Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘water quality’

Hi all!

Image

I think everyone was busy last week worrying the NSA is judging them for not calling their grandmother more often.  I know I was.  Which is why it took me a bit to get this post up, and also why so many fascinating things happened in the energy and climate world that I had to talk about them all in one post.

First of all, our least favorite pipeline that doesn’t even exist yet is back in the news.  The Sierra Club has quietly taken the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline over to the judicial branch.  The litigious environmental nonprofit (for those of you who don’t know, Sierra Club has acted as plaintiff for some of the nation’s most pivotal and groundbreaking environmental lawsuits – it’s one of their specialties as an organization) filed suit against the State Department last week regarding the sketchy-as-all-hell (from what I’ve read) environmental impact statement that the agency issued about the pipeline.  The impact statement – which suggests the pipeline will have no negative impacts – was prepared by a third-party contractor that has an active membership in the American Petroleum Institute, which Sierra Club and other environmental groups widely regard as evidence of a conflict of interest.  Perhaps more critically, the State Department did not respond to requests to produce documentation proving that the department screened for such a conflict of interest.  The lawsuit is seeking access to those documents and extension of the public comment period for the agency to finalize the determination so that the documents can be considered.  In the continued debate, Al Gore weighted in on the pipeline in a recent interview, stating that the project was ‘an atrocity.’  

Meanwhile, climate change is happening, you guys.  A five year study by FEMA that was just released has predicted a 45% increase in flooding in the United States during the coming decades – as a result of climate change.  (Except in North Carolina, of course, where flooding and climate change is illegal.  I suppose all the hurricanes will have to stick to Florida and South Carolina this year?) FEMA, which manages disaster relief, is expecting to have to insure 80% more properties, with a 90% increase in the average cost of a claim when filed.  But, this is all totally worth it, because it was definitely too expensive for us to regulate carbon through a cap-and-trade or tax system, and it was also definitely too expensive to make some of those fossil fuel companies maybe pay a little instead of collecting government subsidies.  What? Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit?

Fine. I’ll end on a good note.  Behold, Robert Redford for NRDC:

Image

Still better looking than you.

Redford, an environmental activist and partner to National Resources Defense Council, has put together a series of short ads calling for action on climate change and clean energy initiatives.  You should watch them.  Because it’s Robert Redford.  And, he’s got something really important to say.  And then you should send them to everyone you know.

That’s all for now folks.  I’ll be back next week, and maybe I’ll be less cranky.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

We haven’t talked much about Keystone XL here at Spinach HQ for a while now, mostly becauase the news on that front continues to be more of the same – and more depressing.  Quite frankly, I’m not sure whether or not the general public (those of you outside the environmental field, that is) are sick of hearing about Keystone or not.  False claims and an incredibly convoluted regulatory and political process regarding approval of the environmental impact determination as well as the pipeline itself have slowly muddied the waters better than an oil spill.  I’ll be honest, even I’ve had a hard time keeping track of the timeline and the number of times the pipeline has been resurrected and then killed.

Which is why I was somewhat surprised (but excited!) to wander into the Foggy Bottom Metro stop in D.C. on Tuesday and be greeted by something that looked like this:

Image

I couldn’t capture the whole ad in my camera phone (especially while trying not to look like some creeper taking a picture of the metro floor during rush hour….) but activist group SumOfUs.org is continuing to fight the good fight not just against Keystone XL, but against the expanded Tar Sands extraction that would come with it.

The ads direct you to the SumOfUs anti-tar-sands site, where they have already collected more than 17,000 of their goal level of 20,000 signatures for a petition to President Obama regarding the pipeline and expanded tar sands extraction.  Rather than solely attacking Keystone XL, the group is focusing on the impacts of the recent ExxonMobil tar sands oil spill in Arkansas.  Exxon’s response to the spill has been heavily criticized, with many community members voicing their doubts that the spill is contained or that Exxon is truly doing their part to take responsibility for the spill, contain it, and mitigate damages.

