Category Archives: Environment

Weather

Climate Change

Climate Change

2013 Flood

There is currently a lot of controversy about climate change and whether humankind has a role in the warming trend.  While I think it is true that pouring huge amounts of sequestered carbon is the culprit, I don’t think it matters much for us here in Colorado and much of the west. 

We live in a land of extremes except for the rainy Pacific Northwest, but, they have their earthquakes and volcanos.  Here in Colorado, we dwell in a land of extremes.  The west is dry, it snows in the mountains, the Front Range is kind of a mix, and it is pretty dry in the east.  That varies from year to year.  It varies a lot.   

In the late nineteenth century it was a wet cycle in the eastern prairie, and the railroads made millions enticing settlers to buy their land and get rich farming.  The population in eastern Colorado peaked then and has been declining ever since.  The mountain ski areas have lots of snow some years and almost no snow other years.  The western desert country looks dry and desolate most of the time, but I have seen it bloom in a stunning variety of color.   

Then there are the floods, blizzards, and tornados, often followed by drought.  The one thing we can count on is change.  There are long term trends.  Most archeologists think one reason the ancestral Pueblo Indians left southwestern Colorado was a prolonged drought cycle.  Anyone who tries to raise dry land beans in that country can tell you not much has changed. 

2013 Flood

2013 Flood

Here along the base of the mountains we have the extremes as well. There was the drought of 2002, and the floods of 2013.  The mountains create an unusual weather pattern that stalls along the mountain front, bringing more moisture than the land can handle.  That is when lots of the mountains wash out into the flat country.  It has been going on for more than sixty million years.  The gravel in the Platte River in Nebraska is Rocky Mountain gravel.  Some of the Louisiana mud is Long’s peak mud.   

Some climate models say climate change is going to dry Colorado out, other models say it will be wetter.  My money is on more extreme weather.  Longer, more violent wet periods and long droughts.  Look for more frequent floods, not the thirty or forty year cycle we have had since the first European-American settlers and miners arrived.  Think about the tornados and hailstorms recently.   

I like the extremes.  We have our regular four seasons here but the winters are milder than in Iowa.  It can get hot but there are few days over one hundred degrees, but not like southeastern Utah.  I think that may change, hotter in the summer.  I don’t think the winters will be colder.  I can remember forty below in Boulder when I was flunking out of CU.  Twenty below seems to be more the cold winter norm now.  What I do not like is the hailstorms.  I don’t think the insurance companies like them much either.  Homeowners insurance costs keep rising.  That hail is hard on the garden as well. We had only one tomato plant survive last year. 

One of the big impacts of climate change will be on water supplies.  The amount of precipitation may not change, but if it is warmer, the snowpacks will not last as long in the spring.  That means more spring floods and a shorter runoff period, which will impact water storage.  That could be bad news for the populated Front Range.  People keep coming, but there will not be more water, and a lot of the big spring runoff will go out of the state.  That will be good for the Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska, but bad for Parker and Highlands ranch. 

I spent a long time in the water business, and it always disturbed me watching all that high quality drinking water being used to attempt to replicate Surrey or Connecticut foliage in the Great American Desert.   All that bluegrass will have to go. The urban forest will have more drought-hardy trees.  Denver Water’s customers have done a good job of conserving since the big drought of 2002, but the bluegrass model of landscaping continues.  In Denver, daily water consumption is about 110 million gallons per day in winter.  I the hot part of summer, it’s over 400 million gallons per day, most of it run out onto the ground. 

At our house, we have significantly reduced the size of our lawn, but we still have a lot of crabgrass.  It should be buffalo grass and blue grama, both native drought-resistant grasses.  They don’t stay green all summer, so we are stalling and paying the water bill.  Marijuana legalization is bringing lots of people to Colorado, and the economy is booming.  Those people use water, and lots of water is used growing the stuff.  One of the unintended consequences of legalizing pot is increased water consumption. 

Myself, I am not too concerned about climate change for myself.  After all I am 73 years old and don’t live on the coast.  Long term change is a reality, but as John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long range we are all dead”.

 

Flint Water

Flint Water

Flint Water

After 30 years in the water industry, I thought I should give my take on the Flint, Michigan water crisis.  There is a misconception that the water from the Flint River the state emergency manager switched to is poisonous.  Not true.  Properly treated, the Flint River water is fine, and would meet all safe drinking water standards.   

