Tag Archives: pollution

Hottest Year Ever

Drum roll please, and the hottest year in recorded history is…wait for it… 2016! Actually this is not so surprising. The previously hottest year in history was 2015, and the next hottest before that 2014. If you think you see a trend there you do.

With the exception of 1998, the 15 hottest years ever occurred in this century. 2016 was 2 degrees hotter than the average of the 20th century. In contrast the last recorded coldest year was in 1911, over a century ago. These records have been recorded in the troposphere, the atmospheric layer closest to the ground. Sea surface temperature measurements are congruent.

The culprits for the heating are anthropogenically generated (man- made) releases of green house gases to the atmosphere. Carbon Dioxide causes over half of the radiative forcing so it is the major player but Methane, otherwise known as natural gas is a close second. The concentration of Methane in the atmosphere has recently been spiking and the likely source is fugitive emissions from fracking.

The new president has claimed that his EPA will “protect the environment and human health”; however, he has on numerous occasions called global warming a hoax. He has claimed that because it is cold outside (in the winter of course) that global warming doesn’t exist. He has claimed that the overwhelming scientific consensus is driven by climate scientists profiting from their research. The only thing making any sense here is that he would see money as the driver for any research outcome.

It’s not just the scientists here in the USA, every scientific body on earth that has addressed the issue agrees, global warming is real and a threat to both the environment and human health. This bears repeating: No scientific body of national or international standing holds a formal opinion denying the reality of global warming.

The actions so far in the new presidency seem to reinforce his prior proclamations. His selection to head the EPA is Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney General. Attorney General Pruitt has sued the EPA over numerous regulations designed to clean our air and water. He has begrudgingly accepted that it is getting warmer, but questions humanity’s responsibility. Further he questions what if anything we should be doing.

Rick Perry, former governor of Texas and the selection to head the Department of Energy is similarly poorly informed on climate science. Perry has recently softened his stance. Previously he claimed the science of global warming was a “contrived phony mess.” Now he thinks it’s real but efforts to combat it should not cost American jobs. Study after study has shown that there are many more jobs created with sustainable energy over continuing to exploit fossil fuels.
Regulations in the sights of the president include previous efforts of several presidents going back to Jimmy Carter. Look for lifting of the transportation fuel efficiency standards, blocking the clean power plan to regulate power plant emissions, and reduced restrictions on coal mining and use.

Preventing additional accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is a zero sum game. You either add or you don’t. Utilizing fossil fuels adds, using sustainable energy supplies such as wind and solar don’t.

Exxon valdez cleanup

Trump, the Environment, and the Cabinet

It would appear that president-elect Trump thinks our air and our water are too clean and If he is successful we are likely to have less of both (and there is no reason to assume he won’t be successful due to the republican majorities in both houses of congress.)

Oddly, in 2009 he signed a letter along with numerous business leaders to President Obama encouraging him act. “”We support your effort to ensure meaningful and effective measures to control climate change, an immediate challenge facing the United States and the world today” … and further “If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.”

Now his pronouncements are just the opposite. In 2010 he said that Al Gore should have his Nobel peace prize revoked because he decided that global warming was a hoax. His evidence du jour was the fact that it was winter and snowing. Later still he expanded on the hoax idea claiming that not only were the world’s scientists conspiring to promote a hoax but apparently doing so at the bidding of the Chinese who invented the hoax in the first place.

So when Trump takes office in January which one will show up ? Will it be the Trump of “catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity …” or the more contemporary Trump of 2015: “it’s a hoax, it’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a money-making industry, okay? It’s a hoax.” Some how it is not surprising that Trump sees money as the only motivation.

Based on a few cabinet nominations it looks like the recent Trump will show. Scott Pruitt, nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency is currently the Attorney General of the state of Oklahoma, the politics of which are dominated by the oil and gas industry. In this position he has sued the EPA numerous times to block the EPA from enforcing regulations aimed to protect our air and water. If the Senate approves the nomination, it will mark a sea change at EPA. Every previous administrator at EPA has worked to protect the environment and relied on sound science.

Another critical cabinet position is the Secretary of Energy, currently headed by a theoretical physicist with a PhD, Ernest Moniz. The Energy Department oversees not only our overall energy policy but also controls our nuclear armaments. Trump’s pick is Rick Perry former Governor of Texas and a friend of the fossil fuel industry. In 2008 Perry ran for president. One of his planks was the elimination of the Energy Department. With no small irony, during a debate he was asked to name the departments he intended to eliminate. He only had to remember the names of three departments, but he remembered only two – Energy was not one of them.