While the Keystone XL pipeline is likely to be decided by politics and not environmental impacts, the statement made by SumOfUs here is clear – and is taking the debate one step farther.  Instead of focusing on the impacts of the pipeline alone, the group is working to inform regarding some of the inherent risks (both environmental and economic) to expanded tar sands oil use as an energy source.  I’m happy to see these ads placed front and center in several key metro stations – maybe it’s a chance to finally have some dialogue about the real issue here, which is the overall direction of our energy future, and not one single pipeline.

Read Full Post »

I never expected that I would be a tribute writer, but recently that’s how its panned out (I hope you read my posts on Silent Spring, and Russell Train).  In this latest tribute, last week, the Clean Water Act turned 40!

There’s no doubt that the Clean Water Act has led to cleaner watersheds and reduced pollution in our nation’s waters.  To date, 65% of our nation’s waters are swimmable and fishable (that’s the Act’s classifications).  What many don’t know is that the Clean Water Act was passed through amendments to the Federal Pollution Control Act of 1948, and it was a result of several disasters such as the famous burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River.

One of the goals of the Clean Water Act was for all the nation’s waterways to be fishable and swimmable by 1985.  News flash, we haven’t met that goal.  The Act gave authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and to states to set pollution control standards to restore and monitor water quality.  One of the greatest aspects of the Act is that it allows public citizens to file suit on violators of the Act.  Many people don’t know this!  I’ve heard from EPA officials that the Clean Water Act is the people’s act.  Our nation’s waterways belong to us.

A few successes of the Clean Water Act include better overall water quality to over 60% of the nation’s waterways, more waterways that are swimmable, and restoration of major waterways such as the Hudson and Cuyahoga Rivers and Lake Erie.  I think the OMB article only touched on a few of the Act’s successes and I’m sure you can do a Google search and find more info.  Although I only like to highlight positive sustainable practices in my posts, I think it’s only fair to highlight that there are future challenges ahead for the Clean Water Act.  Factors such as population growth and urban development have led to runoff mismanagement,  particularly water from wet weather events, that are not addressed in the Clean Water Act.  Wastewater in natural gas fracturing (fracking) wells are also not included in the Act. Just today I heard that this current Congress has posed approximately 200 attacks on the Clean Water Act.

But, this is a tribute, and clean water will win.

Clean pipe discharge!

There are so many great on-the-ground partnerships taking on water issues, a few that come to mind include The Urban Waters Federal Partnership, Groundworks USA, and the River Network.  Those who question and attack the Act must not want fishable and swimmable waters for their families.  Maybe they just take it for granted, I think that’s the case.  Cheers to 40 years of success and to another 40 years of greater success.  Now go for a swim!

Read Full Post »

…this is one of the best videos of all time.

If you don’t know now you know, today is Earth Day.  Here in Washington and across the East Coast it’s cold and rainy; my volunteer project to post “don’t litter” signs on storm drains at the National Mall for the National Park Service was cancelled and hopefully it will be rescheduled.  I really enjoyed this video and it touches on a subject that I’m passionate about, reusable products. Shockingly, there are people and businesses who do not recycle and many of the everyday items we use still end up in our nation’s rivers and lands which we all love for recreational use.  Every bag that you refuse from your local grocery store or every plastic bottle that you don’t buy at the gas station is something great that you’re doing to protect the local lake where you swim and fish, and it saves you a couple of dollars!  Reusable water bottles (this site has it all!), coffee mugs, and bags are really affordable now a days and almost all retailers sell them; so, go get yours today.  Back to my Frozen Planet (Discovery Channel) marathon. Cheers.

Read Full Post »

So, amid the flapping currently surrounding the Supreme Court about health care legislation, it might seem impossible that the high court could have been worrying about anything else this month….or even practically this year.  Or really, ever, since people seem to be getting pretty upset over health care.  However, there has been a lot going on in the judicial world, and some of it should catch the attention of enviro folks. I’m going to do my best to put on a legal hat and discuss this, although those of you who might be reading that have actual formal education in the law (hi, Carol!!! how’s law school?), feel free to weigh in!

Image

OK, so it's not exactly a hat. But if we were in Britain, I'd totally go to law school just for the sweet wig.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the people in this big building here:

Image

Ever wonder what their heating bill looks like?

