News Roundup: Cannabis, carbon, clickbait

Going beyond the scare headlines on marijuana and GHG emissions

Source: “Energy Use by the Indoor Cannabis Industry: Inconvenient Truths for Producers, Consumers, and Policymakers.” By Evan Mills, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The Clickbait: A recent study by Colorado State University researchers on the carbon footprint of indoor cannabis cultivation has sparked dozens of clickbait, climate-guilt-inducing headlines like this one:

More than coal mines!? Sheesh, just think of the paranoia that one could inspire. And those headlines, in turn, have triggered numerous Twitter exchanges that, quite frankly, seem to be written under the influence of mind-altering substances. Witness the following, transcribed almost verbatim: 

Someone: (Rehashes headline above)

Tweep 1: Tha f*&%? What's your motivation on this... It's a weed and if memory serves from primary school science, weeds are plants and plants take in carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen. $%$#

Tweep 2: You only have half the facts: Plants absorb CO2 during their life and give off oxygen. When you burn plants, or as they die, they release most of that stored CO2 back into the environment. 

Tweep 3: Cannabis only consume co2 when it's light is on during the off time it releases some, as for when the crop is done well any captured carbon is never off set as the flower is burnt or processed even further.

I don’t know what Tweep 3 is smoking, but I’ll skip it.

The Context: The study by CSU researchers, led by Hailey Summers and published in Nature Sustainability earlier this month, found that the lighting and HVAC systems in industrial-scale marijuana growing facilities consume large amounts of electricity. Burning fossil fuels to generate that electricity emits large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. So, cannabis has a big carbon footprint.

This isn’t exactly news: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researcher Evan Mills put out a paper in 2012—the year Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational use of marijuana—saying essentially the same thing: Ganja ain’t all that green, due mostly to indoor cultivation’s power-guzzling tendencies, which can rival that of electricity-hungry data centers.  

Colorado’s indoor cannabis-growing operations, according to a Land Desk back-of-the-napkin calculation, collectively use about as much electricity as 81,000 Colorado households. Generating that electricity—be it for cannabis production, legal or otherwise, or for those homes—emits as much carbon dioxide-equivalent as the state’s coal mines (which emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that occurs in the coal seams). That comparison may be scary, but it’s meaningless. Better to point out that growing one joint in Colorado has the same carbon footprint as brewing 18 pints of beer in Colorado (location, it turns out, matters).

The CSU paper offers alternatives for mitigating the climate-altering effects. Moving the pot farms outdoors would pretty much zero out carbon emissions; switching from the standard windowless warehouses to greenhouses would cut emissions in half. Installing more efficient HVAC equipment and lighting can lower emissions: A Denver grower replaced the custom high pressure sodium grow-lights with LEDs, slashing their power usage and monthly electricity bill by $1,400 (giving an idea of how big of a cost electricity is for the industry). The warehouses also have plenty of roof-space for solar panels, which, when paired with batteries, could bring those utility bills and carbon emissions down even further. 

The CSU study goes further than past analyses, and opens the door to bigger solutions, by delving into the location factor. The magnitude of cannabis’ carbon footprint, they found, shifts dramatically according to where the plant is grown. Cannabis cultivated in Leadville, Colorado, for example, results in about twice the greenhouse gas emissions as the same strain grown in Long Beach, California, which is one of the greenest places to grow dope in the U.S., according to the study.  

The reasons? First, the ambient climate: More energy is required to keep the temperature and humidity at optimum levels in a very cold or hot place, like Denver or Phoenix, than in a less extreme climate, such as that of Los Angeles. Equally important is the energy mix of the respective grid. Colorado is coal-dependent, getting nearly 70 percent of its electricity from fossil fuel-fired power plants, and therefore its electricity—and cannabis—is carbon intensive. California’s grid, by contrast, is virtually coal-free, with less than 40 percent of its power generated from fossil fuels.

In other words, cannabis’ carbon footprint is proportional to the electricity grid’s from which it gets its juice. Decarbonize the grid and you’ll decarbonize cannabis production, along with everything that relies on that grid, whether it’s lighting up houses, streaming movies, powering the computer you’re looking at, recharging electric vehicles, or keeping that Sarah Lee cheesecake cold for those munchie moments.

***

Remember a couple of months ago when the oil and gas industry insisted that the Biden administration’s pause on oil and gas leasing was going to wreck their businesses and kill off thousands of jobs? We’re now two months into the pause and the industry hasn’t perished yet. In fact, the active rig count in the public land states has gone up since January, continuing its recovery from the pandemic-induced slump. 

When the rig count goes up, so too does employment in the industry, since drilling is the most labor-intensive phase of oil and gas extraction—an operating rig directly employs at least 50 people, while an already drilled, producing well employs only about one full-time worker. More new wells leads to greater overall production, which leads to more royalty and tax revenues for oil-rich states. 

The increase in activity not only runs counter to industry’s the-sky-is-falling rhetoric regarding the leasing pause, but it also emphasizes the fact that federal policies are only one of many forces that influence oil and gas drilling on federal lands. The previous administration rolled back dozens of regulations on oil and gas and coal and put tens of millions of acres on the leasing auction block, all in the name of “energy dominance.” Yet the coal industry continued its decline and a drilling boom never materialized because commodity prices wouldn’t support one. Similarly, a permanent halt to leasing and a permitting ban would have little on-the-ground effect for months or even years as drillers worked their way through a backlog of permits, a stockpile of leases, and re-opened wells that were shut-in over the last year.

Global petroleum demand is slowly inching back up along with the price of oil, driving the increase in drilling activity. The recovery is a fragile one, however, imperiled by the latest surges of COVID-19, even as vaccination campaigns progress. 

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A lot of that new drilling is occurring in the Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico. Thanks to a new rule from the state, it should be a little bit cleaner than in the past. 

Last week the New Mexico Oil Conservation Commission finalized its methane waste rule, which would require the industry to capture 98 percent of the potent greenhouse gas from its operations by 2026. The rule bans most venting and flaring and favors flaring (burning the natural gas, or methane, which results in carbon dioxide emissions) over venting (letting the methane spew directly into the air). Capturing and selling that methane will generate significant tax and royalty revenues for the state. If it is not feasible for the producer to send the methane to market, then they are required to find other beneficial uses for it on-site (a mini-power plant to electrify a cannabis grow-facility, perhaps?).

The rule is only half of a two-pronged approach. Next, the New Mexico Environment Department will finalize its portion of the rules, which would address leakage across the oil and gas supply chain. Conservation groups deemed the draft version of the rules as inadequate and riddled with loopholes and exemptions. Stay tuned to the Land Desk for a methane-related Data Dump explainer.

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