America members) calling out the company’s failure to create sustainability goals or green their energy sources, Amazon Web Services, Inc. announced a power purchasing agreement from a wind farm in Indiana. The 150-megawatt Amazon Web Services Wind Farm (Fowler Ridge) project in Benton County, Indiana has agreed to supply AWS with up to 500,000 MWh (megawatt-hours) of wind-generated electricity each year for its data centers – or enough to power 46,000 homes each year. AWS hosts all of Amazon’s online operations, as well as many popular websites including Netflix, Pinterest, and Spotify.
For years, Amazon has been in the rear in the race amongst technology giants to minimize their environmental impacts, coming in well behind Google, Apple, and Facebook in terms of greening its energy usage. Nearly half of AWS’s servers are based in the Northern Virginia region. Dominion, the region’s utility, generates electricity from a mix of 37% coal, 41% nuclear, 20% natural gas, and only 2% renewables.
Greenpeace has led the efforts to push Amazon to use renewable energy for its servers by publishing several reports highlighting the company’s lack of environmental and sustainability efforts. Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner
David Pomerantz greeted today’s announcement by stating, “As it invests in renewable energy, Amazon can give its customers greater confidence in its new green ambition by publishing information about its energy footprint, as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook have done. Increased transparency will allow AWS customers to know where they and AWS stand on their journey to 100% renewable energy.”
Amazon’s announcement today is a step forward, but the company still has far to go. For one thing, it is not yet clear to what extent Amazon’s current and planned servers will be powered by wind. In the fall of 2014 Amazon Web Services committed to a billion dollar investment in a new data center somewhere in Central Ohio – in proximity to one of the largest coal-producing regions in the US, and where 70% of the electricity in the state is produced by coal. AWS has declined to comment on details of the proposed project, and while it is possible that this new data center will be powered by wind from Indiana, there has been no indication that the site to the company’s renewable energy initiatives.
Creating a greener energy footprint involves far more than simply purchasing power from one windfarm. A successful path towards greening operations includes measures to maximize energy efficiency, a strong commitment to long-term renewable energy generation, a departure from the renewable energy credits offered by utilities, increased investment in renewable technologies, and advocacy for policies that support renewables. As of now, Amazon is not disclosing any information regarding the path towards becoming a more sustainable company.
That is why Green America is continuing to push Amazon to be more transparent about a wide range of sustainability measures, including energy usage. Amazon recently hired a sustainability director and publicly committed to switching to 100% renewable energy. However, the company is still not reporting energy usage data to the Carbon Disclosure Project and has offered no view into their plan towards reduced environmental impacts. Their recently announced deal in Indiana is welcomed and recognized as a step forward, but there is still much more to be done.
I just read an important editorial by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, in which he dissects a January survey from the Pew Research Center, showing how it explodes the myth of the so-called “welfare queens,” a term popularized by President Ronald Reagan to describe people, usually women, who gamed the welfare system to receive undeserved government benefits.
The survey found that this view hasn’t changed much since the Reagan era: 54 percent of the wealthiest Americans believe “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
In his op-ed, Blow doles out statistic after statistic showing that nothing could be further from the truth.
As Blow states, “‘Easy’ is a word not easily spoken among the poor. Things are hard—the times are hard, the work is hard, the way is hard. ‘Easy’ is for uninformed explanations issued by the willfully callous and the haughtily blind.
He cites a Bureau of Labor Statistics paper stating that 11 million Americans work but don’t earn enough to lift themselves out of poverty. Compounding that, he notes, the poor end up paying more in income taxes than the rich and middle class, and they spend over 40 percent of their income on transportation. Even worse, the poor are “unbanked”—the key reason Green America campaigns for breaking up with mega-banks and moving to community development banks or credit unions.
Blow quotes the St. Louis Federal Reserve to illustrate just how serious it is to be underserved by banks and credit unions: “Unbanked consumers spend approximately 2.5 to 3 percent of a government benefits check and between 4 percent and 5 percent of a payroll check just to cash them. Additional dollars are spent to purchase money orders to pay routine monthly expenses. When you consider the cost for cashing a bi-weekly payroll check and buying about six money orders each month, a household with a net income of $20,000 may pay as much as $1,200 annually for alternative service fees—substantially more than the expense of a monthly checking account.”
It’s powerful stuff. Add to that the fact that the poor are more often victimized by predatory lending schemes and denied credit and loans for mortgages or education—as Green America illustrated in the “Break Up With Your Mega-Bank” issue of our Green American magazine—and you have a lot of struggling people trying to climb out of poverty with far too many unjust burdens holding them down.
This is why it’s so vital to break up with your mega-bank and support a community development bank or credit union, which make it a key part of their mission to provide banking services and fair and affordable loans to low- and middle-income borrowers, in addition to the educational support they need to succeed.
