Category Archives: Environment

Toxic Beaches

algal bloom

algal bloom

Beaches in several counties on Florida’s Atlantic Coast are currently closed due to the presence of slimy, malodorous and most importantly toxic algae. The algae growth comes from nutrient laden water being released from Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding. For the back story read on.

Thomas Malthus was a English cleric who in 1798 published an essay which suggested that human disaster loomed due to over population. He postulated that population grew logarithmically [1,2,4,8,16…] whereas food production only grows arithmetically [1,2,3,4,5…] Malthus predicted famine and starvation were the only possible outcomes without controlling population growth.

The Malthusian Catastrophe of course didn’t come about. Although population is growing logarithmically agricultural practices have been able to sustain burgeoning human populations. Improved tools, irrigation, mechanization, fertilizers, pesticides,plant breeding and ever larger farms averted the catastrophe.

An important agricultural innovation was called the Green Revolution of the 1950s-1960s. Food production was increased by careful selection of plant cultivars which responded favorably to large increases of Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizers. Application at rates far above what a crop could actually absorb did result in increased production, but resulted in fertilizer run-off. Increased profits from the crops offset the wasted fertilizer.

But everything goes somewhere. The excess fertilizer washes off the farmland and into adjacent low areas to rivers and lakes, and ultimately into the oceans. Just as the fertilizer increases crop production in farm fields, it increases algal growth in the rivers and lakes.

The Atlantic beaches in South Florida are being fouled with algal blooms from water draining from Lake Okeechobee. The fertilizer laden water is the result of run-off from sugar cane fields which have replaced much of the Everglades.

Besides the inconvenience and costs associated with lost tourism dollars, there is significant secondary environmental damage. After an algae bloom comes an algae crash. As the algae dies off it decomposes aerobically. That means it consumes the Oxygen in the water. The same Oxygen that all the animals require, from the simplest aquatic insects up to and including all the fish.

In certain locales there are “dead zones” with little if any animal life. All the coastal areas of the US, including the Great Lakes, are plagued by dead zones at the mouths of major rivers. They are know scientifically as hypoxic (low-Oxygen) zones and range in size from less than a square mile to over 25,000 square miles. The largest is essentially all of the Baltic Sea. The hypoxic zone at the mouth of the Mississippi is about 7,000 square miles

Around the world there a several hundred of these sterile areas. We have averted the Malthusian Catastrophe for us, but created a catastrophe for the native flora and fauna of the planet.

Ozone on the Mend

ozreact

ozreact

For once I can bring good [environmental] news to this column. The Ozone hole is shrinking! This is a result of what may be the most successful international treaty ever to address a dire environmental threat. First a little background and then the details.

Ozone is an allotrope of the element Oxygen. Allotrope is the name given to substances made of the same element which have different atomic arrangements. Diamonds and graphite are perhaps the best know substances which are allotropes, in this case of carbon. The stuff which comprises 21% of the atmosphere, the stuff that aerobic organisms such as we human beings need to live is also an allotrope of Oxygen. It’s the most common form so it is just called Oxygen, but it is more formally Dioxygen. It’s chemical formula is O2, whereas the formula of Ozone is O3.

Ozone is created in the upper atmosphere via the reaction of dioxygen. The process of the conversion of Dioxygen to Ozone absorbs significant amounts Ultraviolet light. If this light were not absorbed in the process it would continue to the surface and make life on earth impossible. What little Ultraviolet light does make it to the surface of earth is responsible for the most common form of cancer – skin cancer.

OK, that is a little dense, to recap simply, life would not exist on the surface of the planet without a proper amount of Ozone in the upper atmosphere.

In the early 1970s scientists showed in laboratory studies that certain man made compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) react with Ozone and suggested that if these compounds are released to the atmosphere they could cause the depletion of Ozone in the stratosphere (upper atmosphere.) Subsequent measurements of the amount of Ozone showed that in fact the CFCs were going up to the stratosphere and Ozone was being depleted. And the depletion correlated precisely with the concentration of CFCs.

