Is Natural Gas Really Worse Than Coal? A Case of Activist Science Versus Real Science?

Cornell University environmental biologist Robert Howarth led a team of researchers that put together and published an article in Climatic Change back in April that claimed natural gas produced by means of hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) is worse than burning coal when it comes to man-made warming of the atmosphere. The argument turns on the fact that a molecule of methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide.

Howarth and his team made some highly contestable number jiggering with methane's over-all global warming potential (GWP) and estimates about how much methane escapes from wells and pipelines into the atmosphere. Climatologists generally consider the effect of methane over a 100 year period, but Howarth's team decided to use a 20-year period. This considerably boosts methane's near-term GWP from the more usual 25 times that of carbon dioxide to more than 105 times. In addition, Howarth uses very dodgy data with regard to just how much methane escapes into the atmosphere.

Now the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory has done a life cycle analysis of gas versus coal and comes to a very different conclusion with regard to their effects on climate change:

Average natural gas baseload power generation has a life cycle GWP 50 percent lower (emphasis added) than average coal baseload power generation on a 20-year time horizon.

So even accepting Howarth's controversial 20-year time horizon, natural gas is much better than coal. This is basically the conclusion that most analysts had reached for years now. Never mind, the damage is done. Funds will be wasted on unnecessary research and regulations.

I cannot prove it, but I am beginning to get scared that Howarth's paper is an example of a growing trend in politicized sciences. When the herd of independent minds that constitutes the environmental community decides something is "bad," some activist scientist (motivated by the best of intentions I am sure) will step into the breach to cobble together a paper in support that foregone conclusion. Peer review appears to be powerless before the pressure of this kind of groupthink.

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  • Tman||

    When the herd of independent minds that constitutes the environmental community decides something is "bad," some activist scientist (motivated by the best of intentions I am sure) will step into the breach to cobble together a paper in support that foregone conclusion. Peer review appears to be powerless before the pressure of this kind of groupthink.

    Hmmmmm....it's a good thing that this didn't happen in terms of climate science, because then we might have political leaders using said "cobbled together papers" to threaten the destruction of entire industries in the middle of a global recession.

    Yep, good thing.

  • free2booze||

    Cheap energy saves more lives, than any reduction any reduction in CO2 levels ever will.

  • Sacre Bleu!||

    citations, references, sources, etc.

  • Wind Rider||

    TANSTAAFLMF. Research support for your snootiness starts at $350/hr USD. Be kind enough to post your credit card details, and we will get right on that.

  • ||

    Life expectancy in the US and Europe in the 1800's was about 40 to 45 years.

    Life expectancy in 2011 is 70+

  • PantsFan||

    Since both forms of fuel allow us to have modern consumption based societies, so of course the answer is they are both bad.

  • ||

    "When the herd of independent minds that constitutes the environmental community decides something is "bad," some activist scientist (motivated by the best of intentions I am sure) will step into the breach to cobble together a paper in support that foregone conclusion."

    That's one of the reasons so many people say they don't "believe in" global warming. A lot of it is political advocacy masquerading as science.

    It's one thing to start talking about the effects of global warming on polar bears--that's science. But so often the end of the conversation is predicated on assumptions about how polar bears are more important than coal miners or suburban commuters--and that's just not science.

    It is rational to assume that political advocacy groups will use the science to support whatever their agenda is--and if that goes for polar bears or natural gas, it's no wonder so many people say they don't "believe in" in global warming, etc.

  • sevo||

    And energy policy set by wishing is even worse:
    "California can meet its mandate to slash greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels within the next 40 years - but only with...[unicorn farts]..."
    (I made that last part up, but it's close):
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/.....1JKAP7.DTL

  • Spartacus||

    I have already begun hoarding unicorn farts. Demand will spike and then I'll be rich!

  • CatoTheElder||

    Au contraire! California has already made great strides in reducing emissions because its 1990 Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate and Arnold's hydrogen infrastructure initiative have eliminated the need for gasoline and diesel in California. And it did wonders for GM and Chrysler. Green jobs and no emissions! Plenteous state coffers and a profitable automotive sector! What wonders the coercive state can accomplish!