The problem is that the water was not properly treated.  As it comes from the river, the water is corrosive and attacks metals in the distribution system pipes.  To be safe, it must be treated to make it less corrosive.  There are chemical additives (phosphates) that coat the pipes and prevent lead and copper from leaching into the water.  Here in Denver, lime or soda ash are added to raise the pH  of the water, making it less corrosive.  In addition, over time a thin film of calcium carbonate forms on the inside of the pipes, effectively sequestering the toxic metals. The phosphate chemicals do the same thing. 

How can you tell if your water is safe?  The corrosive water also attacks the rust that forms in an old system, such as in Denver or Flint.  If your water is red, it has rust, but also lead and copper.  The lead and copper come from the pipes, not the river.  The rust won’t hurt you, just stain your fixtures.  The lead comes from lead solder (now outlawed) used to join copper pipes and from lead pipes once used to bring water from the main into the house.  The lead service lines are slowly going away, but many houses have galvanized steel pipes into the house.  These are safe, but that steel pipe won’t bend to attach to the tap on the main, which is high on the pipe to keep sediment out of the service line.  The solution, a flexible lead loop bending from the tap to the service line.   

Corroded Pipe

Corroded Pipe

In Denver some older houses have lead service lines, but the lead loops are more common.  My entire neighborhood in South Denver with houses dating from the Victorian era to the 1940’s has lead loops.  Most of them are replaced when the old galvanized pipes rust out and there is a leak.  Our house has a copper service line now.  Several houses on the block have had their old service lines replaced since we have lived there.  Look where the water line comes into your house.  If it is copper, you are OK.  Flint has the same situation. 

Aggressive water leaches lead and copper out of the pipes and renders the water toxic.  Lead is the most dangerous, as it is a neurotoxin especially dangerous for developing fetuses and young children.  Copper is also toxic, but copper pipes are more resistant to corrosion than lead. 

If you have red water in your house, it is possibly dangerous and needs to be tested.  The Flint water is not just red, it’s red mud.   Before the Safe Drinking Water Act, many small water systems had aggressive water.  As a kid, I watched red water flow into our bathtub, especially in the spring, when the water was mostly runoff.  Maybe that is why I am nuts, as well as the rest of us from Fruita.

How did this happen in Flint?  Flint has a treatment plant, but was using water from Detroit which has good corrosion control.  Flint has plans to switch from the Flint River to Lake Huron  as their water source.  Lake Huron water is higher quality than river water, making it less expensive to treat.  Detroit water is from Lake Huron.  The Michigan emergency manager for Flint ordered the switch to river water to save money.   

Flint is broke.  The demise of much of the U.S. Auto industry hit Flint hard, a General Motors town.  The result, white flight, leaving a population mostly poor and black.  The city couldn’t pay its bills and the state took over with a team appointed by the Governor.  Here is the root of the problem.  The federal Safe Drinking Water Act establishes standards for drinking water.  The law gives the states the option to administer the law, usually by the Health Department or the Environmental Quality Department.   

So, the State government is running the Flint government and water treatment process and is also charged with insuring the water is safe, a clear conflict of interest.  A wild card?  Racism.  Those poor black people did not have much political clout and were essentially ignored and belittled when they complained about their water.  It took a brave pediatrician seeing high lead levels in her patients to finally get action. 

Four governmental entities are involved.  The Flint city government was rendered superfluous when the state assumed control.  The federal EPA was passing the buck to the Michigan Environmental Quality Department and not doing due diligence in making sure the department was doing its job (the EPA administrator lost his job).  The state environmental quality regulators knew there was a problem, but were influenced by the Governor’s emergency management.  The result, a perfect bureaucratic storm, with the people of Flint as victims. 

The cost?  A public health crisis that will cost millions to fix.  It takes a long time for the calcium carbonate or phosphate coating to form in the pipes.  In the meantime the water is unsafe.  The people of Flint will have to be provided with bottled water for some time.  Lots of bureaucratic fingers are being pointed.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  Will anyone go to jail?  Probably not, even though there is now a special prosecutor.  If the local Flint city government had been simply subsidized by the state until it got its house in order, the whole thing could probably been avoided.  Instead the emergency managers put money ahead of the public health.     

Many conservatives want to reduce the size of government, and return to the nineteenth century, before there was water treatment and people died of waterborne disease.  Government built a system to protect public health.  If government does not have the money do do its job, the public health will suffer.  Do you want safe water?  Don’t move to Flint.

 

 

The Colorado Plateau Part Two

 

Colorado Plateau Country

Colorado Plateau Country

There is a lot of beautiful country on the Colorado Plateau, but there is the other side.  The term many use is the stinking desert.  My home town has an annual rainfall of about eight inches.  Before the Utes were run out and ditches were dug, the Grand Valley was a sparse desert.  The irrigation projects made much of the valley green, but north of the Highline Canal is the desert.  It is a fairly barren desert, not like the Sonoran Desert with its green saguaro cactus.

