ESA Policy News: October 12

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here.  EDUCATION: SUBCOMMITTEE CHAIRMAN REQUESTS GAO REVIEW OF REGULATORY IMPEDIMENTS TO UNIVERSITY RESEARCH  On Oct. 3, House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting a review of regulatory actions that may hinder research at the nation’s universities. The letter comes following  a recent report from the National Research Council of the National Academies entitled Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. Among its recommendations was a call to “reduce or eliminate regulations that increase administrative costs, impede research productivity, and deflect creative energy without substantially improving the research environment.” The National Academies report also recommends raising government, industry and philanthropy support for Research and Development (R&D) to three percent of Growth Domestic Product, fully funding the America COMPETES Act and “doubling the level of basic research conducted by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.” To view Rep. Brooks’ letter, click here. The full National Academies report and a PDF summary is available here. FORESTS: SUPREME COURT SUSTAINS ROADLESS RULE On Oct. 1, the United States Supreme Court stated it would not review a Clinton administration roadless rule that protects 45 million acres of national forest from road construction and logging. The decision ends a decade of legal challenges that began when the rule was first finalized in January 2001. Petitioners had asked the Supreme Court to overturn a decision last year by the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Clinton rule and reversed a US district judge’s determination that the rule had created de facto wilderness and violated the National Environmental Policy Act. Petitioners included the state of Wyoming, the Colorado Mining Association and the American Petroleum Institute. After the ruling, Gov. Matt Mead stated that while he had concerns about what the decision would mean for economic opportunity in his state, he intends to work collaboratively with the US Forest Service to address these issues. INTERIOR: NOMINATIONS SOUGHT FOR CLIMATE CHANGE ADVISERS The US Department of Interior (DOI) is seeking nominations for a new panel to be composed of outside scientific experts to help inform the agency’s work on the impacts of climate change on natural resources. Those nominated would serve on DOI’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science. The committee will advise the US Geological Survey’s National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center (NCCWSC)...

Read More

Scientists discuss federal role in hydraulic fracturing research

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA science policy analyst   The issue of hydraulic fracturing, a fairly new energy production method, has spurred intense debate, in part due unfamiliarity with the overall process. Recently on Capitol Hill, a group of federal scientists discussed their research in an attempt to inform the ongoing policy debate by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. On June 9, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) sponsored a briefing entitled “Hydraulic Fracturing: the State of Science.” During the briefing, federal scientists highlighted recent research  findings on  hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and also touched on  potential ecological impacts of the process. The speakers noted that while information to date suggests that the overall process is safe with proper monitoring efforts, additional research is needed to quantify its long-term effects. Speakers noted that groundwater contamination from imperfect cementing, existing wells, cracks in rock and levels of seismic activity are all variables that present some potential environmental risk factors of fracking. Brenda Pierce, Coordinator for the Energy Resources Program at USGS, discussed the program’s lead role in assessing energy resources for the onshore United States.  She  noted that assessments of recoverable energy resources change over time due to technological advancements and improved geologic understanding, among other factors. Rick Hammack, Natural Systems Monitoring Coordinator for the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory discussed the multifaceted role his agency and others, including the USGS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, play in monitoring the environmental impacts of shale gas development. Hammack stressed that the overall process takes five years, including one year of scientific study before fracking begins, several years of monitoring and assessment during energy production and a period of assessment after production is completed. Consequently, Hammack noted, it may be some time before we have a full picture of the environmental impacts from fracking and continued investment in research is important. Bill Leith, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquakes and Hazards at USGS, touched on the research USGS, other federal agencies and universities are conducting to better understand human-induced seismic activity from oil and gas production. Noting that mid-continent earthquakes have increased significantly in recent years, Leith clarified that the risk is manageable and that the fracking process itself has not triggered an earthquake large enough to raise safety concerns. Leith’s presentation, however, noted that the subsequent wastewater injection, which transmits wastewater from fracking into deep disposal wells, can cause earthquakes large enough to be felt and cause damage, though only a small fraction have caused earthquakes large enough to be of public concern. Leith believes that further research...

Read More

The multifaceted benefits of effective water infrastructure management

On April 25, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) joined Discover Magazine, IEEE-USA and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in hosting a briefing on how urban water infrastructure can be utilized to conserve energy and protect potable water resources. The briefing sought to promote the idea that better management of water resources serves to improve ecosystems, water quality and mitigate impacts of climate change. In his opening remarks, Senator Reid emphasized how climate change, energy and infrastructure are all interconnected. The Majority Leader noted the importance of such programs as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which he contended have seen funding shortfalls for much of the past 15 years. He also lamented how some of his colleagues in the Senate remain unwilling to address the issue of climate change. In July 2011, NSF announced a five-year, $18.5 million grant to fund a new Engineering Research Center to revolutionize the nation’s urban water infrastructure, the Engineering for Research Center for Re-inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt) at Stanford University. The new center includes 22 industry partners and researchers from a variety of fields related to ecology, urban studies and law that will work to foster innovative solutions to issues related to water infrastructure systems. Richard Luthy, Director at ReNUWIt, noted the many potential benefits reaped from advancements in wastewater treatment technologies. Noting the increasingly important role they play in energy management, Luthy suggested that wastewater plants be looked at as “resource recovery centers.” He said that nitrogen and phosphorus in wastewater can be effectively used as fertilizer. According to ReNuWIt, reusing municipal wastewater that would otherwise be discharged into an ocean or estuary for non-potable uses would significantly augment water availability, save on the energy that would be used to treat water to make it potable and curb the need to transport water supplies. Patricia Mulroy, General Manger of the Las Vegas Valley Water District in the Southern Nevada Water Authority, noted that 100 percent of the water from Lake Meade used by neighboring communities is treated and returned to the lake for reuse.  Mulroy stated that treated wastewater has helped to restore wetlands in the state of Nevada. She also noted that climate change will continue to diminish water resources, furthering the need to take advantage of new wastewater management technologies. The briefing was moderated by Tom Peterson, Assistant Director of the NSF Directorate for Engineering. He noted that while U.S. investment in water infrastructure research has flat-lined for decades, China has doubled its investment in water infrastructure research.   For additional information on NSF activities related to ReNUWIt, click...