    You small-minded engineers need to shut up, and let legislators, bureaucrats, and community organizers do the hard work required to change the laws of thermodynamics and economics.

  • sevo||

    CatoTheElder|5.26.11 @ 2:41PM|#
    "Au contraire! California has already made great strides in reducing emissions because its 1990 Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate and Arnold's hydrogen infrastructure initiative have eliminated the need for gasoline and diesel in California."

    And it's easy to see this is true as they've driven about 50% of the filling stations out of business, leaving the remainder to set prices knowing full well you'll be out of gas before you find any competition.

  • Spartacus||

    Polar bears survived the medieval warm period and they'll survive this one.

    PS--what's with the ad for Carrie Nation Elizabeth Warren over on the side?

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    They've survived at least two major inter-glacial periods.

    But that doesn't actually prove they'll make it this time.
    'Course, they're bigger than the brown bears, so I image they'll have a fighting chance as long as they have some habitat to play in.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    Hmmm...take "this time" to mean the next time which might or might not be soon even on the geological time scale.

  • sarcasmic||

    I cannot prove it, but I am beginning to get scared that Howarth's paper is an example of a growing trend in politicized sciences. When the herd of independent minds that constitutes the environmental community decides something is "bad," some activist scientist (motivated by the best of intentions I am sure) will step into the breach to cobble together a paper in support that foregone conclusion. Peer review appears to be powerless before the pressure of this kind of groupthink.

    You're only now figuring this out?

    Policy is written first and the science to justify it comes second.

    What other proof do you need?

  • Neu Mejican||

    Howarth and his team made some highly contestable number jiggering with methane's over-all global warming potential (GWP) and estimates about how much methane escapes from wells and pipelines into the atmosphere.

    I encourage everyone to read the comments to the blog that RB links here. They include responses from the authors of the study.

    I cannot prove it

    We know, we know. But you are willing to make the accusation nonetheless.

  • WTF||

    Well no one has actually proved that any warming of the atmosphere is man-made, but many are willing to make the accusation nonetheless.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Well no one has actually proved that any warming of the atmosphere is man-made, but many are willing to make the accusation nonetheless.

    The accusation RB is making is one of motives, not science. Journalistic standards of proof would seem to be the standard you would use here. He is printing an unfounded accusation in a national publication without attempting to meet journalistic standards of proof. He even cites some "trend" without providing evidence.

  • Joel||

    Except that this is opinion and is clearly stated as so. It is not presented as "fact". Open up to any newspaper opinion section and you will see the same thing in any professional editorial.

  • ||

    NM: Yes, I am quite clearly expressing an opinion in an opinion magazine.

    That being said, I read scientific studies in politically controversial areas all the time, e.g., stem cells, biotech crops, climate change, etc. In this case, provoked by my recent reporting on the fracking issue, I have just begun contemplating an article on the surprisingly regular appearance of "convenient" studies.

    Another "convenient" study on fracking is the Duke University study that found elevated levels of methane in wells near Dimock, PA where it was already well known that natural gas (as seen in the documentary Gasland and reported in the New York Times) had seeped into some local water wells. Why? Because Cabot Energy had improperly installed well casings. Had nothing to do with fracking.

    It's just my opinion that it might have been more scientifically interesting to check for methane contamination in wells that were NOT known to be already contaminated. But that's just my opinion.

  • Neu Mejican||

    NM: Yes, I am quite clearly expressing an opinion in an opinion magazine.

    True enough. And you certainly provided the appropriate hedges around your accusation to make that clear.

    That being said, I read scientific studies in politically controversial areas all the time, e.g., stem cells, biotech crops, climate change, etc. In this case, provoked by my recent reporting on the fracking issue, I have just begun contemplating an article on the surprisingly regular appearance of "convenient" studies.

    I suspect that there is quite a bit of selection bias involved here. I can't prove it, of course, but I think you may find that you notice these articles once you start paying attention to a topic. Similar to when you buy an new car and then begin to notice the surprising number of other people who bought the same model, or chose the same color.

  • ||

    NM: Actually, if I'm right, the point of the articles is to be "noticed" by journalists, politicians, and activists.

