New study reveals gaps in the methods used to assess chemicals in oilfield wastewater

By Cloelle Danforth

A new study led by researchers with Colorado School of Mines exposes limitations with the current methods used to detect chemicals in oilfield wastewater and offers solutions to help regulators make better decisions for managing this waste stream.

Oilfield wastewater is extremely salty and can contain multiple combinations of many potentially harmful chemicals (approximately 1600 on a national basis). However, most standard or approved analytical methods available to regulators were designed to work with fresh water. Because oil and gas wastewater is so salty—sometimes 10 times saltier than seawater or more—chemists often have to dilute wastewater samples to manage the high salt content.

This means they may also be diluting chemicals of concern to concentrations too low to detect, even though they may be present at risky levels. For example, benzene is a chemical associated with petroleum hydrocarbons and a known carcinogen. It also has a drinking water standard of 5 parts per billion – that’s 5 cents in 10 million dollars. It really doesn’t take much dilution of a sample to lose that level of precision.

More concerning is that more than 75% of the chemicals associated with unconventional oil and gas production don’t have standard analytical methods. So, not only are the available analytical tools frequently inappropriate for saltwater samples, there are no tests at all for most of the chemicals that could be there.

Why it matters

In the United States oil and gas production generates nearly 900 billion gallons of wastewater per year. That’s the same amount as 30% of the water that went over the Hoover Dam last year.

Aerial view of wastewater pit at a drilling site

Historically, most of this wastewater has been pumped into underground wells for permanent disposal. But concerns about this practice leading to earthquakes, coupled with heightened demands for water and a desire to cut costs, has companies looking at new ways to manage this massive waste stream, from crop irrigation to discharge into surface waters.

(Learn more: Scientists Question Risks of Using Oilfield Wastewater on Crops)

Before this wastewater is reused in ways that could affect our water or food supplies, the right tools are needed to identify, measure, and treat the chemicals it may contain. This is a basic requirement for making sound decisions about protecting our health and our environment.

Advancing science to improve policy

Before new technologies and analytical methods developed in research laboratories are standardized and used in a regulatory context, they must undergo a rigorous and time-consuming validation process to assure they are robust, accurate, and precise.

Getting the job done right requires having the right tools. For this review, researchers combed through scores of research methods, evaluated which techniques are appropriate for oil and gas wastewater, discussed challenges associated with current methods, and offer potential solutions for detecting chemicals. In other words, the study offers us a starting point for making better decisions about cleaning or reusing wastewater.

Today, there’s a lot that isn’t – and can’t – be known about what’s in this wastewater, and, as a result, it’s nearly impossible to conclude that it won’t threaten human health and our environment if it is released into our ecosytem.

Fortunately, this review represents an important step toward identifying potential approaches to understanding the chemistry of this complex waste, and could lead to better treatment and disposal practices that will ultimately help keep our soil and water clean.

Read more

New utility settlement will unlock millions in clean energy funding for Ohio

By Dick Munson

Enhancing EV infrastructure is one of the many ways AEP’s new settlement advances clean energy.

AEP, one of Ohio’s largest utilities, just reached an exciting new milestone that takes the state further down the path to a clean energy economy.

The utility has reached a settlement that will unlock millions in funding, lower pollution, avoid unnecessary electricity bill increases, and provide customers with more clean energy options.

New benefits

In AEP’s recent electric security plan case (a process that sets generation rates charged to customers) through 2024, the utility, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC), and others have reached a settlement that includes the following:

  • Less pollution through more renewables: AEP will build or enter into a power purchase agreement for 900 MW of low-carbon solar and wind projects – enough to power almost 2,000 homes for a year. These new projects will allow the state to rely less on polluting coal.
  • No unnecessary fixed cost increases: The fixed monthly charge for residential customers will remain at $5.00/month, rather than a whopping $18.40/month that AEP sought. Higher fixed rates mean customers typically pay more regardless of how much they cut their energy use, effectively discouraging them from investing in energy-saving resources like efficiency and residential solar.
  • Strengthening grid reliability and resiliency: AEP will spend $10.5 million for one or more microgrid projects, localized power grids that have the ability to disconnect from the main, centralized grid.
  • Enhancing electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure: AEP will spend $10.5 million for an EV charging station rebate program.
  • Opening the door to future clean energy investments: AEP will implement a more streamlined way to recover costs from projects related to PowerForward, the state’s grid modernization effort, and the Smart City program, which involves $60 million in grants to the City of Columbus for smart transportation systems. This new cost recovery mechanism will lower AEP’s risk for investing in smart grid measures.