…they handed down a decision that was reported in POLITICO last week regarding whether or not the process of judicial review can be applied to rule-makings by an agency – specifically, the EPA.

The case went something like this: an Idaho couple were told by EPA to reverse grading on their land after a determination by the agency that their property included wetland area protected by the Clean Water Act.  The work they performed was done without the necessary permit that should have been obtained.  As it stood, the couple had to means to challenge the EPA determination except to simply refuse to pay fines – which accrued daily with each additional refusal to pay and added up to millions.

The new determination by the court did not decide this particular case, but it did provide a potential out for this couple and anyone who might face a similar situation in the future.  The Supreme Court ruled that determinations made by the agency are subject to judicial review, the process by which a court can strike down a decision made by the executive (or legislative) branch of the federal government if a judge finds that the decision is arbitrary, unconstitutional, or outside the jurisdiction of the law.

For those of you unfamiliar with the law (probably most everyone reading this), wetlands are protected under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.  EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have wide berth when it comes to regulating the discharge of waste material as well as dredge-and-fill operations having to do with wetlands.  What is most debated, though, is the fact that the bodies of water (whether river, lake, stream, creek, wetland, whatever) protected by the Clean Water Act must be “waters of the United States.”  Based on this, conservatives tend to argue that EPA has no business regulating small bodies of water, water bodies that cut through private land, farmland, etc, and that the reach of “big government” and “regulations” into people’s lives should be limited.  Hence the objection raised by the Idaho couple: if it’s private land, what business does EPA have determining that it’s a wetland? And what can I do if I disagree?

Image

To wetland or not to wetland, that is the question.

What business indeed?

The problem with this – and virtually all jurisdictional limits that are placed on regulations – is that media-based pollutants tend to be somewhat of a nuisance when it comes to their willingness to respect municipal and regulatory boundaries.  It might be your stream, on your land, which is private property, and within your right to stand around pouring paint thinner into it all day long.  But what happens when your stream connects to a larger body of water, say, the Potomac River?  Are you just polluting your own water?  Or are you polluting water that is, through the interconnectedness of the watershed, water of the United States?  Is all water considered water of the United States?  Or is it just not your fault if you pollute, and it goes down river, becuase, well that’s somebody else’s problem – this is America, and we have rights and freedom?

Image

Or maybe you just never really liked wetlands much anyway.

I’m not trying to be one-sided here, but we’ve got a fundamental impasse.  On one hand, the law clearly isn’t written to extend to private property.  On the other hand, we can’t protect our main bodies of water if there are smaller problems on all the bodies of water feeding them, compounding the issue.  That’s bailing water out of the leaky boat without plugging the hole.

And stepping back a bit further: whose determination is it, anyway?  In this specific case – which allows for judicial review of EPA’s determination of what is a ‘wetland’ – who should be the one making the decision?  Which is the fundamental difficulty with most environmental regulation: there are always two ways of looking at the problem.  One is the science, and the other is the policy.

Image

A team of cutting-edge wetlands scientists from the U.K.

 

To take the first angle, clearly a judge – an expert in the law of the United States – is most equipped to determine whether or not EPA is keeping with the spirit of the legislation.  On the other hand, that judge has no training in what precisely a ‘wetland’ is, nor are they educated enough in critical topics such as ecology and hydrology to know how that particular tract of land fits into overall efforts to protect and ensure water quality.

Image

Don't worry - he's just a lab tech.

Agency scientists, whose entire careers are based on making these decisions, would obviously have the training, expertise and knowledge to make the most educated scientific decision. Is it then simply the job of lawyers arguing one side or the other to call the most qualified witnesses?  Is it the job of the agency to give the judge a crash-course in water quality and wetland science? And even if the science says that the land is worth protecting, is that a good policy?  Where does the science end and the policy begin?

 

 

 

Which leads us to a larger question – maybe even a moral question: Whose interests are we most concerned with protecting, anyway?  Do we err on the side of protecting the rights of the individual to alter, modify, dispose of, or destroy their property as they see fit? If I purchase a priceless artifact – say, a work of art that cannot be replicated or reproduced – is it then within my rights to burn it?  Or is there a moral obligation here to structure laws and regulations in a way that protects and ensures the good of the general public?  If my modifications will cause harm to others and detriment to the overall water quality of an area – arguably ‘harming’ others – is that still within my right?