  • ||

    The fact the they selectively provide press releases and talking points to the likes of Green Peace, Friends of the Earth and Joe Romm would support this.

  • Neu Mejican||

    There is that vague "they" again.

  • Neu Mejican||

    RB,

    I have just begun contemplating an article on the surprisingly regular appearance of "convenient" studies.

    You might find this useful in your background research.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/scie.....journalism

  • Teh duhbate is offer||

    But what about the computers, and the models? What sort of crazy standards have you set for proof of man made, CO2 induced genocide? Do you want actual predictions, and experimentation to prove those predictions? HA! Don't make me laugh. That's why we have the computers and the models.

  • sevo||

    Neu Mejican|5.26.11 @ 2:15PM|#
    "...I encourage everyone to read the comments to the blog that RB links here...."

    I propose anyone suggesting others read unselected, random comments be hung from the thumbs.
    Pull quote, link, time stamp or forget it.

  • Neu Mejican||

    sevo,

    I encourage you to read the full discussion. Points and counter-points so that you can be more informed. If you are so lazy you only want sound bites, I can't help ya.

  • sevo||

    NM, I encourage you to read "Cool It!", "Knowledge and Decisions" and "Super Freakonomics" for a full discussion. Or are you too lazy?

  • Neu Mejican||

    Cool It - do you an author for that one. I don't know it.

    Super Freakonomics - even less impressed with it than the first one.

    Knowledge and Decisions - I have read several books and articles with that title. Again, without the author, well...

  • sevo||

    Neu Mejican|5.26.11 @ 3:16PM|#
    "Cool It - do you an author for that one. I don't know it."

    Ah, yes. Amazon is just sooooooooooo hard to find:
    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb.....nmentalist's+guide+to+global+warming&sprefix=cool+it+the+skeptical+environmentalist's+guide+to+global+warming&rh=n:283155,k:cool+it+the+skeptical+environmentalist's+guide+to+global+warming
    Go away.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Ok. Lomborg is so hard to type. I have read a lot of his stuff. Not that particular title.

  • ||

    If you are so lazy you only want sound bites, I can't help ya.

    Then can the innuendo if you can't back it up. You clearly have a position to push on this issue, so explain it and direct us to specific fleshings-out of the arguments for that position.

  • sevo||

    "Then can the innuendo if you can't back it up."

    Oh, but it's so much safer for NM to suggest NM's really is just on the side of angels.
    Until that damn halo falls and strangles the twit.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Then can the innuendo if you can't back it up.

    What innuendo? Ron says that the results are highly contestable. The blog he links to includes specific responses by the authors to the points contested. I encourage people to take note of that.

    You clearly have a position to push on this issue, so explain it and direct us to specific fleshings-out of the arguments for that position.

    I think I have already done that in my other comments. If you need clarification on a specific point let me know.

  • ||

    NM: You've never wondered about how "convenient" it is that some studies just happen to appear when certain policy debates heat up?

    And while you're recommending things to read, may I encourage you to take a nice close look at the NETL life cycle analysis and then compare it with Howarth's study for yourself. Then make up your mind. I did.

  • Neu Mejican||

    NM: You've never wondered about how "convenient" it is that some studies just happen to appear when certain policy debates heat up?

    You know enough about the time lag on peer-reviewed science to know that there is a "chicken or egg" thing going on here, surely.

    And while you're recommending things to read, may I encourage you to take a nice close look at the NETL life cycle analysis and then compare it with Howarth's study for yourself. Then make up your mind. I did.

    Sure. I didn't think I needed to second your suggestion to read that for those that want a more complete understanding.

    Please note I have not put forth an opinion about the validity of the study - but encouraged people to avoiding taking your word for things(or my word, for that matter) regarding its validity.

  • ||

    NM: My concern is that certain "chickens" lay a lot of "eggs" that hatch a lot of political and regulatory mischief without much scientific support.

    And yes, the producers of what I am calling "convenient" studies are taking advantage of the lags of peer review to manipulate the political and policy process. Peer review lag is a feature, not a bug for politically motivated science. Refutation of faulty studies often comes to late to stop a policy process that ends up wasting research time and taxpayer dollars. But that's just my opinion.

  • ||

    Stern's bullshit about catastrophic global warming.