These ambitious developments will significantly enhance and diversify Ohio’s clean energy economy.

New utility settlement will unlock millions in clean energy funding for Ohio
Click To Tweet

A history of bailouts

Last year, AEP and FirstEnergy, another utility giant in Ohio, sought enormous bailouts for their unprofitable, old coal and nuclear plants. After the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) blocked these pleas, each utility was forced back to the drawing board – and each came back with a very different approach.

While FirstEnergy continued its crusade for customer-funded bailouts, AEP began to re-think its strategy and reached a settlement with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) for its customer rates through May of 2018. Although the settlement had some promising clean energy components like increased renewable energy, it was still an unnecessary handout.

Specifically, the deal would have forced Ohioans to pay for AEP’s share of two uneconomic coal plants, which are part of the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation (OVEC). These are two old coal plants in Ohio and Indiana, built in the 1950s to supply electricity for a uranium enrichment plant that has since closed. EDF, among others, did not agree to the settlement.

Groups are contesting that deal, and specifically the OVEC bailout piece, at the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing that the provision is unfair because AEP has already been compensated for its share of the OVEC plants (through “transition charges” that AEP recovered during the 10 years following deregulation). The outcome is expected within the next year.

Under the new rate case settlement, AEP will continue to get money for its share of the uneconomic OVEC power plants through 2024. If the Ohio Supreme Court rejects the OVEC bailout, the decision will render the related portion of the new settlement moot and various parties will get back together to determine the path forward. EDF and the OEC would not be at the table because we opposed the original OVEC coal bailout, and we do not support the extension in the new settlement.

Regardless of the impending court decision, AEP’s new settlement exemplifies how utilities can and should include clean energy provisions when setting their overall electricity prices for customers. As the U.S. continues its transition to a cleaner, smarter energy system, more utilities should take this approach.

Read more

Californians benefit from continuous pollution monitoring at oil and gas sites

By Tim O’Connor

Sophia Brewer, Oil and Gas Intern, contributed to this article.

Since the 1892 discovery of oil in California, the oil and gas industry has been a major economic engine and energy supplier for the state. Although this oil and gas production may be broken down into dollars and barrels, it doesn’t tell the story of the potential impact of drilling activity on the lives of the people in Los Angeles and the Central Valley who live right next to these operations.

While some production sites may be meeting stringent operational and environmental standards, others may not –there simply isn’t data to discern which is which – and that is where monitoring comes in.


The world is experiencing the largest technology and innovation boom in history. Computers, space-age science, the internet, and cloud-based information platforms are making the collection and analysis of data easier than ever before. There’s no reason the gathering and evaluating of pollution data should be any different.

Oil and gas companies like StatOilShellPG&E, and SoCalGas; academic institutions like Stanford and Colorado State University; government agencies like NASA and South Coast AQMD; and several tech companies like Picarro, Quanta 3 SensitUnited Electric ControlsEntanglement Technologies and many more; have demonstrated that it’s now possible to install precise continuous monitors at or around oil and gas facilities to capture real-time data on air pollution at all hours of the day. In some cases, such as natural gas storage sites, monitoring systems are being tested and installed right now under new regulatory requirements. In other cases, companies and communities are installing continuous monitors to provide valuable information about on-site operations issues or to inform neighbors of potential health risks.

A major series of studies is also underway by the state of California, stemming in part from requirements of AB 1496 to evaluate potential methane “hot-spots” in the state and observations of a 2016 Air Resources Board study that demonstrated that nearly half of the leaks at California oil and gas sites have detectable levels of cancer-causing compounds. From these efforts, it is clear that more pollution monitoring is needed to protect the public.

Pollution monitoring has economic, environmental and public health value

Perhaps the clearest example of the value of continuous monitoring can be seen at the Aliso Canyon gas storage field – operated by the SoCalGas Company. Stemming from a well blowout in October 2015, the event cost SoCalGas and its insurance providers over $832 million as of June 30, 2017, with additional costs expected well into the future. Pollution monitors may not prevent massive leaks, but they may act as an early warning system that alert facility operators to the presence of smaller leaks before they grow into bigger problems.