Although the mission of the state department is only tangentially related to the environment, Trump’s selection speaks volumes. Nominated for Secretary of State is none other than the CEO of Exxon-Mobile, the world’s largest player in the fossil fuel industry. Rex Tillerson as head of Exxon-Mobile had planned a 500 billion dollar deal with Russia to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic. When Russia annexed Crimea and was implicated in shooting down a commercial airliner over Ukraine, sanctions from the US and other western powers made the artic drilling deal null and void. Mr. Tillerson noted at a news conference in 2015 that he looked forward to lifting the sanctions on Russia. Drill baby Drill.

Crude Movements

It seems that oil pipelines are in the news of late. Some of the new pipelines are to deal with the expanded production of crude oil here in the US. New and better technology – hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and directional drilling have resulted in the need for transportation of that oil, pipelines generally being the cheapest.

We produce about 10 million barrels of crude oil per day and import another 10 million barrels from sources all over the world. Most of this is turned into fuels such as gasoline and diesel fuel and only a pittance for non-fuel petrochemicals.

But are pipelines the best way to go? Other methods to move the crude oil from where it is produced to where it is refined include barges, rail cars and tank trucks. What is the best way to do it? It depends entirely on what metric you use to measure “best.”

If you simply want to compare the least oil spilled when normalized for amount of total oil transported per distance moved (ton/mile) the ranking is barges and tankers are better than rail is better than pipeline is better than truck.

If your metric is human deaths and property destruction we get a different rank: barge is better than pipeline is better than rail is better than truck. How about environmental damage? Because aquatic environments are more sensitive the ordering becomes: Rail is better than truck is better than pipeline is better than barge.

Oh but it gets more confusing, because so much of the crude oil moves by pipeline, about 70%. Another 23% by barge and tanker, trucking 4% and rail transport a mere 3%.

If a decision were made to go to more trucking for example the change for the better (or worse) would not necessarily be linear. More trucking would mean more congestion, hence an increased risk of untoward events even after adjusting for total oil moved.

There is already some evidence of the non-linearity of change. From 1975 to 2012 trains were much shorter and had very few spills, but the recent oil boom means a higher proportion of oil moving by train. Because of longer trains and more frequent crashes, more oil was spilled in 2013 alone than the previous 37 years.

It is just not a simple “what is the best.” This conundrum is reminiscent of a senate hearing back in the 1970s. Ed Muskie was conducting a hearing as to the risks of the supersonic Concorde flying over the United States. The committee’s chief scientist said, “Senator, we’re ready to testify,” and Muskie responded, “Okay, tell me what the answer is. Is this going to be a danger?” The scientist responded “I’ve got these papers here that definitely tell us this is going to be a danger.” Muskie was ready to conclude right there, but then the NAS scientist interjected, “On the other hand, I have another set of papers over here that says these papers aren’t good enough to know the answer.” Incredulous, the senator looked up and yelled, “Will somebody find me a one-handed scientist?!”

A one-handed scientist may produce a simple answer, but it won’t necessarily be the only or best answer.

Wood as Fuel


The capture and control of fire is right up near the top when one considers technology and human evolution. Whether simply warming the hearth, defending a home place from wild animals or cooking food, fire is a most essential ingredient. Estimates are that an ancestral species Homo erectus learned to control fire ½ a million years ago, and some scholars believe as early as 1.7 million years ago.

Wood fueled the production of the various metal ages up to and including the iron age. Wood was still the dominant fuel used in blast furnaces in early 19th century England. In fact it was the shortage of wood for the furnaces that stimulated the development of the use of coal. Forests were gradually cleared farther and farther from the furnaces until transportation costs made hauling the wood impractical.

Wood, straw, dung, etc are still major fuels in the underdeveloped world. Worldwide wood is the fourth largest source of fuel after the fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas. Wood and derived products like charcoal are about one third of all fuel use in Africa and over half in Oceania.

Industrial fuel wood use in the United States is limited. Certain industries that produce significant amounts waste wood can burn it to produce steam for process heat or to drive turbines.

The amount of heat derived from burning wood varies as the density of the wood with hardwoods such as oak and hickory having the highest fuel values. At the other end of the scale are softwoods such as pine. This is only true where the wood is measured by volume such as a cord (a stack of wood 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet- 128 cubic feet.)

When measured by mass all wood has about the same fuel value which is the same as the fuel value of carbohydrates like sugar or potatoes. A toothpick and a piece of spaghetti of the same weight will produce the same amount of heat when burned.

In rural areas where available, wood is used for space heat. It may be hard to think about it now in August, but come January or so, there will be nothing like a hot wood stove to back up to on a cold morning. An air tight wood stove can be a useful source of heat, but an open fireplace, regardless of how attractive, will actually remove heat from a room.

Wood can be a renewable energy source but just how “green” is it? Not all that much. There is much waste when wood is harvested for fuel, it’s call the “roots and shoots” issue. The roots below ground and the unused branches and leaves mean that a lot of biomass is wasted.