These are big questions my friends, and ones which I suspect we will be pondering for years to come.

Or at least until this guy comes up with an answer.

Image

Read Full Post »

Happy Wednesday, amigos! It’s been a beautiful week so far here in Washington, D.C.  The weather is warm, restaurants are opening their patios, everyone is out jogging around the national mall, and I’m planning on eating frozen yogurt for dinner tonight. I’d say that the warm weather is what makes this a great time to think about water, but really, I think about water almost every single day.  I love water.  I love to drink it, I love to swim in it, I sometimes love to pour it on my head after a really, really long run.  I even think about water all day at work, every day.  I think about water like it’s my job.  Probably because it is my job, but the point is that water is pretty great.

Image

Yeah. It's THAT great.

Or at least, water is pretty great…until it’s not.  As reported yesterday by the Washington Post, if you’re a resident of Salinas Valley and Fresno, Tulare, Kings or Kern county in California, water is probably not making you very happy right now.  At least half the residents of these areas – 1.3 million people – have nitrate levels in their water that exceed the limit set by EPA.  With continued population growth and current trends, this is expected rise to 80% by 2050.

Where are all these nitrates coming from?  The #1 answer is agricultural runoff: While nitrates are a necessary nutrient, excessive fertilizers and livestock manure creates contaminated runoff that eventually ends up in surface waters and can leach into groundwater sources such as well and aquifers.  Residents drinking out of private wells or untreated water are at a particularly high risk, although contamination is also found in areas with overtaxed water treatment facilities and frequent sewage overflow.  The result?  Somebody’s drinking water source + fertilizers + livestock manure = gross.

Image

No, Mr. Cow, that's not funny.

In addition to the fact that that’s gross, nitrate contamination has been linked to reproductive disorders and cancer, but is most well known as a main cause of “blue baby syndrome” – a phrase that refers to an often-fatal condition in newborns and infants in which the blood does not deliver sufficient oxygen to the body, resulting in tissue hypoxia, and if untreated, death.  Although there are several causes of blue baby syndrome, some of which are congenital, one of them is acquired methemoglobinemia,  and it’s totally preventable.  This condition is caused by high levels of nitrates in drinking water as well as the presence of certain pesticides, including DDT and PCB’s.  While we’re at it, I will mention that just the way it does in human children, the effect that high nitrate levels have on dissolved oxygen is fatal to many aquatic organisms as well and has profound impacts on ecosystems.  But let’s take care of the humans first before we worry about the fish.

Image

Sorry, buddy. We'll get to when we can.

Sadly, California isn’t the only case where agricultural runoff has caused problems.  High levels of nitrates in drinking water were also found in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio, according to the Environmental Working Group.  And while EPA does regulate nitrate levels in drinking water, there are important caveats to this regulation.  First, the maximum level currently set (10 ppm) does not account for prolonged exposure – for example, what happens if a woman is consuming low-levels of nitrate contamination across an entire nine month pregnancy.  Nitrates build up in the system and the effects are compounded, so even if a single glass of water isn’t dangerous, the cumulative effects might be.

Second, EPA’s jurisdiction does not extend over private wells and groundwater sources, nor does it apply to contaminants that are sprayed or discharged onto fields.  (The only reason this nitrate problem came to light is because of a study that was conducted by special order of the California state legislature.)  Of course, whenever EPA tries to make a move towards tighter standards for more water sources, conservatives everywhere begin clutching their pearls and shaking their pitchforks, decrying the invasion of privacy and stating that “EPA is trying to regulate every last mud puddle.”

Image

"I just can't reckon why those folks at EPA want us to drink clean water, Thelma."

I guess they have a point– it’s a free country, and if you want to drink untreated water that was contaminated by chemicals and livestock manure (yes, I mean cow pies) then that’s your choice.

Image

But he's just going to keep laughing at you for it.