Continuous monitors can also act to empower the public and quell concerns over uncontrolled and unknown emissions. As a result of the Aliso Canyon incident for example, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) required the installation of continuous monitors at all natural gas storage sites in California. With these types of facilities holding vast amounts of natural gas mixed with crude oil residues and pollutants like benzene, the new CARB rule is a testament to the commercial availability of continuous monitors and the value these monitors provide to regulators and the public.

To find another example of the value continuous monitors can deliver, one must look no further than to the 1.3 million Californians who live within a half mile of the 93,000 active oil and gas facilities in the state. And since recent studies suggest a possible correlation between living in close proximity to oil and gas production sites and respiratory complications such as onset asthma and cancer, the public depends on strong regulations, transparent information, and equitable enforcement to minimize the risk of pollution from these sites at all hours of the day.

Well site near a residential neighborhood in Southern California

Continuous monitoring in California can reduce unequal community burdens

In California, nearly 69% of residents living near oil and gas sites are people of color – meaning emissions disproportionately burden these communities. Government agencies and oil and gas operators may not intend for these disparate impacts, but they are none-the-less part of the landscape and local residents often have neither the time, energy, and/or money to stand up to fix these inequalities.

Continuous monitoring for air pollution will foster better transparency between corporations, the government, residents, and customers. Through this improved transparency and resources to evaluate data, in particular in areas where people live and work immediately adjacent to oil and gas sites, monitoring can and will encourage the highest levels of corporate responsibility, more precise and informed engagement by neighbors, and higher levels of effectiveness in government oversite efforts. By investing in low-cost, high precision continuous monitors, oil and gas companies will reduce pollution in the neighborhoods where they are needed most.

Looking forward

While many have a vision of a fossil fuel free world, elimination of oil production isn’t likely to happen any time soon. What is on the horizon though, is technology and data analytics that can better document pollution from the industry and help aim toward consistent environmental responsibility. As a matter of capturing the low hanging fruit, at minimum, high producing sites located next to homes and businesses in disadvantaged communities (like many in the Los Angeles Basin) seem to be a perfect fit for early roll-out of monitors and data evaluation resources that document and result in reduced pollution.

Read more

Secretary Perry continues to ignore the evidence on grid reliability, even his own

By Michael Panfil

Late Wednesday night, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released its so-called “study” on grid reliability.

Secretary Perry commissioned the report in this April memo, asking the DOE to investigate whether our electric grid’s reliability is threatened by the “erosion of critical baseload resources,” meaning coal and nuclear power plants. Perry took the unusual step of providing his own, pre-study conclusion, claiming that “baseload power is necessary to a well-functioning electric grid.”

His own report disagrees. It’s largely a backward-looking report that sometimes argues with itself, but comes, albeit grudgingly, to the same conclusion as every other recent study: the electric grid continues to operate reliably as uneconomic coal diminishes. Moreover, coal is declining because it can’t compete, and other resources are ensuring reliability at more affordable rates.

Perry seems undeterred by the evidence however, and the report’s accompanying cover letter and recommendations appear ready to double down on his pro-coal agenda. Here are three ways he tries to twist the facts in favor of dirty coal – a move that ignores more efficient, affordable, and innovative solutions and comes at a cost to Americans.

The misdirection spin

Perry’s letter accompanying the report included this nugget:

“It is apparent that in today’s competitive markets certain regulations and subsidies are having a large impact on the functioning of markets, and thereby challenging our power generation mix.”

Although Secretary Perry continues to blame “regulations and subsidies” for “challenging” the power generation mix (despite the mix becoming more, not less, diverse as more renewables come online), he would be well advised to read his own report if he’s looking for the real driver of coal retirements. The report he commissioned clearly states:

“The biggest contributor to coal and nuclear plant retirements has been the advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation.”

Secretary Perry continues to ignore the evidence on grid reliability, even his own
Click To Tweet

This is hardly new information; extensive study has found that “decreases in natural gas prices have had a much larger impact on the profitability of conventional generators than the growth of renewable energy.” Coal is simply too costly to compete. And low natural gas prices, in addition to flat demand for electricity, are making energy more affordable.