    Steig's bullshit about Antarctica warming.

    Global warming increasing size and frequency of hurricanes bullshit.

    Small pox vaccination leads to autism bullshit

    Rate of species extinction exaggerated.

    Pesticide cancer rates exaggerated.

    Mann's "hide the decline" Hockey stick

    And wasn't there a recent thing about crop loss due to global warming that turned out to be complete bullshit.

    New Mex has your side been right about anything?

  • Neu Mejican||

    New Mex has your side been right about anything?

    My side?

  • ||

    NM: Perhaps you visit the blogs of other opinion magazines, say Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Nation, in which your -- how shall I say -- skepticism, might appear to commenters there to cut another way?

  • Neu Mejican||

    NM: Perhaps you visit the blogs of other opinion magazines, say Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Nation, in which your -- how shall I say -- skepticism, might appear to commenters there to cut another way?

    I not sure what your point is here.

  • Neu Mejican||

    NM: Perhaps you visit the blogs of other opinion magazines, say Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Nation, in which your -- how shall I say -- skepticism, might appear to commenters there to cut another way?

    On reflection, I think I get your meaning. Actually, I tend to be just as much of an alternative voice on Mother Jones when I comment as I am here. Your counterparts at that agenda driven magazine are just as likely to distort the message as you are over here. Don't read The New Republic, ever, and haven't really read The Nation in years.

  • ||

    My side?

    I will freely admit that it may be a side of one, you, vs. another side of one; me.

    The point being that all these studies did not meet my smell test and i suspect most did meet your smell test.

    I will also freely admit that my politics at least somewhat guided by skepticism of these claims...and it would appear that it guided me in a correct direction.

    I suspect that you accepted the claims made in the above studies because you were partially guided by politics as well....and even if not then why at least in the above listed studies were you guided (what ever guided you) to the wrong conclusion but my at least partial political guidance put me on the correct path?

  • Neu Mejican||

    joshua corning|5.26.11 @ 4:05PM|#

    My side?

    I will freely admit that it may be a side of one, you, vs. another side of one; me.

    OK.

    The point being that all these studies did not meet my smell test and i suspect most did meet your smell test.

    Not all of those are "studies" and some aren't even claims I have seen made in a serious piece of research, so I am not sure how to respond. But the mixing of positions makes it hard to discern what you think that I think. If you know what I mean. Mostly I see a list of strawman talking points that have little to do with science.

    I will also freely admit that my politics at least somewhat guided by skepticism of these claims...and it would appear that it guided me in a correct direction.

    Correct?

    I suspect that you accepted the claims made in the above studies because you were partially guided by politics as well....and even if not then why at least in the above listed studies were you guided (what ever guided you) to the wrong conclusion but my at least partial political guidance put me on the correct path?

    gubba wha?!?
    Really. I wanted to respond with substance but I don't even know what you are accusing me of. So I am left with a general position: The validity of the science doesn't have anything to do with the politics. People always approach information from a biased perspective, but the scientific process is designed with checks to avoid too much damage from those biases. Rushing to judgment about a scientific question based on a single study or even a handful of studies rarely gets you very close to the "correct" answer. If you ever get a "I knew it" reaction to a study or a blog post criticizing a study...always take the time to examine your own bias.

  • ||

    Not all of those are "studies" and some aren't even claims I have seen made in a serious piece of research, so I am not sure how to respond.

    Stern's bullshit about catastrophic global warming.

    Stern review on the economics of climate change (2006)

    Steig's bullshit about Antarctica warming.

    Steig et al. (2009)

    Global warming increasing size and frequency of hurricanes bullshit.

    Mann, M. E., and K. A. Emanuel (2006)

    Small pox vaccination leads to autism bullshit

    Wakefield (1998)
    I will admit adding Small Pox was a bit of an embellishment meant to exaggerate the claims.

    Rate of species extinction exaggerated.

    Species–area relationships always overestimate extinction rates from habitat loss

    * Fangliang He1, 2
    * & Stephen P. Hubbell3, 4
    Nature Volume: 473, Pages: 368–371
    Date published: (19 May 2011)

    Note: This is not the study that makes the exaggeration claim but the paper that refutes it and the IPCC estimates.