For complex meteorologic reasons, the depletion was the most severe during the spring over the north and south poles. The depletion was so great as to constitute a “hole in the Ozone layer.” Whereas the reduction of Ozone amounted to a few percent at the equator, it got as high as 90% or more at the poles.

In the late 1980s world leaders met in Montreal and agreed to a treaty, thenceforth called the Montreal Protocol which would phase out the use of CFCs and similar compounds, the majority of which were used as refrigerants. New compounds that did not deplete Ozone were gradually developed and put in to service, but it was a decades long process to find the right compounds and modify the refrigerator compressors to work with the new compounds.

Recent measurements now show that it worked! Reductions in the production and release of CFCs has slowed the degradation of stratospheric Ozone and in fact the “holes” have begun to heal. Besides the fact that life on the planet can go on unimpeded by damaging ultraviolet light, it shows that the world community can come to agreements that affect all of us.

Pollution Trading

Pollution caused by a process or industry is a prime example of a negative externality. The pollution producer makes decisions on the cost of and profit from an activity. The cost of pollution is not born by the producer or even the consumer, but rather by impacted individuals or society as a whole.

Society can ban activities which pollute, but this will reduce economic activity which is also detrimental to society. One method to try to meld these opposing ideas is a system of pollution trading. This generally involves governmental establishment of a “tolerable” level of pollution as a cap, then a right to a portion of the allowed pollution can be bought and sold just like a commodity. With a cap in place, pollution can’t get worse, and the cap can be gradually lower to reduce total pollution.

Pollution trading in the United States began with Sulfur Dioxide (SO2,) the principle source of acid rain. The major source of the pollutant is produced by burning coal. In 1990, a cap of 10 million tons per annum was established. Utilities had to buy a “right to” pollute. The cap was then lowered in future years. Companies that could eliminate part or all of their share could sell the pollution rights to other utilities who were unwilling or unable to reduce their emissions.

The assumption is that the environment can deal with a small amount of pollution, as long as it is sufficiently dispersed. For the case of acid rain, alkaline soils or areas with a limestone formations can absorb some acidity. Another type of pollution is nutrient overload. Certain compounds of Nitrogen and Phosphorous are used as fertilizer. If the the fertilizer spread on a crop isn’t absorbed, it runs off and can damage the environment.

Agricultural activities and waste treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay were seriously damaging water quality. Four states – Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia joined together to create Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for nutrients across the watershed. The ongoing program through nutrient trading and a gradual reduction of the TMLD, is resulting in improved water quality. There are costs associated with operating a trading program, but it produces positive externalities such as improved fisheries, and increased tourism due to improved water quality.

In 2015 the Arkansas legislature approved ACT 335, to “Authorize the implementation of nutrient water quality trading, credits, offsets, and compliance associations and for other purposes…” The plan is to employ nutrient pollution trading to ultimately improve the water quality in several impaired watersheds across the state. Biannually, the state of Arkansas must submit a list of impaired water bodies known as the 303(d) list. By capping total nutrients leaving the watershed and then slowly lowering the cap, water quality should improve. Market forces will determine how to best reduce nutrient pollution, not stringent regulations. Waste treatment facilities and farms which are successful at limiting nutrients we be able to “sell” their improvements to others not so successful.

Wind Power Transmission Line

A federal decision on the Plains and Eastern Clean Line High Voltage Direct Current line is imminent. This proposed 700 plus mile long transmission line will extend from the panhandle of Oklahoma, through Pope County, and on to Memphis. If approved and built it will allow for the movement of large amounts of wind generated power from the midwest to parts east where it can be used to replace coal fired generating plants.

The route already approved by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will pass through central Pope county. A substation just north of Atkins will allow Arkansans a piece of the power from the line. For perspective the line will cross Big Piney Creek near where it crosses Highway 164.

The line and others like it are necessary to reduce our need for coal which fouls the atmosphere in multiple ways. There is a superabundance of clean, relatively inexpensive energy waiting to be tapped in the midwest, the only need being transmission.