The reliability spin

On reliability, again Perry’s letter takes one stance:

“The industry has experienced massive change in recent years, and government has failed to keep pace.”

And the report states the opposite:

Grid operators “are working hard to integrate growing levels of [renewable energy] through extensive study, deliberative planning, and careful operations and adjustments.”

Although Perry appears unaware of the thorough performance his own study references, grid operators are required by law to ensure reliable electricity at affordable rates. And indeed, government has kept pace. As the DOE report noted, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s most recent annual State of Reliability analysis concluded that the electric grid was reliable in 2016. And 2015. And 2014. And 2013. And although the DOE report neglected to mention it, this same State of Reliability analysis found that reliability has been increasing.

Certainly, more can and should be done. As the DOE report mentions, increasing the use of fast, flexible resources support a healthy grid. Unfortunately for Perry, coal can’t provide what’s needed, as the DOE report notes,

“For a power plant to make money today, it must be able to ramp up and down to coincide with the variable levels of renewable generation coming online. That makes combined cycle natural gas plants profitable…but coal plants have relatively high and fixed operating costs and are relatively inflexible.”

Coal, simply put, is too slow and old to respond nimbly.

The resiliency spin

Perry also attempts to pivot from focusing on reliability to resiliency, a lesser defined term:

“Customers should know that a resilient electric grid does come with a price.”

Like everything worth having, resiliency comes at a price, but that price should be cost-effective. But coal is part of the problem, not the solution to achieving affordable, resilient, and reliable electricity. Not only do coal-fired power plants unexpectedly break down more than any other resource, they have performed poorly during extreme weather events, as his report notes:

During extreme weather events in 2014 “many coal plants could not operate due to conveyor belts and coal piles freezing.”

During extreme weather events in 2014 “many coal plants could not operate due to conveyor belts and coal piles freezing.”

“Forced outages,” meaning the instance when a power station is unavailable to produce power due to an unexpected breakdown, are higher for coal than any other resource – almost twice as high, in fact, as the next highest resource. Coal also needs twice as much scheduled maintenance, referred to as “planned outages,” as any other resource.

A terrible solution in search of a problem

When Secretary Perry originally requested the DOE report, he already knew the grid reliability answer he was looking for. Unfortunately for him, the final report – despite best efforts – only further illustrates why his pre-study pro-coal conclusion is wrong. The report’s recommendations and his letter double down on coal despite the evidence, no matter the cost to the American public; no matter the cost to human health and the environment; and no matter the cost to the well-being of the electric grid itself.

Now that the report is finally here, coal companies likely will continue complaining and seeking help for their uneconomic power plants. Meanwhile, America’s grid will continue to embrace new, innovative technology that builds a cleaner, reliable, affordable, and resilient energy system.

Read more

Shell becomes latest oil and gas company to test smart methane sensors

By Aileen Nowlan

This week, the oil and gas giant Shell took a positive step toward addressing methane emissions. The company announced a new technology trial at a wellsite in Alberta, Canada, where it is piloting a specially designed laser to continuously monitor emissions of methane, a powerful pollutant known to leak from oil and gas equipment.

The move by Shell is a glimpse into the future and demonstrates growing market interest in smart, sensor-based methane detection technology. Shell’s project joins a similar field test already underway in Texas, operated by the Norwegian producer Statoil, and a California utility pilot run by Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

Each of these deployments is promising, but the ultimate test will be broad-scale adoption of innovations that generate actual methane reductions.

For industry, there is an incentive to move ahead. An estimated $30 billion of natural gas (which is largely methane) is wasted every year due to leaks and flaring from oil and gas operations worldwide. In addition, roughly 25 percent of global warming is driven by methane. Oil and gas methane emissions also contain chemicals that adversely affect public health.

For these reasons, methane is a problem that has caught the attention of regulators, investors and consumers alike. Advancing new technologies to enable the oil and gas industry to tackle this challenge more efficiently is key, even as companies use established tools to manage emissions now.