Mancos Shale Soil

Mancos Shale Soil

The soil, if you can call it that, is fairly infertile, high in salts, and high in toxic selenium.  It’s called the Mancos Shale.  The Mancos Shale, called the Pierre Shale east of the Rockies, runs from South Dakota to central Utah.  It is an ancient sea floor, Cretaceous in age, of the inland sea covering much of North America.  Shale is mud rock, laid down as the sea advanced and retreated over millions of years.

The lower part of the Bookcliffs and the valley floors are Mancos Shale.  In its natural state it is a scrub grassland, supporting small populations of deer, antelope, prairie dogs, sage grouse, cottontails, and some Bison.  When the Northern European Americans arrived, they saw grazing land.  The sheep and cattle came.  The ranchers did well for a few years, but their expectations were unrealistic for such a dry area.  Soon, most of the good grass was gone, replaced by cheat grass and sagebrush.

The area between Delta and Grand Junction is a prime example.  My father, born in 1903, lived in Grand Junction after 1918.  He told me that at that time, there were extensive stands of tall bunch grasses.  They are gone.  That desert is one of the most barren stretches I am aware of.  It is hilly, so irrigation water went to flatter areas.  It is close to towns, so lots of ranchers grazed their stock on the land.

Much of the Mancos shale country is BLM land today.  In the old days, the Land Office and the Grazing Service leased land to ranchers.  There were allocations on the number of head allowed on each segment, but there was little enforcement.  The grass mostly disappeared.  Thus, the stinking desert.

I-70 from Palisade to the west of Green River, Utah is on the Mancos.  Highway Six from where I-70 veers south almost all the way to Price is on the Mancos.  Travelers on those highways have the bare Bookcliffs and the bare desert floor to look at for over 200 miles.  Their impression was what tended to keep the canyon country to the south relatively isolated.  Locals had all that magnificent country mostly to themselves.

Art in Salt Creek Canyon

Art in Salt Creek Canyon

The a uranium and oil and gas booms of the 1950s built a large network of roads and opened the canyon country up for tourism.  Those flat deserts remain empty, along with the mostly shale country of the Bookcliffs and the Tavaputs Plateau to the North.

When I went to Arches in the 1950s, we drove down two tracks winding through the sand.  This year during the height of the season, cars were lined up literally for miles.  Canyonlands National Park is also crowded, people lined up.  I remember going there and often seeing no one.

From Green River to Hanksville is mostly flat, dry desert, with 70 miles from the highway turnoff to the Maze District Ranger Station in Canyonlands.  The greater part of Navajo country in southern Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona is fairly flat desert.  Monument Valley is flat desert that happens to have some rocks sticking up.  Have you ever driven from Albuquerque to Flagstaff on I-40?  Flat desert.

Henry Mountains

Henry Mountains

The Colorado Plateau does have some other features.  Mountains, tall, green, and wet, supplying water to the desert.  Three ranges of mountains, the La Sals near Moab, the Abajos, known to locals as the Blues, and the Henry Mountains, near to nowhere.  The La Sals are the tallest, over 12,000 feet.  The Abajos and the Henrys stretch to 11,000 feet.  They stand in contrast to the red rock country surrounding them, and provide a welcome relief.  People go there in summer to cool off and enjoy the wildlife.

Geologically, the mountains are Laccoliths, formed by a neck of molten magma rising to a weaker junction between two layers of sandstone.  At that junction the magma moves laterally, forming a mushroom shaped dome of igneous rock in the domain of sandstone.  The overlying strata usually erode away, leaving the igneous core.  The Henrys are the type location for Laccoliths, being the subjects of the earliest study, and displaying the domed shape.

Salt Creek Canyon

Salt Creek Canyon

The three ranges are important to ranching, providing water, hay farming, and a summer range, with the stock wintering on the desert.  Salt Creek, draining north from the Blues, has a canyon with year-round water, arches, and Ancestral Puebloan ruins and rock art. The canyon also provides access to a park in the midst of the Needles District of Canyonlands.  I like that park because it was never grazed.  It provides a look at the land before cattle came, trampling or eating everything, mangling stream banks, and bringing alien species like cheat grass.  No I won’t tell you where it is.  Go look for yourself.