Stepping away from my normal snarkiness for a moment, this situation is actually pretty sad – many rural families are forced to assume the additional economic burden of purchasing bottled water in order to protect themselves during pregnancy and to protect young children from the health risks associated with drinking local water.  And sadly, nitrate contamination and the problems caused by agricultural runoff are actually just the tip of the iceberg where water is concerned.  As reported by The New York Times as part of their “Toxic Water” series in 2009:

“…Independent studies in such journals as Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology; Environmental Health Perspectives; American Journal of Public Health; and Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, as well as reports published by the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that millions of Americans become sick each year from drinking contaminated water, with maladies from upset stomachs to cancer and birth defects.”

The bottom line here is that while our nation has a lot of issues facing us today, I’m wondering if it’s time to stop arguing about problems we really can’t solve, and pay attention to those we can: how to fix our water infrastructure.  The other option, of course, is to just stop drinking water.

Image

I had to.

You can read the Huffington Post summary of nitrate pollution in California here. (And stay tuned for future posts, where I will revisit the question of water, cost, and who pays for all of this!)

 

Read Full Post »

Every now and then, here at Spinach HQ, we get a comment that is just too good to ignore.  Yesterday was one of those days, because it seems that my post on oil shale riled some people over at the Colorado School of Mines.  Hi, guys!! I had a friend who graduated from Mines who I met back when I worked for Schlumberger.  He was a nice person, so I assume you are all very nice people as well.

Image

That said: it seems that we have a slight difference of opinion regarding the merits of oil shale production, and it also seems that there are a few things that I should clarify from my previous post.  (I almost used ‘which’ in that sentence, but I’m pretty sure that would be grammatically incorrect.)  Normally, I try to stay fairly pedestrian in these blog posts, but when it comes to an issue that is of deep concern to me, the gloves come off.  So, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I need to go put on my geology hat.  And not the kicky trucker geology hat this time – the real one.

Image

No, really. Real Ultimate Geologists wear hats like this.

That’s better.   Like Indiana Jones, I’m now ready for anything, except snakes.  I hate snakes.  As always, the vitamins come from chewing on things, and if it gets too rough for ya, the safety word is beef.

First: let’s clarify a little bit about oil shale production technologies. 

For those of you who are not geologists or chemical engineers, some vocab to start off with.  Oil shale is a rock that contains kerogen.  In order to separate out the usable fuel, it has to undergo retorting – which can be done either by mining it and retorting at the surface (the current technology), or, as some experimental technologies are hoping – could be done in situ, that is, underground.

Retorting is the process where oil shale is heated to a temperatures of 650 – 700 degrees Fahrenheit (for above ground) and 350 degrees Fahrenheit (for in situ retorting).  At this temperature, kerogen begins to separate from the rock and undergo the process of pyrolysis, a non-reversible, anoxic thermochemical decomposition of organic matter.  Simply stated, the kerogen is converted to a vapor, which when cooled creates an oil that can be burned or further refined into a useable form.  The part of the oil shale rock which didn’t burn is left behind – and actually has an expanded volume, something which we’ll get into later.

I will be the first to admit that clearly, since I am no longer employed by an oilfield services or oil production company, I do not have access to every single model or plan that has been developed and tested for in situ extraction of oil shale.  However: I first present this image, which is a presentation of the current in situ extraction method being developed by Exxon Mobil, and it does involve hydraulic fracturing.

Image

So that’s at least one example.  In addition, processes discussed in National Petroleum Council publications that are being explored by Chevron also cite the use of artificial fracturing by gas injection, as well as numerous examples where both water and gas are circulated through the well during the in situ process, in technologies developed by Chevron, Shell, and other oil companies.  No, that’s not strictly hydraulic fracturing, but my point in the prior post was not to state whether or not fracking technology is specifically used in these processes.

My point was (and is) that two of the primary concerns that people raise when they discuss hydraulic fracturing – high water use and groundwater contamination – are also two of the primary concerns for oil shale.  This is true regardless of whether it is mined or retorted in situ.  Disturbances underground always carry the risk for contaminating groundwater, and fracturing rock beds changes patterns in aquifers and alters the hydraulic conductivity of rocks whether it’s done with water, gas, or vegetable oil.