    Pesticide cancer rates exaggerated.

    Silent Spring (1962)

    Mann's "hide the decline" Hockey stick

    Mann, Bradley and Hughes (1999)

    And wasn't there a recent thing about crop loss due to global warming that turned out to be complete bullshit.

    Climate Trends and Global Crop Production Since 1980

    1. David B. Lobell1,*,
    2. Wolfram Schlenker2,3, and
    3. Justin Costa-Roberts1

  • Neu Mejican||

    Much easier with citations.

    Some of those I read when they came out. Some of those I didn't read when they came out. Some I haven't read yet. Most address questions that would not yet have anything approaching a "correct" answer. So, of the ones I read, my "smell test" as best I can recall was along the lines of..."I wonder how that it going to pan out with further investigation?" A point I have made before in our discussions here on H&R about science is that your posts on these types of questions too often include words like "proof." I would have to do more of a review than I am willing to do, but I would bet that none of these articles claim to "prove" anything. Instead, they ask narrow scientific questions and present evidence.

    Again: Rushing to judgment about a scientific question based on a single study or even a handful of studies rarely gets you very close to the "correct" answer.

    Side-note on Wakefield: I wonder why it is included in the list and how you see it relating to the "politics" of the other studies. It was a cynical fraud perpetrated by an individual hoping to sell a product. Not sure what you think the political implications of that are.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Joshua,

    Here is a more eloquent version of the point I was trying to make.

    http://www.boingboing.net/2011.....te-ch.html

  • Neu Mejican||

    Refutation of faulty studies often comes to(sic) late to stop a policy process that ends up wasting research time and taxpayer dollars.

    The issue of how science is used in policy is certainly an interesting one, but I don't agree with your assessment here that the follow up studies are a "waste" of research time. For an example, the Autism causes vaccination research has been very useful, even though it was sparked by a fraud of a study. The more damaging part of the discourse are politically motivated opinion columns that present scientific results without the appropriate context. Particularly damaging are players that frame the debate in terms of the motivations of the scientists rather than the content of the science. If politically motivated science is bad science, the response to it is good science. If politically motivated science is good science, then the political motivation doesn't matter, as far as the science goes.

  • Neu Mejican||

    he Autism causes vaccination research has been very useful, even though it was sparked by a fraud of a study.

    I think I need to make sure I am clear here.

    I should have said: "The research refuting the claim that vaccinations cause Autism..."

  • ||

    NM: The issue of how science is used in policy is certainly an interesting one, but I don't agree with your assessment here that the follow up studies are a "waste" of research time.

    What an interesting opinion!

    Such studies are not always a waste of time, just mostly. With regard to autism studies, the cost of massive epidemiological studies topped with unnecessary reformulations of vaccines were a waste of research time and money. And let's not forget to mention the kids who suffered unnecessarily because their parents were afraid to get them vaccinated.

    I offer as a counter example: the vast amount of research that has to go into the safety of biotech crops that is a near complete waste of time and money.

  • Neu Mejican||

    unnecessary reformulations of vaccines were a waste of research time and money. And let's not forget to mention the kids who suffered unnecessarily because their parents were afraid to get them vaccinated.

    I was trying to keep to the narrower point. Yes, these studies caused other damage certainly.

    What an interesting opinion!

    You forgot to close that /sarcasm tag. ;^)

  • ||

    NM: Perhaps once you've had a chance to read Howarth and the NETL analysis, you'll be so kind as to post your opinion of them here?

  • GILMORE||

    estimates about how much methane escapes from wells and pipelines into the atmosphere

    Isnt the vast majority of methane in the atmosphere the product of dairy cows/farm animals and naturally released by wetlands, swamps, plants, etc?

    I don't recall usage of natural gas even in the top 10 sources of atmospheric methane, although Im not 100% sure.

  • WTF||

    [...]hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) is worse than burning coal when it comes to man-made warming of the atmosphere

    Shouldn't they first have to prove that any warming of the atmosphere is actually man-made before simply assuming it is so?

  • sarcasmic||

    Denier! Denier!