 

The Bookcliffs and the River

 

Bookcliffs

Bookcliffs

The Book Cliffs are the neglected stepchildren of Western Colorado and Eastern Utah. That is somewhat ironic, because they stretch from Palisade and Mt. Garfield about 200 miles to Price, Utah. Rising about 1000 feet from the valley floor, they are the longest escarpment in the world. Above the Book Cliffs is a bench With the Roan Cliffs forming another escarpment  Behind the cliffs is the Roan Plateau, rising to about 8000 feet in elevation. With the wide change in elevation and precipitation from eight inches annually to around thirty, there is wide diversity in plant and animal life. There are energy resources as well. Natural gas, tar sands, oil, coal, and that huge deposit of oil shale.   The region is known as the Tavaputs Plateau.

The plateau is home to the Desolation Canyon Wilderness and due to the wide range in elevation and precipitation, a diverse range of plant and animal life. There are three reasons why the area is not very popular with visitors.

First, look south. Colorado National Monument, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks. There are the three mountain ranges and all that wondrous red rock carved into some of the best scenery on earth.

Next, accessibility. Douglas Pass is the only paved road in the vast area. The many dirt roads are accessible only as long as they are dry. Traditionally, the only people there were stockmen and the Utes on their reservation. In recent times there has been much energy-related activity that comes and goes.

The third reason? Shale. It is not only shale, there are layers of sandstone, even limestone. It’s all gray or shades of tan. Driving on the drab Mancos shale landscape of I-70, looking north you see drab cliffs. More of the same gray rock, just standing up. Roads built on that shale changes into some of the most slippery substances known after a rain or snow.. People are just not inspired to go there.

Growing up in Fruita, Colorado, I spent quite a bit of time in areas on either side of the Douglas Pass road, which was gravel and dust at the time. We had rancher friends, and deer season was a big social scene. It is wild, mostly empty country, home to lots of cattle, some sheep, a few ranchers, and a lot of wildlife. It is also famous for some of the most treacherous mud in the world. There are some sandstone lenses (we called them rims), but it is mostly shale, a former lake bottom that now sits thousands of feet above the Grand Valley, where the people live.

Colorado National Monument.  Bookcliffs on the horizon

Colorado National Monument. Bookcliffs on the horizon

I used to look at the Colorado National Monument with its red rocks to the south. To the north were the relatively drab Bookcliffs with the whitish Roan Plateau above them. Why the difference? The Monument is famous, with lots of information about the Uncompaghre Uplift lifting the Uncompahgre Plateau thousands of feet compared to the Grand Valley. As the plateau, erosion took the more recent rocks off, leaving the more resistant sandstone.

I thought some sort of uplift must have formed the Bookcliffs. Well, partly. When the entire Colorado Plateau was uplifted at the same time as the Rockies, The Colorado River just dug away, carrying the eroded rock to the sea. It is still digging, and is eroding those Bookcliffs to the north. Under the Bookcliffs are the rocks of the Monument. Someday the land will be fairly flat between Grand Junction and Craig. We won’t be around, however. These things take time.

So, the Colorado Plateau was uplifted and after that the Uncompahgre Plateau went up some more and wore down. The rocks exposed at the Monument are, a few miles north, well below the rocks of the Bookcliffs who are headed north as the river gnaws away. The Colorado River rules, it is just a bit slow.

Colorado Rain, Ritual

Denver floodRain for a month.  In Colorado!  The climate change deniers must be having second thoughts.  It rains on the unrighteous (Republicans) as well as the righteous (me).  The upside is that we have been finishing up our landscaping project which began with our new garage last summer.  There are just a few loose ends, a little planting, support for the raspberry bushes, and cleaning up after the hailstorm.

Some of our new plants are a bit ragged, but I don’t think we lost anything.  Our neighborhood does not seem to get quite the weather extremes as other areas in the metro area.  We have a lot of leaves down I will rake up if it ever dries out.  I had sense enough to put my pickup in the garage before Thursday’s hailstorm.

Climate change.  It seems like this area will be wetter with more extreme events than in the recent geologic past.  Our front range mountains are good at catching moisture brought in from both gulfs by a low pressure system south of here.  Some call it the Albuquerque Low.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t bring much rain to California.

This area may become something of an oasis in a growing desert.   What is clear is that we can no longer count on the status quo.  Humanity has to drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere.  Of course, the earth seems to have self-correcting systems that restore a balance.  It takes a long time however, and may mean the extinction of the species responsible for disrupting things.  Once again the adage is proven true:  “In the long run, we are all dead.”

On a completely different subject, I am I the coffee shop right next to the Denver University campus and today is graduation day.  There were all these people all dressed up at 8:00 in the morning.  The woman across from me at the table flew in from L.A. Last night for her best friends graduation.  These rituals were on the wane for lots of years.  I did not even entertain the idea of add ending my graduation from CSU, but of course it was the sixties.  The only important ritual was passing the doobie.