The Line is not without its detractors however, especially those in the path of the powerline right-of-way (ROW.) It will require a couple of hundred foot wide ROW with 150 foot towers spaced about 5 to the mile. The land within the ROW can be used safely for any purpose with the exception of forestry – crops, hay fields, and pastures are acceptable uses for the area. Landowners will be compensated for the ROW but they complain that compensation is insufficient.

It really boils down to “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY.) This is not surprising, nobody wants their view of a skyline marred by powerlines. But powerlines are a fact of modern life. Anyone who is connected to the electrical grid benefits from numerous folks having yielded a ROW to get that power to their home or business.

One suggestion to remove the negative visual impact would be to bury the line underground. It has been done locally on a very small scale. In some newer subdivisions the distribution lines are buried but not for far, as it is quite expensive compared to overhead lines.

The relative cost of burying high voltage transmission lines is assumed to be prohibitive as it is just not done with the exception of lines that cross large bodies of water where it is the only possible alternative.

To bury a transmission line requires serious disruption, trenching then back filling, not just pastures and hay fields but sidewalks, roadways, and even rivers and wet lands. For forest land, a clear cut ROW would be necessary to be able to bring in the heavy equipment necessary to excavate and lay the line.

One of the benefits of buried lines is that they are less susceptible to weather related outages. The other side of the coin is when an outage occurs in an underground line it is harder to locate and harder to access, changing repair times from hours for overhead lines to weeks for underground lines.

Cost estimates are in the range of 2 to 10 times more expensive than overhead lines. Power companies across the land, whether private like Entergy or public like the Arkansas Electric Coops, have made the decision to stay with overhead lines, wherever possible.

icey

Selective Environmental Review for 2015

A review of environmental protection, locally, nationally and internationally are all somewhat positive for 2015, especially when it comes to clean air and climate change issues.

Without doubt the biggest win for the environment was the December signing of an agreement by representatives from 190 countries to rein in global warming by reducing Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions. Most of the world, with the exception a few countries such as North Korea and the republican leadership here in the US, agree that global warming and rapid climate change must be addressed. Of course the plan is voluntary and each country has submitted there own plan as to what they will achieve but it is an important first step for the international community.

In August this year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the clean power plan. The aim of the plan is to reduce CO2 emissions over 30 % by 2030. Each state has it’s own target. The formula is based on the amount of CO2 released per energy produced. Those states that have already taken steps will have an easier time achieving their particular goal. California has a relatively high mix of non carbon energy sources already so their target is only a 14 % reduction in emissions, whereas Arkansas needs a net reduction of 36 %.

Meeting the targets for the clean power plan will be made easier by the signing of the omnibus budget bill last week. Under the current legislation existing tax credits will not expire. The 30 percent Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar will be extended for another three years. It will then ramp down incrementally through 2021, and remain at 10 percent permanently beginning in 2022. The 2.3cent per kWhr Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind will also be extended through next year. Projects that begin construction in 2017 will see a 20 percent reduction in the incentive. The PTC will then drop 20 percent each year through 2020.

After years of stalling the EPA will begin enforcement of their regional haze rule. This rule is will reduce smog especially in wilderness areas and National Parks by forcing regulation of cross-state emissions. Essentially power plants and Texas and Oklahoma will have to reduce smog which drifts downwind and impacts Arkansas’ air quality.

In November president Obama moved to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This oil pipeline was designed to move the heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Athabasca in Saskatchewan Canada to refineries on the gulf coast. Because of the nature of this heavy crude, most of its refined products would be exported and provide little benefit to the US, while adding a significant carbon load to the atmosphere.

Cleaner water has not escaped attention either. In May the EPA finalized a rule broadening the definition of what waters would be regulated and at the same time clarified the regulations for the Clean Water Act. The original act was initially applied to “navigable waters” and this lead to confusion. What is now called the waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule is meant to protect drinking water specifically and the environment more generally.

Finally a partial win to protect the Buffalo National River (BNR) from agricultural nutrient pollution follows from the state Pollution Control and Environment commission’s 5 year extension of a moratorium. It will prevent development of any new medium to large size hog factories in the watershed of the BNR. The existing 6,500 hog factory at Mt Judea will remain in operation.

