Trump eases US methane rules as Colorado says state’s work
By DAN ELLIOTT
Friday, August 31
DENVER (AP) — The Trump administration is rolling back some U.S. regulations on climate-changing methane pollution, calling them expensive and burdensome, but Colorado says its rules are working — and they have industry support.
Energy companies have found and repaired about 73,000 methane leaks since 2015 under a state-required oil field inspection program, according to the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division. The number of leaks fell by 52 percent, from more than 36,000 in 2015 to about 17,250 in 2017, according a state report released last week.
Neither the government nor industry groups could say how much methane has been kept out of the atmosphere when the leaks were fixed, citing the complexity of factors involved.
But state officials said the sharp decline in the number of leaks shows Colorado is succeeding.
“We’re just really encouraged by what we’re seeing with this program and with the industry as a whole,” said Mark McMillan, a manager in the state air pollution agency.
Methane is the primary component of natural gas. It is also a greenhouse gas, contributing to global warming by trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Colorado, the fifth-largest natural gas producer in the nation, started requiring energy companies to regularly inspect oil field equipment for leaks in 2014. The program is designed to reduce releases of methane and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are also components of natural gas.
Under the right conditions — which are often present in Denver and Colorado’s Front Range urban corridor — VOCs turn into ground-level ozone. Ozone, the main component of smog, can aggravate asthma and contribute to early deaths from respiratory disease.
Environmental and industry groups agreed Colorado’s program is working, with some reservations.
“It’s good to see that the number of leaks is lower than it was back when the program started. But it’s not time to celebrate yet,” said David McCabe, a senior scientist with the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group.
Colorado’s oil and gas industry is still releasing a lot of methane and VOCs, he said.
The American Petroleum Institute supports Colorado’s rules, spokesman Reid Porter said. The state’s success reflects a broad industry effort to reduce methane releases, he said.
The Obama administration imposed two sets of nationwide rules designed to reduce methane leaks and waste in the oil and gas industry, one by the Environmental Protection Agency and one by the Interior Department.
The EPA rules applied to new oil field facilities. The Interior Department rules applied to new and existing facilities on federal and Native American land.
The Trump administration is in the process of rolling back both sets of rules. The administration called the Interior Department regulations burdensome and said they cost more than they were worth. Officials said removing the EPA rule would save energy companies up to $16 million over 14 years.
Energy companies also have argued they are already working to reduce leaks of methane, a product they can sell.
Tracee Bentley, head of the Colorado Petroleum Council, which is affiliated with the American Petroleum Institute, said the Interior Department and EPA rules are redundant.
“Two sets of regulations, two agencies, guarantees duplicative and costly overlap,” she said.
The regulation would be better left to the states, Bentley said.
“I think that the states know best, and honestly, every state is different,” she said.
Joel Minor, an attorney for Earthjustice in Denver, said the success of Colorado’s rules shows that uniform nationwide regulations laid down by the federal government are workable and necessary.
“The oil and gas industry is still doing very well in our state,” Minor said. “I think that just shows how cost-effective the regulations are.”
But no state can single-handedly protect its air because wind currents carry pollution across borders, he said.
“For any one state to have clean air, it requires all states to have clean air,” Minor said.
The Colorado program relies on oil and gas companies to report their inspections and results, although the state makes its own unannounced inspections using infrared cameras that can detect methane leaks.
The state does not expect to report its results until late this year or next, but the inspections have shown a decline in leaks that reflects what companies reported, said Jeremy Neustifter, an air quality planner with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/dan%20elliott .
Google News serves conservatives and liberals similar results, but favors mainstream media
August 31, 2018
Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media, School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon
Ph.D. candidate in Communications, Columbia University
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of Oregon provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Google News does not deliver different news to users based on their position on the political spectrum, despite accusations from conservative commentators and even President Donald Trump. Rather than contributing to the sort of “echo chamber” problem that critics fear have plagued Facebook and other social media networks, our research has found that Google News algorithms recommended virtually identical news sources to both liberals and conservatives. That’s an important point to keep in mind when evaluating accusations that Google News is biased.
Our findings are part of an ample and growing body of research on this question. Online services – including Google’s regular search function – may provide intensely personalized information. But media scholars like us have found that when it comes to news, search engines and social media tend to lead people not to a more narrow set of sources, but rather to a broader range of information. In fact, we found, Google News is designed to avoid personalized search results, intentionally constructing a shared public conversation based on traditional criteria of journalistic values.
There is, however, one aspect of this lack of personalization that may strike conservatives the wrong way: Established mainstream news outlets strongly dominate the results, regardless of what a user is searching for. Of all the Google News recommendations we collected, a full 49 percent – nearly half – were to just five national news organizations: The New York Times, CNN, Politico, The Washington Post and HuffPost. And those five, much like other mainstream news organizations, tend to be seen as center-left.