Preschool

Preschool

Now ritual seems to be returning.  The Masons and the American Legion are dying out, but preschoolers are wearing caps and gowns to graduate.  Ritual brings us together, and we need more.  I don’t know what will replace the obsolete organizations, but something will probably happen.  People need one another, and have to come together to reaffirm that need.  Which reminds me, my 55th High School reunion is in September

Nuking Western Colorado

Gas-rigcolorado

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Project Plowshare, a U.S. government program was created to develop peaceful uses for nuclear detonations. The program led to three trials in rural Western Colorado designed to release natural gas from tight geologic formations that contained large amounts of natural gas.  The gas was there, but was difficult to recover because it would not readily flow to wells.  Nuclear fracking, in other words.

The idea was to fracture large amounts of rock releasing the gas for use. Fracking was in use in that era, but the area fractured around a well hole was fairly small, limiting the amount of gas freed.  This would remain the case until horizontal well drilling was developed, resulting in a boom in natural gas production.

The use of atomic explosions somewhat larger than the one that destroyed Hiroshima would fracture a large amount of rock, liberating huge amounts of gas.  There were three experiments.  All three were somewhat successful, yielding gas in recoverable amounts.  Big surprise, the gas was radioactive and remains so.  A study indicated that the level of radioactivity released in a California home, when blended with gas from other sources, would be well below the dose we receive from background radiation. People would have none of it.  No one wanted radioactive natural gas coming into their home at any level.

Western Colorado, source of much of the uranium used in nuclear bombs, had three detonations in a doomed experiment.  The most casual of examinations of the proposal to liberate gas from tight strata would raise the radioactivity question.  It took millions of dollars to prove the obvious: radioactive natural gas.

Some shots were done at the Nevada test site to explore using bombs to excavate.  Huge amounts of radionuclides were released, affecting generations of downwinders, especially in St. George, Utah.  Our nuclear tragedy started in New Mexico with the first Trinity detonation that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It continues today, with all the radioactive spots around the planet and the people sickened and killed by fallout.

Most historians assert that President Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki ultimately saved lives.  What they did do was trigger the nuclear arms race with its terrible consequences.  Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have shown that nuclear power is risky as well.

My first literary effort was a story I wrote while a student at Mesa College in Grand Junction, Colorado in 1966.  Project Rulison was in the works, and my story depicted an even greater failure.  The blast sent radioactive oil into a previously unknown aquifer that opened into the irrigation canals that provide water to Grand Valley farms.  Radioactive oil in Palisade, Grand Junction, Fruita, and the rest of the valley, rendering it uninhabitable.  Pure fiction, but a fun story.

FrackingSite_1415936638313_9585695_ver1_0_640_480Come up to today, and fracking is still controversial. I think the legacy of Project Rulison is stalking the oil and gas industry to this day.  Somehow the industry did not get it that bad practices will catch up with them, despite the API’s slick commercials.

Part Three, the Keystone XL Pipeline

Pipeline Construction

Pipeline Construction

When I was growing up in Fruita, Colorado in the 1950’s, the El Paso Natural Gas Company built a 26″ natural gas pipeline from north to south through Western Colorado. In flat country, laying a pipe is fairly straightforward.  To lay a pipeline, dig, lay pipe, weld, wrap, and backfill.  In the Colorado Plateau, the pipeline not only goes from point to point, it goes up and down.

North of Fruita, The line had to go over Douglas Pass. As Colorado passes go, it is no big deal.   Not that high, but near the top there is steep and unstable ground famous for landslides.  The trenchers, welding machines, side-boom tractors handling pipe, and bulldozers; all had to be winched up and down the mountainside.  That is a slow, expensive process. To us in Fruita, it meant that our little town had lots of pipeliners for several weeks.

I mostly saw the pipeliners in Hill’s Cafe, where we often had dinner. The stereotype is that pipeliners are a wild bunch, but we didn’t see it in the cafe.  They were quiet, well-behaved, some prayed before eating, and I liked them.  After all, if you are from Bald Knob, Arkansas, how wild can you be?

That pipeline brings gas from Wyoming, Western Colorado, and Eastern Utah to markets in Texas and the southwest, including California. To my knowledge, it has few problems and quietly does its job.  I think that pipeline has shaped my thinking about pipelines in general.

Today there is much oil and gas development in North Dakota and Alberta. A pipeline network exists to deliver crude oil from there to the refinery complex on the Gulf Coast.  It can’t deliver all that is being produced.  Proposed is a new line, the Keystone XL Pipeline that would run west of the existing line, picking up crude from the Williston Basin in North Dakota as well as the synthetic crude from the Alberta tar sands.