Read More

Weighing potential costs of hydraulic fracturing

The recent expansion of hydraulic fracturing across the nation has set off a debate among oil and gas industry officials and conservationists and environmental scientists. During a recent House Space, Science and Technology Committee hearing, Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) outlined the points of contention: “You have one group that’s got long experience with hydraulic fracturing [contending] it’s very safe” and “you have another group that’s new to it and is having to analyze the potential of risks associated with it.” Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking” involves using high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand to open cracks that release gas trapped in rock deep underground. Advances in fracturing technology have led to a dramatic surge in gas extraction nationwide. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the United States has 2,119 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, about 60 percent of which is “unconventional gas” stored in low permeability formations such as shale, coalbeds, and tight sands. In 2010, production of this “shale gas” doubled to 137.8 billion cubic meters, up from 63 billion cubic meters in 2009. A Pennsylvania State University study stated that deployment in 2008 of hydraulic fracturing technology in the Marcellus Shale region generated more than $240 million in state and local taxes for Pennsylvania, 29,000 jobs and $2.3 billion in total economic development. The oil and gas industry falls into the camp of those who contend that decades of practice show that hydraulic fracturing is important economically and poses no discernable threat to public health or the environment. In the other camp are conservationists and some researchers who say that fracking could pose a risk to drinking water supplies. During the recent congressional hearing, the committee’s majority Republican members repeatedly asserted that the Environmental Protection Agency’s $12 million study on the safety of hydraulic fracturing is wasting taxpayer dollars. “The study intends to identify the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water without ever taking into consideration the probability that such an effect may occur,” said Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX). A key part of understanding different views of the potential risks of “fracking” is how it is defined. Many in the oil and gas industry use the term to describe not the drilling process but, more specifically, the completion phase where chemical-laced water and sand are blasted underground to break apart rock and release gas. Companies assert it is a safe practice since so far there has been no indication of hydraulic fracturing fluid rising above the mile or so of rock layers to reach drinking water aquifers. Others outside the industry typically view fracturing and drilling as interconnected. Consequently,...

Read More

Unseen and unforeseen: measuring nanomaterials in the environment

International interest and investment in nanotechnology is growing—said panelists in this morning’s public forum in Washington, D.C. hosted by RTI International—and development and commercialization of this technology need to meet societal expectations. That is, explained moderator Jim Trainham of RTI, the public is concerned with understanding and controlling nanotechnology since, if it cannot be controlled, the technology is not considered helpful to society. Perhaps surprisingly, nanoparticles are not just synthetic, engineered nanotubes—nanoparticles occur naturally as salt from ocean spray or as ash from a volcanic eruption. “We are exposed to nanomaterials constantly,” said Cole Matson from Duke University’s Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, “every breath we take.” It is this abundance of tiny materials that makes measuring the engineered nanoparticles more difficult. As Michele Ostraat from RTI’s Center for Aerosol and Nanomaterials Engineering explained, it is almost impossible for researchers to distinguish between background—that is the common, everyday nanoparticles—and engineered particles. Even more complicated, she said, there is a general lack of instrumentation that can perform real-time field measurements. Therefore, the concern with regulating nanotechnology is finding a way to measure how the engineered particles interact with the environment, including how  the environment alters these particles once released. It is a matter of measuring the risk to human and ecosystem health by determining the exposure to and hazard of the materials, Matson explained. “Everything has an impact,” said Matson, “the question is, is it detrimental?” So far there are general answers to these broad environmental questions. According to Matson, nanoparticles will reach the environment, they will be taken up by organisms, they may be toxic, they can alter ecosystems—including “managed” ecosystems such as wastewater treatment facilities—and they do interact with other contaminants. For all that is still unknown, there are some existing tools that are known being used to track the effects of nanomaterials, said Sally Tinkle from the U.S. National Science and Technology Council. For example, she said, “we have a long history of tracking particulate matter.” Matson and Ostraat agreed that aerosol research is the most prepared for tracking the distribution of nanoparticles. “We are farther ahead with air than water and particularly soils,” said Matson. One of the primary challenges is that, like any material, nanoparticles change when introduced to an environment. The physical and chemical properties shift, said Tinkle, “gold becomes red, carbon becomes electric.” As Matson outlined as an example, salt alters particles in a marine ecosystem. Therefore, how nanoparticles are affected by salinity in the ocean determines where the particles will be distributed in the water column. Understanding this dispersal could help determine which marine organisms would likely be the most...

Read More

Living in a city within a park

A satellite view of Baltimore, Maryland, would show plenty of abandoned buildings and parking lots, with parks—such as Patterson and Gwynns Falls parks—scattered throughout. However, while there is an abundance of concrete and asphalt within the city limits, Baltimore is not a city in isolation. Like Washington, D.C. and other nearby urban areas, Baltimore lies within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Read More

From the Community: waste and the environment

Turning wasteful Styrofoam packaging into biodegradable, mushroom-based materials, the current news on Hungary’s alumina sludge disaster, Frito Lay changes back to original chip bag packaging after consumer complaints about the “eco-friendly” bags and cities wasting water and using new technology to turn wastewater into energy.

Read More