The biggest drawback about use of wood as fuel is the burning. Any time something burns varying amounts of noxious products are produced. Fine particulates damage respiratory systems and cause asthma, especially in children. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons produced by combustion are carcinogenic. Carbon Monoxide production can be deadly. It interferes with oxygen absorption in the blood and result in acute respiratory failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

It is estimated that over 4 million premature deaths a year can be blamed on cooking and heating with biomass, essentially all in the underdeveloped parts of the world.

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.

International Trade

President Obama recently traveled to the east side of the pacific rim for an official visit to several countries including Vietnam and Japan. Conservatives feel that he has not been strong enough with foreign affairs and have therefore labeled his trip an apology tour, as if he is there to apologize for past wars.

Realistically this trip is not about the past but rather signals a recognition of the future and the importance of trade with some of the emerging economies of the region. In the past the far east has been thought of as the place where American jobs have gone. Cheap labor, and fewer regulations means goods are cheaper to produce. The countries then turn around and sell these cheaper goods back to us.

As these eastern economies expand with production and trade, money is put into the hands of a growing middle class which could mean customers for our labor force.

This brings us to a proposed trade agreement called the Trans Pacific Partnership. It involves 12 pacific rim countries. On the western side are Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru and Chili; on the east, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Singapore, and Japan. The foreign ministers of all 12 participant nations signed a draft framework for the trade deal which is meant to reduce tariffs and increase free trade among the partners.

Previous legislation has given President Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals. The TPP like other trade deals require legislative authorization, but the fast track law means that congress can only vote up or down on a trade deal, rather than endlessly amend or modify a deal.

Considerable controversy surrounds the deal. The left feels that it gives large corporations too much power in trade, at the expense of the environment and worker’s rights. The right, well the right just doesn’t like Obama and is reluctant to give him anything that resembles success. The pressure of an election year only adds to the distrust of the two sides.

Those that do favor the deal suggest that no deal means even less protection for the environment and worker’s rights. The simple fact remains that we live in the time of a global economy. Just because we decide not to participate in trade deals doesn’t mean that the world economy halts. Trade will go on and we will have even less influence.

At the end of World War II, we were the last man standing, the only industrialized economy unscathed by war. Then we could command the global economy. That control has slowly been eroding. Europe, Japan, and now China have expanded their economies and are replacing American goods around the world. Increasingly the pacific rim is becoming a player and if we don’t agree to trade, we will be left further behind.

Don’t Buy Oil

The horrible terrorist attack in Paris has drawn a number of responses as to what to do. Both French and US forces have launched bombing raids against ISIS forces in Syria. Many are calling to again put “boots on the ground” – a euphemism for send sending more of our sons and daughters off to die. With irrational fear trumping compassion, many governors want to have nothing to do with refugees from Syria.

Nether war nor fearfulness will solve our problems. It is time for a different perspective. The chaos in the middle east cannot continue without money to pay the fighters and buy the weapons and ammunition. Much of the money to fund the terrorists comes from the sale of oil. A step was taken with the bombing raids recently when over a hundred oil tanker trucks were destroyed. These were tankers that ISIS used to sell oil on the black market. As long as they have access to the oil, ways will be found to sell it. Additionally cash from the Gulf States flows directly to ISIS. It is not the official positions of the governments of the Gulf States, but rather private donors, made rich through the sale of oil, who are contributing to ISIS.

If the terrorists will find a way to sell the oil they control, and the riches of the Gulf States donors will continue to flow to the terrorists, what is to be done? Starve the beast. Stop buying oil. Not just the black market oil or the oil produced by the Emirates, but all oil. If we don’t buy the black market oil, we go somewhere else to buy oil. But someone else will buy the oil. Same for the Gulf States oil. We buy instead from Venezuela or Nigeria. But then someone else buys the Gulf oil. The problem is that oil is a very fungible commodity. Within limits, oil is oil, no matter where it comes from.

The answer is to stop using and therefore stop buying, oil. If we completely withdraw from the market, we will effect a dramatic drop in the price of crude oil. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. We in the United States constitute a scant 5 percent of the world population, we consume over 20 percent of the world’s resources including oil. The drop in prices means less revenue from the sale of the black market oil and lower revenues for the emirates, hence less money to fuel terror. Transitioning to an electric economy fueled with wind and solar has its costs, but so does waging war.

Transitioning away from the use of oil will happen eventually as oil on the planet runs out, why not start now and help to stabilize geopolitics in the process. Why not start now to reduce pressure on the climate that comes from burning the oil? Why not stop now to help clean the air to reduce health care costs. A final benefit would be that we could become world leaders in sustainable energy technology.