Let’s talk about water use first: whether mined or retorted in situ, oil shale production takes a lot of water.  This is used during all phases of production.  The post-production phase is just one example of this; Shell cites that at minimum 20 pre volumes of water must be circulated numerous times throughout the entire well area before groundwater returns to an acceptable quality, a process that Shell states will take UP TO FIVE YEARS after the well has concluded production.  Considering that most leases proposed for oil shale are 20 year leases, that means 25 years during which ground water in a particular area would be unusable.

And let’s get into the water use overall: According to EarthTalk, a Scientific American publication (a name I believe is considered a reputable magazine) current technologies (so, the mining kind, not the in situ one that I was talking about a minute ago) are equally water-intensive.

“Another big issue with oil shale extraction is water usage. The process requires as much as five barrels of water—for dust control, cooling and other purposes—for every barrel of shale oil produced.”

If you want another source, you don’t have to look any further than the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior.  As NRDC reports, the BLM study found that

 “mining and distilling oil shale would require an estimated 2.1 to 5.2 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced—inputs that could reduce the annual flow of Colorado’s White River by as much as 8.2 percent. Residues that remain from an in-situ extraction process could also threaten water tables in the Green River Basin, the agency says.”

BLM’s Argonne National Laboratory reports that the ratio is 2:1 for barrels of water consumed per barrels of oil produced.  That’s not pretty for an area in the arid west, where the Colorado River already does not reach the sea and states routinely fight over water sources.

But if you want an even more neutral take on things, here’s the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on oil shale, which while it makes no recommendations does suggest that water resources in the west do not exist to support the industry on a large scale.

And we’re just getting into consumption.  The other problem that results is the water quality, which I’ll talk about next.

Anytime you’re doing something underground, you run the risk of encountering one of those pesky things called aquifers – groundwater resources which are most commonly used as a source of drinking water.  The problem with these is that underground disturbances can change the pattern of groundwater flow; in fact, water is the major vector (mechanism of transport) for the majority of oil shale pollutants.  If you’re mining, the only way to handle this is to pump groundwater out until the water table is lowered below the level at which oil shale is being extracted.

If you’re working with in-situ technology, you have even bigger problems: when you’re producing liquid oil from heating, you need something to prevent that from flowing into the groundwater.  Currently, the Shell technology uses freeze walls to prevent water from the well from mixing with water from aquifers.  The problem is that the well technology changes the basic properties of the shale, altering the hydraulic conductivity – that is, how water flows through the material.  Once production is finished, and the walls are removed, toxic material from the mine leeches into groundwater.  Both the Colorado Bureau of Reclamation as well as RAND corporation have named the leaching of toxic heavy metals and salts into groundwater as a major risk to water quality from oil shale production.

Now, let’s get into the issue of mining.

It is true that the surface or open pit mines are not the only way to extract oil shale – however, they are absolutely the most popular and also the cheapest and easiest way to do it – which in my experience is what most oil (and mining) companies like to select.

But let’s pretend for a moment that you’re mining these things underground, resulting in the lowest possible use of land on the surface.  The problem with this is that it doesn’t reduce in any way the water quality or waste issues that result from mining.  There are many of these, including the disturbances at the surface which displace flora and fauna and disrupt ecosystems that can take decades to redevelop. Underground mining can result in subsidence of the area after it has been abandoned and also to problems from waste left behind.

Meanwhile, when oil shale is retorted, the kerogen is separated from the rock.  That’s great, except that it leaves behind spent oil shale and combustion ashes.  No biggie, just some old rocks, right?  We’ll just toss these over here in this landfill.

Totally an option, but I’m not sure that anybody wants that landfill anywhere near them.  Spent oil shale and combustion ashes are known to contain sulfates, heavy metals (including lead and mercury), toxic organic compounds (some of which are prone to combustion themselves), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are known to be toxic and carcinogenic.  In Estonia, which gets the majority of their energy from oil shale, they’re struggling to deal with 360 – 370 million tons of toxic solid waste byproducts from the production of oil shale energy.