    The warming of the atmosphere is man made because it must be.
    We've been belching out all these gasses into the atmosphere, and they must be having some sort of effect. They must!
    Add to that the fact that the climate is changing, and there you go!
    Human activity must be having an effect because it must, and the climate is changing, therefor human activity must be the cause!
    It is the job of client scientists to confirm this undeniable fact, and supply politicians the proof that they need to justify policy that they have already written.
    You see, policy writers can fix the problem without even seeing the science!
    Isn't that amazing?

  • No Name Guy||

    Ron - quit blathering about "peer review". Peer review doesn't mean squat (oh, my buddy say's it's good, therefore it must be).

    Independent replication.

  • GroundTruth||

    Two problems with this:

    1) One molecule of methane burning creates only one molecule of CO2 for each 4 C-H bonds broken, as compared with most other hydrocarbons where only 2 C-H bonds are broken (plus one C-C bond) to produce one molecule of CO2. I'd need to look up the thermodynamics of burning the two (energy out per greenhouse gas equivalent created), but I wonder if the anti-methane crowd take this into account?

    2) At least half of the methane floating around comes from gas seeps such as off Santa Monica. Natural gas seeps. That is one of the *easily* quantified natural sources of CH4. I'd be interested to learn how much is coming from other natural sources. Is there a gas record (ice bubbles) of methane over the past 50K years? Has it actually gone up since Drake knocked that hole in a Pennsylvania hillside?

  • ||

    GT: Actually, ice bubbles indicate that methane concentrations have increased about 2 and half times since the end of the ice age.

    The National Climate Data Center notes:

    Methane is an extremely effective absorber of radiation, though its atmospheric concentration is less than CO2 and its lifetime in the atmosphere is brief (10-12 years), compared to some other greenhouse gases (such as CO2, N2O, CFCs). Methane(CH4) has both natural and anthropogenic sources. It is released as part of the biological processes in low oxygen environments, such as in swamplands or in rice production (at the roots of the plants). Over the last 50 years, human activities such as growing rice, raising cattle, using natural gas and mining coal have added to the atmospheric concentration of methane. Direct atmospheric measurement of atmospheric methane has been possible since the late 1970s and its concentration rose from 1.52 ppmv in 1978 by around 1 percent per year to 1990, since when there has been little sustained increase. The current atmospheric concentration is approximately 1.77 ppmv, and there is no scientific consensus on why methane has not risen much since around 1990.

  • ||

    Peer review appears to be powerless before the pressure of this kind of groupthink.

    Peer review is actually helpful to groupthink, though this effect can be minimized by an honest reviewer. In any case it certainly doesn't counter it.

  • ||

    Your distinction between "minimized" and "counter it" is a distinction without a difference.

  • jtuf||

    This post makes me feel better about turning down Cornell's offer of admittance to their graduate program.

  • Nutjob Stoner||

    And you're going to find a better university environment where, exactly? Somewhere outside the US, presumably?

    If you're doing your terminal graduate degree, trust me -- in the long run you're best off getting it from the institution with the best name you can get.

    Irrational as it may seem, the "coat tails" effect is very real in this world.

  • ||

    Now, to work on anthropogenic global warming.

  • ||

    For that the global surface temperature record would have to diverge with the satellite global temperature record for Ron to move on it.

    Of course the two have diverged but apparently not enough. I keep hearing the claim that they are "generally" in agreement...whatever "generally" means.

    Of course the surface record is constantly being adjusted where as the satellite record has been adjusted really only once....but that one time i guess is enough to keep Ron on the AGW team....the constant adjustments to the surface record be damned.

  • Nutjob Stoner||

    Ron,

    I cannot prove it, but I am beginning to get scared that Howarth's paper is an example of a growing trend in politicized sciences.....Peer review appears to be powerless before the pressure of this kind of groupthink.

    I would strongly encourage you pay much more attention to this little idea you've got going here. Of course, you'll run the risk of taking a lot of lumps on the head for it. But this the truth may demand.

    I work with these people, all day every day. Group-think and echo chambers are rampant in the American "science" community these days, and it largely driven by philosophical and political (i.e. left wing) agendas. I often have to go find an engineer to do sanity checks for me because I'm not sure I can trust our "scientists".

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