Collaborations Spark Methane Innovation

When you bring the right people to the table, innovative solutions will follow. Behind the Shell, Statoil and PG&E demonstration projects is a collaborative initiative, the Methane Detectors Challenge, begun by the Environmental Defense Fund four years ago. The project united eight oil and gas companies, R&D experts, and technology innovators in an effort to accelerate the development of next-generation methane detectors.

The formation of this project was motivated by a key insight: new technology to manage emissions needs to be created and deployed faster than ever. The Methane Detectors Challenge offers a unique resource to innovators – access to real facilities and collaboration with potential customers – which is essential to help entrepreneurs understand the market, demonstrate demand, and ultimately achieve economies of scale.

Both the Statoil and Shell pilots are using a solar-powered laser, created by Colorado-based Quanta3. The technology uses the Internet to provide real-time data analytics to wellsite managers via mobile devices or web portals.

Continuous Visibility, Faster Response

The oil and gas industry has a lot to gain from smart methane sensors that can prevent the loss of valuable product and reduce pollution.

Imagine a future where continuous leak detection systems allow operators to digitally monitor methane emissions occurring across thousands of sites. It’s a game-changer on the horizon. The burgeoning field of continuous methane monitoring offers a range of possibilities – including technologies capable of identifying emission spikes in real-time, allowing operators to cut mitigation time from months to days. Over time, smart sensors on wells may even help predict and prevent leaks and malfunctions before they occur.

Smart Methane Sensors Triggering New Market

The methane-sensing laser deployed by Shell and Statoil is one of many technologies in the emerging methane mitigation industry. In North America alone, more than 130 companies provide low-cost methane management technologies and services to oil and gas customers – a number likely to expand as innovators innovate, pollution requirements tighten, and producers increasingly appreciate the urgency of dealing with methane to maintain their social license to operate.

Smart automation technologies are already being used across the oil and gas industry to improve operating and field efficiencies. Continuous methane detection technology is the next logical step, which has the potential to provide significant economic, environmental and societal benefits.

The Shell pilot is a milestone to celebrate and we recognize the company for its early leadership. Now, we need governments and industry to show the determination needed to meet the methane challenge head-on. Sustained leadership is a prerequisite. But the keys to solving this problem are smart policies that incentivize ongoing innovation, and clear methane reduction goals—supported by technologies like continuous monitoring.

Image source: Shell/Ian Jackson

Read more

Be prepared: Why the smart oil and gas producers are leaning in despite uncertainty

By Jon Goldstein

Be Prepared. It’s not just the Boy Scout motto, it’s also the way most smart businesses try to operate. Better to anticipate future compliance issues today and bake them into your forward planning, than to be caught flatfooted tomorrow.

That is a big part of the reason major multinational oil and gas producers like ExxonMobil and Shell have said they are already following methane pollution rules finalized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year. Despite EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s best efforts to delay implementation of these rules, the courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of their speedy and complete implementation.

Most recently the DC Circuit last week rejected the latest attempt to undermine methane pollution limits for sources in the oil and gas sector and put those standards into full force and effect. It’s a decision that shows the wisdom of ExxonMobil’s and Shell’s strategy to lean in on regulatory compliance (and highlights the danger for other oil and gas producers that seem to be content dragging their feet and exposing their investors to compliance risk).

A second policy shift last week again underlines the benefits of proper prior preparation from the oil and gas industry. Last Wednesday, the Pruitt EPA withdrew its attempt to extend the deadline for compliance with the new, more protective, health based standard for ground-level ozone, commonly known as smog. This decision came one day after a coalition of 16 state Attorneys General joined a lawsuit challenging the delay (EDF and partners also challenged the delay). This means that EPA will now again have to meet an Oct. 1 deadline for determining which areas of the country fail to meet healthy air standards.

This ozone decision is terrific news for residents of areas that struggle with smog pollution tied to under-regulated oil and gas development. With this decision, EPA and states should now have the impetus to continue working on a more expedited timeline to reduce oil and gas pollution and restore healthy air.

It’s also a workable development for the forward thinking oil and gas companies since compliance with EPA’s methane rules will also help reduce the emissions that lead to the formation of unhealthy smog. By thinking ahead on methane, these producers have also put themselves in a better position to address smog problems.