There is a lot of opposition for several reasons. One reason is fear of leaks.  Big spills, contamination, fire, ground water contamination, and all the risks that go with moving lots of nasty stuff that burns.  That Alberta synthetic crude is even nastier than regular crude.  Its carbon footprint is much higher than oil from traditional sources.  It is thick and has to be heated to separate it from the sand.  Most of the crude oil refined here in Denver is tar sand oil.

Oil Car Train

Oil Car Train

The fact is that as long as demand for petroleum products stays high, that Alberta crude will go south, but in rail cars if the pipeline isn’t built.  Here in Denver, there are many tank car trains headed south, competing with coal trains for right of way.   In the upper Midwest there is so much oil traffic that farmers are having difficulty shipping their grain.  Pipelines are safer than rail cars for shipping petroleum.

Some of the opposition is for environmental reasons. Tar sand crude is bad.  Pipelines are bad.  Fossil fuel is bad.  All true.  The solution is not stopping pipelines, but reducing demand.  How to reduce demand?  Make fossil fuels more expensive with higher taxes.  Use the tax money to develop alternative energy and transportation.  Build rails not freeways.  Tell that to Republican legislators.

In the meantime, I think the pipeline is the best alternative until our energy policies change.

Three Unjustified Political Causes

Gas Rig in Western Colorado

Gas Rig in Western Colorado

There are three causes, fracking, GMO’s, and the XL pipeline that to me are spurious. There is a lot of hysteria around the issues with little critical examination taking place.  People seem to be taken in by bad science, bad reporting, and demagoguery.

Fracking is an old technology that expanded when horizontal drilling along with fracking opened up huge amounts of territory to oil and gas extraction. The oil and gas was there all along, geologists knew about it, but it was trapped in what the industry calls tight strata, mostly shale.

Traditionally, oil and gas has come from fairly porous rock that allows the oil and gas to migrate to the wells. Tight strata is not porous, and the oil and gas tends to stay in place.  hydraulic fracturing breaks the rock, allowing the oil and gas to move to the well. Fracking is not new technology.  It was being used around my home town in the 1950’s.  The big change came with horizontal drilling, hugely expanding the amount of rock that can be fractured from one drill hole.

If there is impervious rock above the area being fractured, the only route for the oil and gas to escape is up the drill hole. Done right, the oil and gas go into a pipeline or a tank with no surface contamination.  The problem is that it is often not done right.

BP Spill

BP Spill

It’s been clear for a long time, reinforced by the big BP spill in the gulf, that drilling so often not done right. Oil companies are infamous for lying, cheating, and stealing.  They get away with it in part because nobody knows what they are doing.  Meters are bypassed, mineral rights owners, including the Government, are underpaid, horizontal wells go outside their boundaries, and proper drilling methods are bypassed.

The big BP spill in the gulf happened because a defective blowout preventer was put in service. No one is going to know, right?  It is a mile under water.  We all know and BP is going to owe billions.

The problems we are seeing with fracking, groundwater contamination, flaming water faucets, polluted water dumped into streams, all come from cheating. With fracking, drillers cheat by not properly lining the drill holes.  The correct method is to pump concrete between the side of the hole and the smaller steel casing that carries the oil and gas to the surface.  It requires high pressure pumps and a lot of concrete.  Done right, it works just fine.  But, it is a long way down that hole and you cannot stand beside the wellhead and tell what was done.  What can be done is to sample ground water and air.  If there is contamination, it was not done right.  Incidentally, our old friend Halliburton is the big oil well service company that does much of the well lining.

Until alternate energy is much bigger than it now is, we need oil and gas, and domestic production is preferable to foreign imports. Otherwise, turn off your air conditioning, junk the furnace, and sell the car.  So, let’s regulate.   We need monitoring for contaminants and on-site inspectors.  All that is done in construction, but the oil and gas industry has avoided most oversight.

Fear is the reason for the opposition to fracking. People don’t understand the technology, big oil rigs along subdivisions and water trucks on the highway are imposing.  They see news reports that show flaming faucets

Flaming Faucet

Flaming Faucet

without explaining the cause other than blaming fracking.  Flaming railroad oil train wrecks.  Pipeline leaks in California.  The oil and gas industry has a public relations problem.

The biggest fracking failure was 45 years ago in Western Colorado. The government detonated a 40 kiloton nuclear bomb down a drill hole near Parachute, Colorado.  Lots of natural gas was liberated, but it is radioactive.  People just will not accept radioactive gas coming into their homes.  I think this long ago event is what started fracking fear.