But the environmental regulations take care of that, and even if they fail any issues can be effectively mitigated. Right?

The Wilderness Society, citing data from the RAND Corporation study as well as data collected by the Colorado Bureau of Reclamation, summarizes these water quality issues:

 “Shale extraction through in situ development risks leaching of toxic by-products such as mineral salts and trace metals into the surrounding groundwater.Extracting the shale also leaches salt into an area where salinity is already a problem. High salt concentrations in groundwater restrict water to plants, which is particularly harmful to agriculture. In the Colorado River Basin, where most oil shale development will occur, damages from salinity are already between $500 to $750 million per year.”

That’s a pretty hefty bill right there, and I’d bet that it’s the taxpayers who are paying it – and not the companies that are mining there.  And while we’re at it, let’s just talk for a moment about how well “mitigation” has worked in the past.

While we’re on the subject of mining, environmental regulations, and mitigation – and how well these things are currently managed: the mining industry is one of the most poorly regulated and managed industries in the country, and the bottom line is that it’s starting to cost taxpayers.  The Bush Administration removed all federal regulations protecting surface and groundwater during mining operations, and the current status of how effectively the industry has “mitigated” its footprint reveals a dismal track record.

There are upwards of 500,000 abandoned mines of all flavors across the country.  To even attempt to mitigate these would cost upwards of $35 billion, according to US EPA.  There are hundreds of mines that are placed on the priority list ever year to become part of the national Superfund program for cleanup efforts, and resources certainly cannot begin to cover the actions necessary to restore these lands.  Additionally, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming – three of which would be the major players in an oil shale push – allow a “corporate guarantee” in the form of a promise or word-of-mouth arrangement that adequate funds will be used to clean up mining sites.  Mining operations are estimated to have contaminated 40% of headwaters in the American west. While many of these operations are goal, silver, and copper mines, to think that current regulations prevent environmental impacts is ignorant of the realities and long-term impacts that changes in land use, water use, and waste disposal can have on natural resources and ecosystems.

What about the greenhouse gases and air quality? 

But back to oil shale.  There seems to be some confusion about the greenhouse gas emissions from oil shale, so first of all, let’s get some numbers on the page.

Citing Scientific American, “Researchers have found that a gallon of shale oil can emit as much as 50 percent more carbon dioxide than a gallon of conventional oil would over its given lifecycle from extraction to tailpipe.”  If you want another figure, the Rand Corporation, found that producing 100,000 barrels of oil shale per day would emit approximately 10 million tons of GHGs.

Additionally, when I stated that burning oil shale released more greenhouse gases than traditional petroleum, I wasn’t talking about carbon (which, by the way, is not a greenhouse gas – it’s just an element on the periodic table).  Although “carbon” has become a colloquial way to refer to greenhouse gases – a kind of nickname stemming from expressions like “carbon footprint”  – it isn’t the only one.  The IPCC actually lists over 15 gases on their registry of those which impact the greenhouse effect, aka those which impact radiative forcing.  And those are only the long-lived ones.  The most well-known of these are carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s), and not all of them have the same impact on the atmosphere – that is, one ton of carbon dioxide does not produce the same effect as one ton of methane. One of the major concerns with oil shale is that depending on the specific composition of the rock, it can have much greater methane content and emissions both during extraction, retort, and combustion, than conventional petroleum.

Sadly, the air quality issues aren’t limited to that.  Retorting and distilling oil shale releases sulfur dioxide, lead, and nitrogen oxides.  According to the BLM impact statement, just the existing “experimental” or trial phase extractions  reduce visibility by at least 10% for several weeks out of the year – and that’s nothing compared to what would happen if oil shale was being mass-produced at the kind of capacity that would make it market viable.  According to the Department of Energy, oil shale retorting, distillation, and combustion of the resulting fuel has also been linked to significant mercury emissions.

Oh, and in case you were curious, the State of California is pretty upset about this, too.  They actually filed comments against BLM because they did not think that the impact of the greenhouse gas emissions and climate change was given enough weight in the impact study.  You can see what the Attorney General of had to say about it here.

But we can develop the technology and make it efficient?

