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Moving up and on. Thanks for visiting.

The land conservation dilemma in PA

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This article title caught my eye:
Tiny Pennsylvania Land Trust Is Tempted by Marcellus Shale Gas Riches: Gas developers would pay the land trust at least $15 million to drill on its acres. The group's divided board is taking a wait-and-see approach for now.

Its about the North Branch Land Trust with 11.000 acres and one of its preserves in on top of a sweet spot for gas. As the article suggests:

back-of-the-envelope calculations reveal that his nonprofit -- with an annual budget hovering near $300,000 -- could have raked in at least $3 million from just the initial lease.Ballpark estimates of the ensuing royalties could have showered the land trust with an embarrassment of riches. How much? At the bare minimum, $15 million to $20 million; and significantly more if the shale is a "gusher."

Wait and see may not be a bad move with all the uncertainty and the fact that the gas isn't going away.

Is woody biomass neutral?

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The debate on using woody biomass for heat/electricity took a hit with the infamous Manomet study which suggested that biomass is not carbon neutral, since we burning more than we growing. Flaws were realized in the study but its an important issues to address if we are promoting bioenergy. The bottom line is that its 'cleaner;' than any fossil fuel' as Roger Sedjo elaborates in this paper entitled Carbon Neutrality and Bioenergy : A Zero-Sum Game?:

Although carbon released by fossil fuels or biofuels has an equivalent impact on the atmosphere, there are important differences. In the case of fossil fuels, the release of carbon results in an irreversible flow of carbon from the fossil fuel stock to the biosphere resulting in a net permanent addition to the total amount in the biosphere. For biomass, by contrast, the amount of carbon in the biosphere has not changed. This lack of equivalence is not without consequence. Only the form has changed as carbon moves over time from being captured in the biomass to being released into the atmosphere, from where it might once again be able to be recaptured in biomass. Thus, the release of fossil fuel emissions is, in principle, completely irreversible whereas biomass emissions are reversible and can be returned to biomass.
Its well worth the read.

Talk of the town

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Shale gas is once again (actually it never went away) in the headlines. Out comes the cover story in Time followed by a new report by the Energy Information Administration (EAI) on 'world shale gas stocks.' Basically these reports and flurry of related commentary sums up mostly optimistic reports on the future of shale gas. The gas is there, the technology is there, the question is at what cost? ie what is the break-even price for drilling and production. Right now the industry are drilling at prices of $3.50/mcf or so. Is that profitable or even sustainable? I doubt it. Some experts suggest the prices needs to be $8/mcf to break-even. Lots of factors go into this range of prices. One factor not even in the equation are the environmental costs.

Biofuels and food prices

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So gas prices reach $4/gallon and everyone is jumping out of their skin. Don't forget its about $8/gallon equivalent in most other developed countries. Did you hear Obama say in the same breath we can reduce oil prices by shifting to renewable energy. Well we know that renewables are not cheap to produce, at least in the short run. A related issue is the diversion of land from growing food to growing biofuels. NY Times does a good job presenting the situation and its obvious effect on food prices in this article. The article focuses on the global issue, but here in PA the question is can we grow biofuels, but do so on marghinal lands where food is not currently grown? There are millions of acres of such land in the Northeast. These include abandoned mine lands, old pastures, and degraded farm and forest. Just the places for growing things like hybrid poplar, willow, switchgrass and miscanthus. It may give the land some value. We can maybe have our cake and eat it too.

Is shale natural gas the solution to our energy needs?

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I am getting this question - why do we need to develop bioenergy in PA since we sitting on a wealth of shale natural gas? My answer is a clear - we need multiple energy sources; one source won't solve all our problems. I also won't get into the fossil fuel energy vs renewable energy debate. However, if you convinced that natural gas will solve our problems take a look at this review. Its starts off:

" While there is the possibility that shale gas will allow US natural gas supplies to increase for a few years (or even 10 or 15 years), natural gas is only about one-fourth of US fossil fuel use, so it would be very difficult to ramp it up enough to meet all of these needs."

Then the article details a litany of points:
1. The US is a natural gas importer. It does not produce as much natural gas as it consumes.
2. The US supply pattern for natural gas has been quite irregular over the years.
3. In the absence of shale gas, EIA's forecast for US natural gas production would be a decline over the next 25 years.
4. The production of Canada, the US's largest source of imports, is declining as its own use is rising.
5. The much publicized report from the Potential Gas Committee relates to "resources". Much of these resources may prove to be too expensive, or not technically feasible, to extract.
6. If Texas experience serves as an example, shale production starts dropping fairly quickly after it starts.
7. Shale gas drillers appear to need higher prices than are currently available to make production of shale gas profitable.
8. High (and volatile) prices tend to depress natural gas consumption for industrial use and for heating buildings.
9. The amount of oil and coal consumption that needs to be replaced is huge in relationship to natural gas consumption.
10. There are a number of outstanding environmental questions.