Unless you get around on horseback or bicycle, stay off the power grid and light, heat, and cool your house with renewable energy, you need oil and gas.  With regulation, it can be safe.  We can then put more time and energy into developing clean energy.

Parts two and three will examine GMO food and the XL Pipeline.  Stay tuned.

Energy

 

Solar Panels

Solar Panels

Carol and I are concentrating on how we use energy.  Watching “Cosmos” with Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointing to the sun and saying, “It’s Free!” is partly responsible.  I did a lot of research for my talk on Front Range Colorado flooding.  One conclusion I reached is that the climate change we are now experiencing will lead to more floods.

Releasing fossil carbon into the atmosphere is setting up a worldwide crisis of unparalleled magnitude.  Drought, wildfires, floods, sea level rise, and pollution will affect millions worldwide.  The environmental changes have already increased political instability. Syria and sub-Saharan Africa are cases in point.

Here in the U.S., rhetoric and denial are the most visible response to the looming disasters.  Those who make money from fossil energy deny the problem and buy inaction in Congress.  Public utilities seem to be much more interested in selling gas and power produced from coal and gas than switching to renewables.  Wind farms are on the increase and more commercial solar power installations are being built, but the pace is fairly slow.

Germany is a leader in switching to renewables, but recent stories that over 70 percent of production is from renewables is exaggerated.  The fact is that their wind and solar production is increasing, while coal use is declining.  China is starting to move to renewables, but is the world leader in coal use, and coal production is increasing.  In China, 66% of their power comes from coal compared to 49% in the U.S.  The switch to gas from coal is on, driven by cheaper gas (from fracking) and the high cost of coal plant pollution controls.  Burning gas has about half the carbon footprint of coal, but it is still burning huge amounts of carbon sequestered millions of years ago.

Worldwide people and governments are starting to respond to the dangers of fossil fuel generated climate change, but slowly.  So what are we to do?  Join the grassroots green energy movement.  People use all this energy, so people have to use less.  Less gasoline, less natural gas, less electricity, and most of all, less coal.

So what is a couple from Denver to do?  We aren’t much for marching in the streets or being rabid environmentalists, but we want to do our part.  Activism begins at home.  In our case, home is a brick bungalow built in 1937, when builders were not concerned with energy efficiency.  The main thing builders did in the 1930’s did was build smaller houses.  Ours has 830 square feet on the main floor.  It is a far cry from the 2400 square foot houses that are today’s norm.

We did add a 400 square foot sunroom that we can close off from the rest of the house.  In the winter, it is at 40 degrees, and an exhaust fan pulls cool air from the basement in summer.  We have a modern high efficiency furnace and water heater.  We have increased the attic insulation twice, first to R36, then to R50.  The original steel casement windows are terrible for leaking cold air in winter, and hot air in summer.  We have historical designation on the house which means keeping those windows, but we installed inside storm windows that stop those wintry breezes.

Carol forces me to tolerate 68 degrees in winter and 78 degrees in summer.  That mainly means either more or less clothes depending on the season.  At night the programmable thermostat is set for 56 degrees, but the house seldom cools off that much.  I did break down and get some fleece lined slippers instead of my beloved L.L. Bean moccasins.  The basement, with my man cave, gets cold.  I guiltily run an electric heater.  Someday we will insulate those cold basement walls.

When we increased the attic insulation the first time we also put in attic ventilation.  We had rooftop vents installed and put a large vent in the north gable to introduce cooler outside air.  When we re-roof we will add more vents.  Prior to that, the only ventilation was a small vent over the entryway.  It sure did get hot up there.

The air conditioner has a device provided by our electric utility that runs it less often during periods of high demand for power on hot days.  To reduce air conditioner use we open the house up in the evening and run fans to exhaust hot air and bring in cooler outside air.  Denver averages a thirty degree difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures.  Texans, eat your hearts out.  When we have to have a new roof in the next few years we will add an attic fan.  They are noisy, but they exhaust hot air in the house and cool the attic.

The big thing we are doing now is adding solar electricity with our new garage.  We have needed a garage for some time.  We have never been able to park a car in the old one, designed for a 1937 Ford.  My shop area, the gardening stuff, until recently my motorcycle, and the bicycles filled it up.  Our block has an alley, which is a crime conduit.  We have had several break-ins, and want our cars inside.

The solar panels will go on the garage and sunroom roofs.  When we replace the roof on the older part of the house, we will add enough panels to produce all the power we need.  We will be at about 80% with the house and sunroom panels.