There is a real danger for the oil and gas industry in this era of federal regulatory uncertainty. By pushing the pendulum so far toward deregulation, the worst actors in oil and gas may find themselves creating the very regulatory confusion they and their investors loathe. But you don’t have to take our word for it, as Kevin Book Managing Partner with ClearView Energy Partners recently told Pamela King of E&E News, “If the Trump administration veers more toward a ‘rip it up’ approach to rulemaking, the implication could be that uncertainty limits future investments.”

A stable regulatory environment, investment certainty and cleaner air. Addressing methane is the smart move for the oil and gas industry no matter how you look at it.

Read more

Methane standards are the law of the land; it’s time to stop litigation and start complying

By Matt Watson

Let me first make this important point: I’ve met and worked with a lot of folks in the oil and gas industry who are truly dedicated to making their operations as safe and clean as possible – people who care about the communities they live and work in and who take pride in the reputation of the companies they work for.

That said, I’ve always rolled my eyes a little when I see companies boast in sustainability reports that they comply with all applicable federal and state laws.  Really?  Not breaking the law is the high bar you’re shooting for?

But , as it turns out, one of the nation’s largest oil and gas trade associations is now saying that not only does it oppose common-sense laws requiring companies to reduce their emissions of methane and other harmful air pollution, it’s casting doubt on the extent to which companies should even comply.

The courts have repeatedly struck down efforts by the Trump administration and industry lobbyists to suspend these pollution standards.  And these rules are now in full legal effect.

Yet, in last week’s Inside EPA/Climate, Lee Fuller of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) is quoted saying that the court’s rejection of these efforts makes compliance “an EPA enforcement issue, and we have had no guidance from EPA on the enforcement process that they will undertake.”

There should be no confusion here. Compliance is not an enforcement issue. Compliance is a legal obligation. Any company that refuses to meet that obligation is operating outside of the law, regardless of how EPA decides to approach enforcement.

Cries that companies haven’t had enough time to get ready for these standards also fail to pass the straight-face test.  These rules were issued in June 2016 and gave the industry a full year to start taking basic steps to detect and repair leaks – using cost-effective techniques that were pioneered in the states and which have long been in use by leading oil and gas operators.

In fact, operators were required to conduct their first leak surveys at well sites and compressor stations by June 3, 2017, several days before EPA’s unlawful 90-day suspension of the standards was published. Any company that wasn’t implementing these find-and-fix practices was breaking the law then.  And any company that isn’t complying since the court ruled the suspension illegal is violating the law now.

Some in industry have bemoaned the cost and confusion of “regulatory uncertainty” as the Trump EPA attempts to roll back basic public health and environmental protections and the courts time and time again rule those efforts illegal. Even now, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt – backed by players who represent industry’s lowest common denominator – is attempting another delay of the methane rules, this time for two years.

If the industry is truly worried about regulatory uncertainty, trade groups and the industry lobby should stop litigating against these vital protections, cease sowing doubt about their legal effect and urge Scott Pruitt to abandon his lawless efforts to undermine them. The chaos they bemoan is entirely of their own making.

It’s worth noting that not everyone in industry is playing that game.  Leaders aren’t throwing up smoke screens and dodging the issue, they’re moving forward.  In fact, both Exxon and Shell confirmed their compliance with the operational requirements of the methane rules even before the 90-day stay had been overturned by the court. That’s the kind of responsible action that’s not only good for communities and the environment, it’s good for business – in terms of both bottom-line and reputation.

As I said at the outset, I know a lot of good people in the oil and gas world – people who don’t like the turn things have taken in D.C. and who know that any short-lived upside will pale against the backlash this industry will face at home and abroad if it’s seen as doing nothing but fighting against the shift to a cleaner, lower-carbon future.

It’s time for leaders in industry to step out from behind the shadows.  If the IPAA’s of the world are allowed to speak for everyone, companies that are trying to do the right thing will be tagged as retrograde thinkers right along with them. Instead of proving that they can evolve, adapt and be part of the solutions demanded by and owed to both their host communities and the planet, they’ll be riding a side-car to obsolescence.