Animas River Spill

Colorado has an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines, going back to the time of the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of 1850. The history of mining in Colorado is written in the names of some towns: Anaconda named after a Copper mining company, Bonanza, Gold Hill, Silver Plume, Eureka, Telluride after a salt of the element Tellerium, Silverton, Leadville, and Placerville.

The majority of the abandoned mines present little problem but several hundred around Colorado are filled with water and a mix of various metals that are frequently found in association with more valuable precious metals. Some are not so serious such as Iron and Copper, but others are a danger to human health and the biosphere in general. They include Mercury, Cadmium, Lead, and Arsenic. These exist in the main as relatively insoluble salts. In bodies of water they are found in the silt at the bottom, slowly moving from there into the bodies of the benthic organisms and up the food chain. In rivers they can be mobilized during high flow events and moved down steam.

Given their numbers, it’s not surprising that there are occasional “spills” of these wastes. The most recent case is the 3 million gallon spill that occurred when a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a dike that held back waste and allowed it flow into the Animas River.

It is sad that a remediation effort results in a spill, but it is the price the tax payer must assume now for not acting sooner to prevent the abandonment of the mines. The problem dates back to an 1872 law governing mining on public land. It allows essentially unfettered access to mine for metals without any payment of royalties or environmental standards.

The government has the authority to require bonds to insure cleanup, but the rate is so low as to be ineffective. Currently the EPA spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to clean up the toxic wastes left behind from previous mining operations. The government accountability office estimates that upwards of 70 billion dollars would be required to clean up the abandoned mines in the western states.

Legislation has been proposed to address the issue over the last few years, most recently Representative Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. has introduced legislation which would modernize the mining law by requiring a 7 cent per ton fee on rock mined. The proceeds from this would be used in the reclamation of mined land. This proposal is called The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 (HR963).

This and similar recent legislation has gone nowhere as the mining companies have lobbied long and hard to avoid any responsibility for cleaning up after themselves. Will the current attention to the pollution of the Animas, and downstream San Juan and Colorado rivers get the attention of the public? Just what will it take for us to recognize that we have look over the shoulders of industry and hold them accountable for their actions?

A mine is a hole in the ground, owned by a liar. Mark Twain

US Oil Booms, But

About 2013, for the first time in over 20 years, the gap between our consumption and production began narrowing, rather than widening.  There are two reasons for this. Production is up due to the fracking boom and of equal importance consumption is down due to the poor economy.  That is good as a snapshot but means little for the future.

As the economy slowly recovers our usage will rise.   At the same time the fracking boom has a limited lifetime. A University of Texas study showed that production of natural gas from three of the largest shale plays; Fayetteville, Haynesville, and Barnett have already peaked. Similar performance is expected in oil from shale fracking. In a few short years we should be back on our inevitible decline in production. Without reduction in consumption we will resume an upward trend on importing oil, currently about a third of what we use.

The danger is fourfold: exporting dollars to buy energy weakens our economy, enriches the economy of some unsavory producers such as Iran and Russia, threatens a stable environment, and impairs our health.

To a large degree all transportation and big chunk of the U.S. Economy is powered from crude oil. The oil is turned into gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, heating oil and a myriad of derivative products such as plastic. Currently we are consuming about 18 million barrels of oil per day, yet we only produce about 12 million. That constitutes an energy deficit of about 7 million barrels of oil per day. Even with the price falling to near 50 dollars a bbl, this creates a trade deficit of over an eigth of a trillion dollars a year. An eigth of a trillion dollars a year that flies out of our economy on an annual basis. An eigth of a trillion dollars that is not flipped in our economy to provide jobs or buy groceries.

The oil comes from friendly and not so friendly countries. Canada is our number one supplier, some might say “pusher” at about two and a half million barrels per day. The members of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, provide about 5 million barrels of oil per day. Iran is a charter member of OPEC and benefits greatly if indirectly from our purchase of oil on the global market. This is not a pretty picture – our dollars going to support a rogue theocracy bent on developing nuclear weapons and their support for global terrorism. Although we are currently a net exporter of natural gas, this won’t last when the shale plays are exhausted.

We even import uranium to fuel nuclear reactors. The import export balance is negative to the tune of several billion dollars a year. Generally we import low grade Uranium ore and export enriched nuclear fuel. Regardless we are operating at a net dollar loss.

The only fuel that we don’t have to import is coal; however, as society becomes more aware of the risks of damage to human health and the environment, it will become less useful in our economy.

There is no easy answer to this bleeding of cash from our economy. We will not drill our way out of the problem because the oil and gas are just not here. We must adopt energy from clean indigenous sources as the only long term, sustainable answer. The bonus for home produced sustainable energy is the money stays home and cascades through the economy.

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.