In addition, Google News favors sites with original reporting – as well as ones that produce large numbers of articles, respond reasonably quickly to events and have larger staffs. Those criteria, which don’t directly have anything to do with a news organization’s political bent, do appear to disadvantage explicitly partisan right-wing commentary sites, which tend to be small, low-volume and do little of their own on-the-ground reporting. And it’s definitely true that users don’t know how Google News works. The company, like many of its ilk, is tight-lipped about how its news and other algorithms function – at least in part to prevent media companies from gaming the system to favor their own material.
How we tested for echo chambers
Shortly before the 2016 election, we studied what would happen when people searched for news about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Google News. Specifically, we used Amazon Mechanical Turk to recruit a diverse set of 168 people in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. Participants were of different ages, education levels and political views: 41 percent identified as liberals and 26 percent identified as conservatives. The remaining 33 percent did not declare a political affiliation.
We asked them to search Google News for news about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump while logged in to their personal Google accounts, and report the first five stories they were recommended on each candidate. We repeated this on two separate occasions, once after a presidential debate and later during a slow news period. Then we compared the stories that people were recommended.
The fact that they were logged in to their Google accounts was important: Google, of course, collects huge amounts of data about each of its users, and could leverage that information when returning search results. Therefore, we expected to find people getting different article recommendations based on their prior search history and online activity, as recorded by Google and applied to the results they got from Google News.
That’s not what we found at all. Instead, liberals and conservatives were recommended virtually identical news sources.
No collusion against conservatives
We found, as have others, no evidence that major technology companies collude against conservatives or tweak their algorithms to return politically slanted search results.
In fact, some have suggested that the opposite may be true. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Facebook was accused of yielding to charges of bias, moving to favor right-wing views by letting leading conservatives investigate its internal biases. Twitter has been similarly accused for protecting InfoWars in 2018.
Further, as tech journalist Kara Swisher has argued, “Mr. Trump himself is the most voluble politician ever to use digital media, and his entire existence has been amplified, echoed and re-echoed over and over again by the tools that Silicon Valley has let loose on the world over the past two decades.”
Who determines what gets prioritized online?
However, there is reason to understand – even if not to agree with – claims of bias. First, Google News search results do favor legacy news organizations, ones with a long history. In our study, of the 14 news sites that ranked highly on at least one search, only three were newer “digital-first” news organizations. The rest were legacy newspapers, national TV stations and magazines.
Whether this is a problem – and if so, how much of one – is largely up to individual interpretation. For people who care that public discourse is based on a shared set of facts, it’s good news to learn that most people get the same results when they search Google News. And for people who believe that long-standing news producers with proven track records are best equipped to report on current events, our research is reassuring.
Trust in the news media
Yet across the political spectrum, Americans have far more trust in their local media than in the national media organizations that dominate online – including the results of Google News. It’s especially difficult to trust search engines and social media sites whose algorithms are secret, complex and constantly changing.
Ultimately, the concerns about algorithms and technology boil down to the principles that guide recommendation engines in shaping what reports get the most attention. Should Google News prioritize stories that adhere to traditional journalistic norms? Or should it reflect some other, yet undetermined standard? Trump’s rhetoric resonates with his supporters because, to them and others, the answer is not so clear-cut.
People have different visions of how societies should narrate their shared life. That’s perhaps why concepts of news judgment and balanced coverage largely assume that human editors will be involved. Algorithms can’t solve these quandaries – but they can help bring sharper focus to the public debate of the role news should play in a democratic society. Trump’s latest attacks may forestall that debate, though, by doing to technology companies what he did to the press: convincing many people they are “fake” and thus not to be trusted at all.
Injecting wastewater underground can cause earthquakes up to 10 kilometers away
August 30, 2018
Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz
Emily Brodsky receives funding from the Department of Energy Basic Energy Sciences program.
University of California provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Earthquakes in the central and eastern United States have increased dramatically in the last decade as a result of human activities. Enhanced oil recovery techniques, including dewatering and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have made accessible large quantities of oil and gas previously trapped underground, but often result in a glut of contaminated wastewater as a byproduct.
Energy companies frequently inject wastewater deep underground to avoid polluting drinking water sources. This process is responsible for a surge of earthquakes in Oklahoma and other regions.
The timing of these earthquakes makes it clear that they are linked with deep wastewater injection. But earthquake scientists like me want to anticipate how far from injection sites these quakes may occur.