Visit our website, breakupwithyourmegabank.org, to find out today how you can move your accounts and credit cards to responsible banks that lift up communities that have so much stacked against them.
Congress began a new session at the beginning of 2015, with the Democrats in the House of Representatives handing the reins over to the Republicans. Though the previous Congress wasn’t exactly known for being tough on Wall Street, the recent bill proposed by Representative Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA) was a predictable giveaway to large financial institutions by way of slashing regulations that kept banks from engaging in risky behavior. The Promoting Job Creation and Reducing Small Business Burdens Act was introduced late in the evening on the second legislative day of the 114th session, with no debate surrounding the issue. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson describes the move as “[Congressional Republicans] pushing mega-bank welfare to the head of the line, and sending a clear signal to Wall Street that they’ll do whatever it takes to further feather the bankers’ nests.”
Despite its cheerful title, the bill is little more than an attempt at stripping even more of the regulatory power written in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. Affectionately referred to as an “11-bill Wall Street Wish List,” the bill was framed as a simple list of technical corrections to the Dodd-Frank Act.
The problem with this description is that it’s true – ask anyone his or her opinion on financial regulation, and you’re likely to get an earful. But ask about the nuts and bolts of financial regulations, and you’re likely to receive anything from blissful ignorance to a demonstrated misunderstanding of the issues at hand. The 2,300 pages of rules governing the financial field are so specific and complex that popping the hood and rearranging the insides is virtually guaranteed to go unnoticed by any large number of people. Opponents of the rules have been chipping away at the Dodd-Frank Act for the last 4 years – only this time they stand to do some serious damage.
First, the proposed changes would allow federally insured (backed up by tax dollars) banks to continue to hold and begin to freely trade Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLO’s), or certain bundles of debt. Though some of these CLOS, particularly the low-rated bundles, have a higher risk of default than others, they also have a higher return for investors. The high possible return in the face of a low rating makes CLOs attractive for investors looking for a quick, short-term gain. Once the loans in the low-rated bundles begin to default, however, the high returns sharply decline and investors are out of luck.
Until now, the Volcker Rule ordered that federally insured banks that already held CLOs sell them off by 2015. The rule was previously given a 2-year extension, and the recent Republican bill seeks to extend the deadline out until 2019. Bankers cite their “unrealized gains” on these bundles of debt as the reason for extending their lifetime.
According to the New York Times,
“The creation of such securities has been torrid recently; $124.1 billion was issued last year, compared with $82.61 billion in 2013, according to S&P Capital IQ. Among the banks with the largest C.L.O. exposures are JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo; according to SNL Financial, a research firm, JPMorgan Chase held $30 billion and Wells Fargo $22.5 billion in the third quarter of 2014, the most recent figures available. The next-largest stake — $4.7 billion — was held by the State Street Corporation.”
These banks have understandably large positions at stake for asking for more time to deal with these securities. But in some cases their “unrealized gains” are turning into losses. Deals surrounding the future prices of commodities like oil are especially losing steam due to current global price drops.
Second, the new bill would give private equity firms freedom to charge more for the services they provide. By exempting private equity firms from registering as brokers with the SEC, even though they receive fees for investment banking activities like selling debt securities and advising mergers, they are able to avoid more scrutiny and rules from regulators.
Lastly, the bill allows for derivatives, or a security whose price is dependent on one or more underlying assets, to be traded privately and not at clearinghouses (third parties to all kinds of futures and options contracts). This shields these trades from scrutiny and regulation as well, increasing the risk of bubbles forming and further damage to the economy.
Though these attempts at deregulation have been occurring since the Dodd-Frank Act was passed in 2010, the latest attempt by a Republican-controlled Congress represents a serious threat to the progress made and to the stability of the economy. Now is the time to stand up and tell Washington to take these issues seriously instead of doing the business of their friends at the banks. Please contact your Representatives, Senators, and the White House to let them know you support tougher rules for the banks that nearly drove the economy off a cliff just 7 years ago. For more information on ditching your account with one of these banks and switching to a smaller, responsible, community-oriented institution, please visit http://breakupwithyourmegabank.org/.
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” touted by industry as the technological saving grace to our nation’s energy woes, has caused much concern to the environmental community during recent years. Amidst claims that burning natural gas is a less carbon-intensive source of electricity and heat, frackers have had to defend their business against assertions that their activities cause earthquakes, air and water pollution, and contribute to climate change. A recent NASA satellite study of the San Juan Basin in New Mexico and Colorado confirms what environmental researchers have long suspected: delinquent methane emitted from over 40,000 gas and oil wells has been accumulating in the atmosphere, where it will remain trapping heat for years to come.