EPA Rules and Regulations

The 1960s saw much turmoil, but one positive feature was the growing awareness of the need to protect the environment. Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 and brought an awareness of the damaging effects of the use of persistent pesticides. Other dramatic events during previous decades such as fogs comprised of sulfuric acid killed people. This occurred when an inversion layer trapped the stagnant air.

In 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland OH caught on fire, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to a couple of bridges. The fire was a result of pollution from oil and other flammable factory wastes – and this wasn’t the first time.

The growing concern of the public, youth activism, and the first Earth Day forced the hand of President Nixon. Previously protection of the environment was spread over several agencies, but mainly the Health, Education, and Welfare Department’s National Air Pollution Control Administration and the Interior Department’s Federal Water Quality Administration. The programs were combined with the creation of a new cabinet department, the Environmental Protection Agency.

Existing laws concerning water were amended and strengthened and became the Clean Water Act of 1972. The act established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States. And it is not static but rather dynamic, being amended as sound science influenced policy. Changes have met with controversy.

Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 had left unclear just what the “waters of the United States” mean, so the EPA and Corps of Engineers collaborated on the Clean Water Rule which more clearly defines just what waters will be subject to regulation. The ultimate goal is to protect drinking water. Agricultural, and industrial concerns have called the rule overreach and in fact Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has sued to block the implementation here in Arkansas.

Similarly the Clean Air Act has existed since 1963 but has been amended several times as needed to protect the air we all depend on. Toxic emissions that resulted in acid rain, and levels of heavy metals that can cause nerve damage and especially brain damage (Mercury, Cadmium, Lead) have been lowered in the environment.

The EPA has been studying haze (smog) in National Parks and Wilderness Areas since 1988. In 1999 they began an ambitious program to work with states to clear the air. The haze is due mainly to power plant emissions of fine particulates. The Regional Haze Rule however has been delayed to the point that recently The Sierra Club has sued the EPA for failing to implement a plan in conjunction with the state of Arkansas. [disclosure: I am an officer in the Arkansas Chapter of the Sierra Club]

Another contentious feature of clean air results from Bush’s EPA declaring Carbon Dioxide a pollutant in 2006. Much litigation later, President Obama has sought the Clean Power Plan, meant to reduce CO2 emissions by 32% by 2030. Both the Regional Haze Rule and the Clean Power Plan are being vigorously opposed by our Attorney General as being too costly.

As the population continues to grow, our regulatory structure must meet the demand of more pressure on clean air and clean water. We are the problem, and we have to be the solution.

Mean Coal

To say that every time you flip a light switch, you kill another coal miner would be an outrageous and unsupportable allegation, but we need to think about the costs, in addition to the electric bill, of keeping the lights on.

Close to half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from burning coal, and a lot of it. Current use is about a billion tons of coal a year. The costs we pay directly include the actual costs of extraction of the coal, and additional costs tangentially related to coal extraction. The tragic deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia forces us to see these additional costs.

In addition to the deaths from accidents are the more significant but less dramatic deaths from diseases associated with coal mining. Black lung disease is estimated to take 1,000- 3,000 thousand lives per year. Chronic, non-lethal conditions such as related cardiopulmonary diseases affect many, many more miners. If the coal companies pay the health care costs associated with mining, then the cost is added to the price we pay for electricity, but the emotional costs are immeasurable and born by the miners and their families.

We literally have to decide what a life is worth. How much are we willing to spend on our electricity to prevent another death through greater but much more costly safety regulations? Put more bluntly, how many deaths and how much debilitating illness will we tolerate to save money on our electric bill?

Costs which we bear collectively but outside the cost of electricity are more insidious. Severe environmental degradation occurs when mountain top removal strategies are employed to get at coal seams. The tops of mountains are blasted and pushed into surrounding valleys. Acid drainage from various mining techniques can destroy virtually all life in affected watersheds. Emissions from the burning of coal include numerous toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic. More radionuclides are released to the environment from burning coal than the total fuel cycle of nuclear reactors. Coal combustion is the major contributor to global warming and and changes in ocean chemistry through acidification.