In collaboration with a researcher in my group, Thomas Goebel, I examined injection wells around the world to determine how the number of earthquakes changed with the distance from injection. We found that in some cases wells could trigger earthquakes up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. We also found that, contradictory to conventional wisdom, injecting fluids into sedimentary rock rather than the harder underlying rock often generates larger and more distant earthquakes.
Transmitting pressure through rock
Assessing how far from a well earthquakes might occur has practical consequences for regulation and management. At first glance, one might expect that the most likely place for wastewater disposal to trigger an earthquake is at the site of the injection well, but this is not necessarily true.
Since the 1970s, scientists and engineers have understood that injecting water directly into faults can jack the faults open, making it easier for them to slide in an earthquake. More recently it has become clear that water injection can also cause earthquakes in other ways.
For example, water injected underground can create pressure that deforms the surrounding rock and pushes faults toward slipping in earthquakes. This effect is called poroelasticity. Because water does not need to be injected directly into the fault to generate earthquakes via poroelasticity, it can trigger them far away from the injection well.
Deep disposal wells are typically less than a foot in diameter, so the chance of any individual well intersecting a fault that is ready to have an earthquake is quite small. But at greater distances from the well, the number of faults that are affected rises, increasing the chance of encountering a fault that can be triggered.
Of course, the pressure that a well exerts also decreases with distance. There is a trade-off between decreasing effects from the well and increasing chances of triggering a fault. As a result, it is not obvious how far earthquakes may occur from injection wells.
Where to inject?
To assess this question, we examined sites around around the world that were well-isolated from other injection sites, so that earthquakes could clearly be associated with a specific well and project. We focused on around 20 sites that had publicly accessible, high-quality data, including accurate earthquake locations.
We found that these sites fell into two categories, depending on the injection strategy used. For context, oil and gas deposits form in basins. As layers of sediments gradually accumulate, any organic materials trapped in these layers are compressed, heated and eventually converted into fossil fuels. Energy companies may inject wastewater either into the sedimentary rocks that fill oil and gas basins, or into older, harder underlying basement rock.
At sites we examined, injecting water into sedimentary rocks generated a gradually decaying cloud of seismicity out to great distances. In contrast, injecting water into basement rock generated a compact swarm of earthquakes within a kilometer of the disposal site. The larger earthquakes produced in these cases were smaller than those produced in sedimentary rock.
This was a huge surprise. The conventional wisdom is that injecting fluids into basement rock is more dangerous than injecting into sedimentary rock because the largest faults, which potentially can make the most damaging earthquakes, are in the basement. Mitigation strategies around the world are premised on this idea, but our data showed the opposite.
How wastewater injection can make earthquakes: In basement rocks (left), injection activates faults in the small region directly connected to the added water, shown in blue. In sedimentary injection (right), an additional halo of squeezed rock, shown in red, surrounds the pressurized fluid and can activate more distant faults. Thomas Goebel, CC BY-ND
Why would injecting fluids into sedimentary rock cause larger quakes? We believe a key factor is that at sedimentary injection sites, rocks are softer and easier to pressurize through water injection. Because this effect can extend a great distance from the wells, the chances of hitting a large fault are greater. Poroelasticity appears to be generating earthquakes in the basement even when water is injected into overlying sedimentary rocks.
In fact, most of the earthquakes that we studied occurred in the basement, even at sedimentary injection sites. Both sedimentary and basement injection activate the deep, more dangerous faults – and sedimentary sequences activate more of them.
Although it is theoretically possible that water could be transported to the basement through fractures, this would have to happen very fast to explain the rapid observed rise in earthquake rates at the observed distances from injection wells. Poroelasticity appears to be a more likely process.
Avoiding human-induced quakes
Our findings suggest that injection into sedimentary rocks is more dangerous than injecting water into basement rock, but this conclusion needs to be taken with a rather large grain of salt. If a well is placed at random on Earth’s surface, the fact that sedimentary injection can affect large areas will increase the likelihood of a big earthquake.
However, wells are seldom placed at random. In order to efficiently dispose of wastewater, wells must be in permeable rock where the water can flow away from the well. Basement rocks are generally low permeability and therefore are not very efficient areas in which to dispose of wastewater.
One of the few ways that basement rocks can have high permeability is when there are faults that fracture the rock. But, of course, if these high permeability faults are used for injection, the chances of having an earthquake skyrocket. Ideally, injection into basement rock should be planned to avoid known larger faults.
If a well does inject directly into a basement fault, an anomalously large earthquake can occur. The magnitude 5.4 Pohang earthquake in South Korea in 2017 occurred near a geothermal energy site where hydraulic injection had recently been carried out.
The important insight of this study is that injection into sedimentary rocks activates more of these basement rocks than even direct injection. Sedimentary rock injection is not a safer alternative to basement injection.