The Delaware-sized methane plume observed in the study floats above the San Juan Basin, trapping 80 times as much heat as CO2 in the atmosphere. Methane, the main component of natural gas, accounts for about 9% of US greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA states that 30% of this methane comes from industry, while the rest enters the atmosphere by ways of agriculture, human-generated waste, and natural sources. Equipment used to produce, store, and transport natural gas, often old and outdated, is dangerously prone to leaks. This study is one of the first to demonstrate the size of the problem.
The problem of methane emissions resulting from gas production isn’t just apparent to the climate-focused. Energy companies are seeing nearly $2 billion worth of their product drift away into the atmosphere, nearly 8 million metric tons per year (enough to power every household in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia). Despite the large financial incentive to capture this gas and bring it to market, aging infrastructure and poorly regulated implementation and operation of gas production technologies continue to be largely responsible for escaped methane. In many cases, natural gas and oil are located in the same shale formations. When a company drills for oil, they often flare excess methane into the atmosphere, where it will trap significantly more heat than its GHG counterpart, CO2.
While the energy industry claims that it is well aware of its leakage problem and taking measures to install updated equipment aimed at slashing the delinquent natural gas, environmental groups are calling for tighter regulations on oil and gas producers. According to a report by the Clean Air Task Force, the National Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club, there are existing technologies that will significantly reduce the gas that escapes from wells across the country. Requiring oil and gas producers to use them, however, has elicited a predictably negative response from the energy industry. According to the Washington Post,
“The Obama administration is reviewing a host of possible remedies that range from voluntary inducements to more costly regulations requiring oil and gas companies to install monitoring equipment and take steps to control the loss of methane at each point in the production process. The announcement of the administration’s new policies has been repeatedly delayed amid what officials describe as internal debate over the cost of competing proposals and, indeed, over whether methane should be regulated separately from the mix of other gases given off as byproducts of oil and gas drilling.”
Methane in the atmosphere is a serious climate concern. While there will certainly always be methane in the atmosphere from sources such as volcanoes and livestock (and we can reduce the latter), the additional emissions from our fossil fuel industries are unnecessary and preventable. Despite the obvious economic reasons to capture escaped gas, reducing methane emissions is imperative to meeting the climate goals set forth by the Obama administration, which we are far from meeting. We urge you to take the time to contact the White House, your representatives and the EPA to let them know you support regulations to decrease methane emissions from the energy industry.
But as one might expect from one of the most influential industries in the country, oil and gas companies did not take the ban silently. In such an energy-intensive state, complying with codes regulating the effects of fracking on air and water quality, especially near residential and public spaces, means bad news for oil and gas producers. The Texas Oil and Gas Association, and the Commissioner of the General Land Office (a state agency that manages certain state-owned lands and mineral interests) have both filed suit against the city of Denton, in both the Denton County District Court and the Travis County District Court.
In response, the local Denton Awareness Group has teamed up with national group Earthworks and moved to intervene in the two suits. Though this movement is rooted in concern for the health of communities and their resources like fresh water and clean air, the battle will largely revolve around mineral rights. In Denton, like much of Texas, mineral rights are severed from surface property – meaning that while you may own your home and the grass that grows on your yard, the minerals below, including any oil or natural gas, were likely snatched up by the industry a while ago. The case is expected to reach the Texas Supreme Court.
Denton currently has 272 active wells within its limits, and an additional 212 surrounding the city. In addition to the well-known environmental and health risks associated with fracking and natural gas development in populated areas, the economic case for fracking is certainly overstated. Since the majority of the mineral rights in the town are privately owned, Denton doesn’t make a whole lot of money as a result of allowing gas drilling to occur within the city. A University of North Texas assistant professor specializing in bioethics and a leader in Frack Free Denton, Adam Briggle, argues that the gas industry offers very little benefit to the citizens of Denton. According to Briggle, “Royalties paid to the City of Denton account for less than 1 percent of the city budget. Taxes from wells amount to only about 0.5 percent of all city property tax revenues. The biggest beneficiaries from fracking in Denton are out-of-town companies and absentee mineral owners.”
The lawsuits, which sound like a victory for those against the use of fracking, could result in some unintended consequences. For one, the oil and gas industry are already asking that Denton pay the legal fees associated with the suits. Furthermore, if the fracking ban holds up in court, Denton could owe tens of millions of dollars for natural gas that residents don’t own, and that industry can’t reach. The severed ownership of property above and below the ground raises serious questions. And in addition to the mineral rights issue, it is still unclear as to whether the City of Denton or the State of Texas, via the Railroad Commission, should have oversight on fracking and gas production.
It will certainly be interesting to see how the case in Denton plays out. Green America supports the idea that a community, be it a small town or a big city, has the right to determine what economic activity takes place there and how it is regulated. We would hate to see Denton caught between a rock and a hard place (either allowing fracking or paying millions to industry) should gas companies be granted the right to exploit the town’s mineral resources below the surface of the city. To stay up to date with the case, follow “Frack Free Denton” on Facebook or visit their website here: http://frackfreedenton.com/