So the question becomes what do you want to pay for your electricity, in dollars, lives and the environment you leave to our children. The most important thing you can do is examine how much energy you use. You really don’t need kilowatt-hours of electricity. What you want is a warm in the winter, cool in the summer, well-lit house. Or a successful business that meets the customer’s needs.

To a surprising degree, this can be achieved through the utilization of what Amory Lovins calls “negawatts.” That’s the energy you don’t use through efficiency. It’s better than a free lunch, it is a lunch that pays you to eat it! Examples abound: LED light bulbs, attic insulation, shade trees, and clotheslines just to name a few.
Even if we don’t act responsibly, ultimately we will power the world without burning carbon because we will have used up it all up. But we can act responsibly, we can decide that the adoption of a world powered by truly sustainable energy is our best and only future.

 

rare earth elements

Rare Earth Elements

As is the case in so much manufacturing, China is now the world leader in the production of a class of elements known as rare earths. They are not actually rare in terms of relative abundance in the earth’s crust, Cerium for example is about as common as Copper. The rare part of the name comes from the fact that they are difficult to obtain because they generally don’t occur in high concentration deposits as do better known metallic elements such as Iron, Copper, and Nickel.

Where they are found, the ores occur in lower concentrations and because the various rare earth elements have very similar chemical properties, they are difficult to separate. This makes the processing all the more expensive. Seventeen elements constitute the group, the majority of which occur in the Lanthanide Series of elements.

Although they share much of their chemical properties, each has unique uses especially in electronics and other modern high tech products.

One of the more common is Neodymium (Nd, atomic number 60.) It confers hardness and unique optical properties when used in small amounts as a dopant in glass. This glass is then used in the manufacture of certain kinds of lasers. Nd is also used in an alloy for high strength permanent magnets. Neodymium magnets have the advantage of having a high magnetic field strength to weight ratio. Applications include loud speakers, in-ear headphones and computer disks.

Several of the rare earths were first discovered in Ytterby, a small town in Sweden,. Yttrium (Y no. 39), Ytterbium (Yb 70), Erbium (Er 68), and Terbium (Tb 65) all take their name from the same mine

As noted many modern devices utilize rare earths – electronics, magnets, lasers, batteries, and efficient lightning just to name a few. An obvious modern device loaded with rare earths is a hybrid car. About 28 kilograms (~ 62 pounds) of rare earths go into a hybrid car. That is only a small fraction compared to the total weight, but it is a very important fraction.

Another now ubiquitous device, the cell phone, is chock full of rare earths. The glass is harder, and the speakers and memory are lighter, and the vibrating motors stronger – all due the rare earths.

So what’s the big deal about rare earths? The big deal is that currently China controls 97% of the market on these elements which are so important to modern society and even more importantly to a modern military. Our military is dependent on a foreign power for a strategic material. There are exploitable deposits of rare earths in the United States, but are not mined because of costs.

Efforts are being made to bring the cost of mining and processing of the rare earths down which could make our sources more attractive. That said, applying the same techniques to the richer Chinese deposits will make their materials correspondingly cheaper also.

Tar Sands and Energy Returned on Energy Invested

The No. 1 oil exporter to the United Sates is Canada, sending us close to 3 million barrels of oil per day, just under 15 percent of our total imports of oil. This is more than twice as much oil as we get from Saudi Arabia. Much of Canadian oil production, 47 percent, comes from tar sands. Tar sand formations contain a heavy crude oil called bitumen intermingled with sandy soil.

The oil is currently produced by large scale strip mining of the tar sands, which then must be heated with steam to lower the viscosity so that the oil can be separated from the sand. Methods for in situ processing are being developed. Steam and/or solvents are injected into the soil to free the oil for extraction.

Another technique being examined involves injecting oxygen into the tar sand formation and actually burning some of the bitumen to heat the remainder for extraction. The latter two technologies for extraction are more expensive, but lend themselves to obtaining oil too deep for surface mining techniques. After the bitumen is separated from the soil; it still must be processed before it can be sent by pipeline as the native bitumen has a consistency of cold molasses.