So we are slowly going green.  It is possible for individuals to make a difference.  If more of us do it, it will pressure governments and the utility companies to get serious about energy.  It will take grass roots action to make it happen.  Boulder, Colorado is threatening to take over Xcel energy’s infrastructure in their city.  That is a message to the utility companies that they have to get serious about renewable energy or lose their customers city by city.  I am hopeful that meaningful change is going to happen.  I don’t think it is enough to stop some of the climate changes we are seeing, but we are slowly starting to try living with our planet, not exploit it to our extinction.

Colorado’s Front Range Floods

2013 flood

2013 Flood

Those of us who live along the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains enjoy a unique set of circumstances; a fine climate, mountain views, a mountain playground, and rivers that provide much of our water needs.  There are millions of people living in an urban area that runs from Pueblo to Fort Collins.

Most of the time, the physical setting and the climate combine to make the Front Range a fine place to live.  There is risk, however.  Most of the time we don’t have quite enough water for every need. The people are along the Front Range, and the water is on the western slope.  On occasion, we have way too much water.  We are subject to drought, our own waste of the water we have, and the floods that come out of the mountain canyons.

To understand these problems requires a look at two histories, the Rocky Mountain history for the last 75 million years and human history from 1859.  Around 75 million years ago the Rockies began to form.  As they grew, they also wore down.  The debris from the mountains spread from their base to as far as Nebraska.

The streams were bigger then.  Drive east to Bijou Creek and see the valley that obviously was not formed by the current flow in the creek.  The wind blew.  It still does, leaving eolian sand deposits.  Sand Creek, draining the area east through Stapleton and into Aurora is appropriately named.  You can identify the sand hills – they are grazing land, not good for farming.  That sand and dirt comes from as far as Utah and coats our cars.

 

Today, the Rockies are not eroding as fast as they did during the ice ages, but they are still coming down.  Back in the Precambrian when I took geology, the assumption was that erosion was a steady, gradual process.  Taking the long view, that is so, but on a human time scale, erosion is punctuated by periodic floods.  Some of the floods are from spring runoff from wet winters.  The catastrophic floods pound out of the canyons when storms park themselves over an area and it rains.  And rains.  Sometimes it rains more in a few hours than it does in several normal years.  Sometimes the rain is where the people are, just east of the mountains.

Large amounts of moist monsoonal air from the Gulf of Mexico move north along the Rockies and encounter a cold front coming from the west.  Sometimes the rains are short in a fairly small area.  At other times, as in 2013, the rain comes down over a large area, and it rains for days. To humans, these storms seem like unusual events, but they have been happening for millions of years.  Along with normal erosion, they have filled the Denver Basin with 13,000 feet of debris.  That is a lot of rocks and mud.

 

1864__Cherry-Creek-Flood~p1

1864 Cherry Creek Flood

One of the first recorded monsoonal floods was in 1864, not long after Denver was settled.  Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians told the settlers seeking fortune not to build where Cherry Creek and the South Platte meet.  The town builders built there anyway.  It was a logical town site.  Trails met, grass, trees, and water were available, and the gold-rich mountains just a short distance away.  Much of the new town went downstream.

 

The town was rebuilt in the same place.  Floods came again.  Denver flooded in 1876, 1885, 1894, 1912, 1921, 1933, and 1965.  Pueblo flooded in 1921, the Big Thompson in 1976, Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs in 2013, and much of the Front Range from Denver to Fort Collins in 2013.  The link is from the Atlantic Monthly, with dramatic images from the 2013 flooding.

Most vulnerable are towns at the base of the mountains: Manitou Springs, Palmer Lake, Morrison, Golden, Boulder, Lyons, Loveland, and Fort Collins.  Towns along the South Platte, St. Vrain, Cache La Poudre, and Big Thompson rivers are at special risk.

DSCN0960

Jamestown 2014

Will people stop building there?  Rebuilding is underway in every area flooded in 2013.  While researching this piece I traveled to Boulder, Jamestown, Lyons, and the farmland along the St Vrain.   I saw travel trailers parked nest to damaged homes with building permits on the flood-damaged houses.

Some actions do prevent floods.  Denver has Cherry Creek, Bear Creek, and Chatfield dams.  They are flood control dams designed to capture floodwaters.  Let’s hope they are big enough.

The photo above has a lot of rock in the foreground.  The rocks range in size from sand and silt to head size.  They were exposed by the 2013 flood, but were deposited by a previous flood that had enough force to carry that debris and dump it there.  upstream, there are narrow gulches with the lower ends scoured down to bedrock.  That debris went further downstream.

The Rocky Mountains are on the way to the Mississippi river delta in Louisiana.  It will take many millions of years, but they will wear down and become Mississippi mud.  Floods will hasten the process.

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