Some of them are self explanatory. Read the article for more explantion. I think the issue of technology and extraction costs as we go deeper in the earth is big one. Its sobering, but adds to my ammunition when people ask me that question next time.

Benefits of non-native species

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Is spending millions of $$ to control invasive species worth it? Are there some non-native species that are useful? Yes, according to a  a paper published in Conservation Biology.

Abstract: Non-native species can cause the loss of biological diversity (i.e., genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity) and threaten the well-being of humans when they become invasive. In some cases, however, they can also provide conservation benefits. We examined the ways in which non-native species currently contribute to conservation objectives. These include, for example, providing habitat or food resources to rare species, serving as functional substitutes for extinct taxa, and providing desirable ecosystem functions. We speculate that non-native species might contribute to achieving conservation goals in the future because they may be more likely than native species to persist and provide ecosystem services in areas where climate and land use are changing rapidly and because they may evolve into new and endemic taxa. The management of non-native species and their potential integration into conservation plans depends on how conservation goals are set in the future. A fraction of non-native species will continue to cause biological and economic damage, and substantial uncertainty surrounds the potential future effects of all non-native species. Nevertheless, we predict the proportion of non-native species that are viewed as benign or even desirable will slowly increase over time as their potential contributions to society and to achieving conservation objectives become well recognized and realized.

A good commentary of the paper is here.

It comes down to what we want ecosystems to look like. To quote from the review:

Rather than try to restore ecosystems to their pre-industrial states, Carroll argues, conservation biologists should manage the evolution of species to make ecosystems resilient. If a vine starts to spread across a new habitat, for example, conservation biologists can help native insects to evolve mouthparts that allow them to devour the vines more quickly. Rather than signaling defeat, Carroll sees conciliation biology as a way to reach more sustainable outcomes in a human-dominated world.

The Marcellus debate continues...

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In a recent blog I stated the Marcellus shale gas "boom" is filled with uncertainty. Everyone and their brother is going after this issue. Now, here is the latest front page NY Times exposé on the issues of waste water - Regulation lax as gas wells' tainted water hits rivers. So, how accurate is this article? Not very according to former DEP official John Hanger - read his response from his blog here. Hanger lists a slew of mistakes and also refers to an independent review of PA's regs:

Now let's examine the strange omission from the article of the independent review of Pennsylvania's hydraulic fracturing regulatory program done by STRONGER (see http://www.strongerinc.org/).
Its good to see a Hanger not hanging up (excuse the pun) the game but remaining active. Another slam on the article here. I'll leave it to you to decide but seems like some slack journalism.

Loss of biodiversity and our lives?

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The NY times has a great opinion piece arguing for better recognition of goods from our natural world. This sums it up:

Our brief century of freedom from disease has given us the delusion that we are separate from nature, somehow hovering above the world in which we live.  So we no longer think it worthwhile to spend our money studying the species around us (better to search for life in outer space).  And we accept the loss of forests and wetlands, not thinking that it may translate in time to the loss of our own families and friends.

Read the full piece here.


Gas impacts on logging and forest sector - not good!

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Although I haven't seen anything written specifically about Marcellus shale gas impact on forestry, I just read this article about a dairy farmer who got rich from leasing his farm for gas and how rely on farm income. From the article:
"Say hello to Pennsylvania's nouveau riche -- the Marcellus "shalionaires." It's better than any milk checks we ever got," said Bednarski, 52, of Avella, whose family has owned the farm since 1932. Today, he sells hay and breeds heifers. "It made farming more fun." Bednarski sold his 50 dairy cows when his family began receiving royalty checks in January 2010 from a lease his mother signed 11 years ago.
I'm wondering how many forest landowners getting royalty checks will say - "now I don't need income from timber? What is pretty clear is that gas has taken employees from the logging a forestry workforce. I hear many situations where workers go to the gas industry, not only because of the downturn in the the forest sector, but because they pay better. Do you blame them? I think this is something our lawmakers should be looking into. The question for them is how we maintain a viable forest industry in PA. We still have some of the most valuable forests in the world but we should be thinking about its future.

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