Virtually all of the Canadian tar sands production comes from the Athabasca tar sands formation in Northeastern Alberta. This oil supply is available due to the proximity to natural gas which is used to produce heat for extraction and hydrogen production for conversion of the bitumen into a lighter form of crude oil wthat flows through a pipeline. And herein lies one of the problems with production of crude oil from tar sands.

The production of fossil fuels as an energy source is absolutely and completely dependent on the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). If it takes more energy to obtain a fossil fuel than the fossil fuel delivers on use, then it is not an energy source. It is a waste of energy.

Consider the EROEI of some other fuel sources. In the earlier decades of the 20th century, the EROEI for crude oil in the U.S. was close to 100:1, that is to say one barrel of oil invested in exploration/production produced about 100 barrels of oil. Conventional crude oil today has an EROEI of about 20:1, compared this to EROEI for tar sands of less than 3:1. Paraphrasing a late-night infomercial, BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE. (the caps are necessary as they always seem to be shouting). Lower EROEIs mean greater amounts of greenhouse gasses emitted for useful energy produced. Fuels such as natural gas have relatively low greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional crude oil, which has less than coal. The low EROEI means that bitumen processing and use makes it as bad as coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, massive amounts of water are required to process the tar sands. Roughly 5-10 barrels of potable water are converted to oil fouled waste for each barrel of oil produced. Although there are tar sands in Utah and thereabouts, the resource may never be extracted due to the lack of process water. 



Arkansas and the HVDC Power Line

Plains and Eastern Clean Line has proposed and are planning the construction of a 700 mile High Voltage Direct Current Power line stretching from the Oklahoma Panhandle to Memphis. The 600 kilovolt line will have the capacity to move 3.5 GigaWatts of power, equivalent to the output of 5 or 6 coal fired power plants. This represents a major move to deliver excess clean, wind-generated electricity out of the midwest to markets to the east.

wind turbine blade

wind turbine blade

Similar projects are in progress to our north, the Grain Belt Express Line will be passing through Missouri on the way to St. Louis and points east and the Rock Island Clean Line which will pass through Iowa and tie into several eastern states.

These projects are not so much about the here and now, but rather the there and then. Multimillion dollar projects take long lead times between inception and completion, usually several years, so they have to be planned with the future needs in mind. The recent requirement by the EPA to reduce our nations carbon emissions only hastens our need for clean renewable electrical energy to replace obsolescent coal fired power plants.

The lines have both supporters and detractors. Environmental groups usually favor the projects as a way to reduce carbon emissions and thus reduce the risk of the damaging effects of global warming. On the other side are land owners who see the power lines marching across their land as more big government intrusion into their lifestyles and even interfering with their livelihoods. Additional arguments against construction of the lines are possible health effects, and the fact that the entities proposing the construction are private companies.

It seems strange that an argument against private industry would be made. The United States to a very large degree operates that way, it’s capitalism, right? Rights of way (ROW) must be secured for these power line projects private or otherwise, just as any project in the public interest such as water lines or a railway. Fair market price must be paid for any property taken for the ROW.

Because these are direct current lines they have a relatively small footprint, at most about 200 feet wide.

Monopole_structure

Monopole_structure

The total area utilized by the Plains and Eastern Clean Line is about 8000 acres spread over the total roughly 300 miles in Arkansas. The actual land area taken out of service is much less than that as grazing land and hay fields are essentially undisturbed even within the ROW.

Health effects of the power lines relate to several phenomena – Induced magnetic fields, possible corona discharge, and ion production. There is no convincing evidence based on years of experience with power lines that any of the aforementioned causes have health effects.

The magnetic field induced by the proposed line is about the same as the earth’s magnetic field. A few meters from the edge of the right of way won’t even deflect a compass. Power transmission line operators design equipment to avoid corona discharge as it wastes power. With respect to the ions generated, if you worry about power lines, stay away from beaches and waterfalls as they produce even greater numbers of ions.

In the interest in full disclosure I am a member of the Arkansas Chapter of the Sierra Club which has endorsed the proposed power line.