Read more

No one-hit wonder: Walmart reinforces its commitment to safer chemicals

By Boma Brown-West

Walmart made two big moves last week to reinforce its commitment to leadership on safer chemicals. In 2013 Walmart sent a major demand signal for safer chemicals through the supply chain – issuing its Sustainable Chemistry Policy that covered 700 suppliers and over 90,000 cleaning, personal care, and cosmetics products on its shelves. The policy called for greater ingredient transparency and the reduction and elimination of chemicals harmful to human and environmental health, starting with eight prevalent chemicals of concern. Last week, Walmart released its latest results following up on these commitments and became the first retailer to participate in the Chemical Footprint Project annual survey (and the second major retailer to become a CFP signatory).

Walmart’s participation in the Chemical Footprint Project is a new indicator of its continued commitment to safer products

The Chemical Footprint Project is an initiative to benchmark how effectively companies are managing the chemicals in their products and supply chains. As I mentioned in a previous blog, it’s a way for investors and large purchasers to assess which firms are carrying heavy chemical risk and which ones are demonstrating competitive leadership in response to growing demand for safer products. So far, 24 companies, including Walmart, participate in this program – sending a clear signal to their suppliers, investors, and consumers that chemicals management is material to business success. Leaders identified in the CFP survey show that adopting and enforcing policies and measuring progress are key to reducing chemicals of concern.

Walmart just made two big moves to reinforce its commitment to leadership on safer chemicals
Click To Tweet

Progress on its ground-breaking policy

Also last week, Walmart quietly released its second annual Sustainable Chemistry Policy report, showing progress on its policy to eliminate priority chemicals. The chemicals of concern were drawn from 16 reputable regulatory and other authoritative lists – starting with eight High Priority Chemicals.

A chemical inventory is the first step in meeting a commitment to reduce your chemical footprint

Before jumping into the results, let’s review why this public disclosure of results is important. If you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it effectively. Walmart’s public reporting of quantitative data shows that it is serious about measuring its chemical footprint and being transparent about it. Walmart uses aggregate chemical inventory information across and within the departments under the policy to track progress.

Clear, meaningful metrics to track progress are the next step

Walmart tracks progress by looking at both weight volume – pounds of chemicals going out the door – and ubiquity – number of suppliers using these chemicals and the number of products in which they are using them. Both are important indicators of the prevalence of these chemicals in our world. Last year, Walmart achieved a 95% reduction in its High Priority Chemicals (HPCs) at Walmart US stores, equivalent to 23 million lbs. Since then, another 372,230 lbs have been removed – a 30% drop compared to the 2015 weight volume and a 96% drop since the policy began in 2014. Similar reductions continue to happen at Walmart’s Sam’s Club stores:  another 75,629 lbs have been eliminated, a 53% drop compared to the 2015 weight volume and a 68% drop compared to 2014. The second year results also reaffirm that a concerted effort to reduce a select set of priority chemicals, i.e. HPCs, drives results faster. Overall usage of Walmart Priority Chemicals continues to decrease (at Walmart US stores), but not nearly at the rate of that of Walmart HPCs.

Figure 1: The cumulative weight volume reduction of High Priority Chemicals since 2014 has been over 23.6 million lbs and over 164,000 lbs for Walmart and Sam’s Club respectively.

Walmart’s public disclosure also shows that the company isn’t afraid to share where performance is lagging

Though overall weight volume of the HPCs continues to drop, their ubiquity continues to be a challenge. Both the number of products (i.e. UPCs) containing the HPCs and the number of suppliers using them continues to drop, at both Walmart US and Sam’s Club stores, but at a rate slower than the weight volume reduction.

Figure 2: Current percent of products (or UPCs) containing and suppliers who using High Priority Chemicals in products, along with the respective percentage point changes since 2014.

The tools for success

In the end, Walmart continues to make progress against its policy as demonstrated through real data. Beyond data, what else contributes to Walmart‘s success?

  • Clear targets
  • Driving action through the business (where relationships between buyers and suppliers stress the importance of the commitments)
  • Public accountability

With new notable commitments popping up from other major retailers like Target and CVS, we hope to see similar tracking and reporting of meaningful results both directly and through the Chemical Footprint Project survey.

FURTHER READING: See EDF’s previous analysis of Walmart’s first year results here and here.

Boma Brown-West is Senior Manager of Consumer Health at EDF + Business. You can follow her on Twitter for insights and analysis on safer chemicals leadership in the supply chain and subscribe to her Behind the Label newsletter here.

Read more