By the way, did we mention that the RAND corporation analysis also stated that producing 100,000 barrels of shale oil would require 1,200 megawatts of power?  That’s quite a bit – it’s actually the equivalent of a new power plant capable of serving a city of 500,000 people.

Last – but absolutely not least – I did take a gander at the Oil Shale Symposia website.  It seems that there are some prestigious groups involved, including the USGS and several universities.

However, it seems that this particular symposium states that its research is divided into two categories: Geomechanics and Integrated Geologic Framework.  All of this sounds very interesting, but where’s the research on the long term impacts?  Is it buried with the geochemistry?  Is it hiding in the paleo-climateology section?  I sincerely hope it is, because it doesn’t seem like there’s much going on .

I also noticed something interesting at the bottom, though, which I can’t resist bringing up: the logos for Shell, Exxon, and Total listed as partners and sponsors of the program.  I can’t necessarily call bias from this immediately, but let’s just say that when it comes to oil companies sponsoring “research,” it’s not hard to smell a rat in the room.  While it could be that oil shale production is the exception to the rule, these corporations have been notoriously poor at fully researching and disclosing the true impacts of their actions in the past.  On top of that, if we learned anything at all from Deepwater Horizon, it’s not to trust an oil company when they say they have effective mitigation technology – kind of like how you never trust a Sicilian when death is on the line.

Image

But you can ask them about oil shale and see what they think.

I’d actually be interested to see how much of this funding is going to truly evaluating the long-term impacts – and developing technologies to manage them – and how much is simply focused on making the technology efficient enough to head to market.  Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised.

But Maybe You Missed My Point: See, the overall point of me writing this whole shpeal is the following: I’m not trying to cry wolf on anybody.  But there’s a lot of talk about oil shale as being the “answer” to US energy security and to rising energy costs.

The problem is, this technology isn’t something that exists in a perfect form.  Currently, it is neither an efficient nor an effective use of resources right now.  It will take significant effort, research dollars, and resources just to get the process to a point where it is market viable – and by that point, the economics might not even be behind it anymore.   An effective production process is not only at least a decade away, but will still at that point be an expensive process that is unlikely to bring affordable energy to America or reduce the cost of energy.  And that isn’t coming from me.  The Congressional Budget Office concluded in a recent study that oil shale would generate no revenue whatsoever between now and 2022.  That’s at least ten years.

So here’s my bottom line.  The final punch I’m going to throw in this boxing match.  If we are going to invest money in developing an energy technology – shouldn’t it be something that is clean, renewable, and without significant downside risks?  Time and time again, oil and mining companies claim that the impacts are low and that they can “mitigate” anything.  Time and time again, we look to fossil fuels as a source of energy, no matter how many environmental crises, social impacts, and political crises are related to commodity-based energy.   And then, we end up with oil spills. We end up with contaminated groundwater.  We end up with areas of our oceans and beaches that are not rehabilitated decades later.  We end up with smog in our cities.  We end up paying millions of dollars to rehabilitate mining sites where the water has reached pH levels that scientists didn’t even think were possible.  And even when rehabilitated, we end up with hundreds of “brownfields” sites that no one wants to go near, because even we do not fully comprehend the risks.

Isn’t it time to take those dollars and invest them in researching a technology that everyone can access?  Maybe we could try something that won’t be bought and sold by the barrel.   Maybe we could try something that everyone can access equally.

To me, that’s just common sense.  But then again, I’m not chasing the almighty dollar, and I’m not the one who stands to make a profit.  Those who do would probably look at it differently.

For further reading, and additional perspectives, I would suggest that interested parties consult any one of the following resources:

The Wilderness Society Fact Sheet: http://wilderness.org/files/Oil-Shale-fs-water.pdf

US Bureau of Land Management Environmental Impact Study: http://ostseis.anl.gov/guide/oilshale/index.cfm

NRDC Fact Sheets on Oil Shales: http://www.nrdc.org/energy/dirtyfuels_oil.asp

Study on oil shale by the European Academies Science Advisory Council: http://www.easac.eu/fileadmin/PDF_s/reports_statements/Study.pdf


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »