Tag Archives: Climate Change

Back to Fracking

I wrote about fracking before, but it seems to be the time to revisit the controversy.  The oil and gas business is paying for a media blitz saying fracking is a good thing: lower energy prices.

The opposition seems to believe fracking has concentrated all the evil in the world into a bunch of holes in the ground.  What is the reality here?  Both sides have strong arguments, but they are operating from separate assumptions.

Pro fracking advocates use the arguments that lower energy prices and tax revenue benefit us all.  Anti fracking advocates point to many accidents at drilling sites and groundwater contamination, along with drilling steadily encroaching on urban ares as a dangerous activity.

What about the benefits of fracking?  It’s true fracking has lowered energy costs and the conversion of coal fired power plants to has has lowered air pollution.  True on both counts.  But, fossil fuel is still being burned and greenhouse gasses are still going into the atmosphere.  It’s very possible fracking and increased low cost gas production is impeding the process of converting to alternative energy sources.

What about fracking itself?  It is not new technology.  My Fruita paper route doubled during the 1950’s energy boom in Western Colorado and Eastern Utah.  Fracking was part of the story then.  The real change is to horizontal drilling combined with fracking.

A deep vertical hole is drilled and then the bore hole is turned ninety degrees over the distance of a quarter mile.  The long horizontal bore is is perforated, explosive charges are detonated, fracturing rock usually fairly impervious to oil and gas flow.  The openings are then injected with water and sand, cracking more rock with the cracks held open by the sand.  Oil and gas can then flow into the bore hole and to the surface, then to your furnace and gas tank.

The fracking process uses a lot of water, from one to five million gallons.  About half or less of the water returns to the surface and is most often injected into another well (cheaper than treatment).  The water use can have a significant impact in arid regions.  Return water can be treated, but is expensive.

Probably the biggest objection to fracking is groundwater contamination.  Near Parachute CO, it was possible to light tap water on fire, there was so much gas in the water.  Most often the contamination comes from leaks in the vertical bore hole.  Proper casing and concrete injection readily prevents leaks, but as the work is done deep underground, it is easy to cheat, causing leaks.

My take on the issue?  Increased production from fracking lowers oil and gas prices and decreases our reliance on imported oil.  Coal fired power plants are being converted to gas, resulting in less greenhouse gas pollution from them.  Done properly, the technology is safe, but cheating seems to be the norm in the oil and gas business.  If we want to use fossil fuel, well regulated fracking is the way to go.  i think some of the opposition is because of the word fracking.  It seems to have an obscene connotation.

The big downside stems from the fact reduced fossil fuel costs are delaying the transition to alternative energy sources.  One estimate points out that cheap natural gas makes gas fired power plant power cheaper than wind or solar power.  The transition to alternative power may be slowed by twenty years or more.  In the short run, cheap gas is good.  In the long run, cheap gas may do more harm than good.  The planet can’t sequester enough carbon and the planet gets warmer.  Of course in the long run, we’re all dead.

The debate becomes political, and the oil business has the dollars to influence the decision.  Result, more gas gets burned and the long run comes earlier.  We will probably render our species extinct.

Wildfire

Some of the golden hills of California just turned black.  This time it is north around Santa Rosa and the wine country.  Usually it is the San Gabriel mountains or other Southern California areas.  The conditions leading to destructive wildfire are the same.  There are essentially two seasons; when it rains and when there is no rain.

This year there was a lot of rain in what passes for winter in all of California.  Everything greens up and grows.  It means good feed for cattle, and lots of fuel in the fall when it dries out.  You are probably familiar with the Santa Ana winds in Southern California.  The desert Great Basin east of the mountains cools off, creating an area of high pressure.  The pressure creates west-flowing winds, blowing to the coast.  As the winds hit the mountains, they rise, cool, then flow down the west side of the mountains, warming as they flow west.  Thus the Santa Ana winds, hot dry wind flowing west and drying all that foliage that grew during the rainy season.

In Northern California, the winds are called Diablo winds, after the local Diablo mountains.  The high pressure west of the coastal region originates from high pressure following storms blowing into the basin from the stormy northwest.  The high pressure again creates west flowing wind howling down the west side of the mountains.  The fires are set or lightning started, and burn across the valleys.  That means the golden hills, vineyards, and Santa Rosa suburbs.

The fire triangle: fuel, heat, and oxygen.  The fuel grew, much heat comes with the wind, which also supplies plenty of oxygen.  Add an ignition point, and it burns.  The wind and fire blows down canyons, and people like to live in the canyons.  When all the space in the canyons is full, people move into the hills.  It is called the urban-wildland interface.  The entire American West is growing in population, and the new people moving in want to experience some open space.  The open space is open because it periodically burns, thus no forest, just chaparral and grassland.  And houses.  Destruction.

Is climate change partly responsible?  You decide.  California has always had destructive fire blowing in from the west, but is climate change exacerbating the natural phenomena?

Here in Colorado, we also have destructive wildland fires fanned by downslope winds.  Here the winds are from the west, hit the mountains, rise, cool, and roar down the eastern side of the mountains, fanning fires.  People are moving into the areas where the fires have always burned, and their houses burn.  The Plains east of Denver see huge grassland fires, especially after a wet spring.

Storm King Fire, Glenwood Springs CO

Western Colorado also has wind accelerated fires.  Westerly winds encounter the west side of the Rockies, rise, cool, and descend into the area around Glenwood Springs.  The country is the Colorado equivalent of California Chaparral.  The brush burns got, killing firefighters and threatening towns.  It is only a matter of time before things get hot in Glenwood, Newcastle, and Carbondale.

The West is a wonderful place, with open space, mountains, deserts, and a harsh climate.  People moving there beware, the conditions are more violent than in the well-watered East.  Oh, and don’t forger the landslides and avalanches where it is steep, along with fire.  There is lots of steep country.   There is steep country just west of all the people living along the Front Range.  The fires just might burn into town, just like Santa Rosa.

Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs has seen fire, along with Boulder.  Some day a fire may want to go downtown in a Front Range city. It is also likely a mountain town like Evergreen or Estes Park will burn.  The Mountain Pine Beetle has left a lot of standing dead trees ready to burn.

Why do I seem to be writing about fire, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other means of destruction? Maybe because I am confronting my own mortality.  I just turned 75.  I know it is surprising because I look so young.

They Really Don’t Know

The weather.  It is always with us, and it often affects what we do any given day. Radio, television, the paper,  The Weather Channel, and AccuWeather all have lots to say about what is going to happen.  Why in the hell can’t they do better?  Dammit, we need to know.  The meteorologists have a tremendous amount of information gathered from all over the globe.  The planet spins at a constant rate in its orbit around the sun.  So do better, already.

As long as our weather here along the Colorado Front Range is coming from the west I can look at the national radar map and do about as well as all those people with advanced degrees who understand what adabiatic means.  If the weather is coming up from the gulf, they do better than me, but that’s about it.  By the way, it is probably going to rain in Seattle.

The weather tomorrow is probably going to be like today.  Except when it isn’t.  There is enough rain for stuff to grow in the Midwest.  Not so much in Hanksville, Utah.  Oops, I have digressed from weather to climate.  Lots of people do that.  They point to the latest big storm or dry spell to deny climate change.  Apples and oranges, folks.  They both grow on trees, but that’s as far as it goes.  We may be growing oranges in Paonia if this current trend continues.

Climate scientists can document the effects of big climate events like meteors hitting off Yucatán  or when big volcanoes send ash all around the planet, but have more trouble explaining long term trends.  One thing they can say for sure, the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the climate.  There is a long term carbon cycle of sequestering and release of the stuff that is well documented.  Plants trap carbon.  The ocean traps carbon.  It gets stored, then something happens so more is released than stored.  These days, much arctic permafrost is thawing and releasing sequestered carbon.

That excess release is happening these days.  Methane is part of the cycle as well.  In the U.S., the highest atmospheric levels of methane are in the Four Corners region, home to thousands of oil and gas wells.  With lax or no regulation, many of those wells leak.  In addition,  in huge quantities are stored on the sea floor. If the global sea temperatures are raised by two degrees Celsius,  methane in those hydrates could be released into the atmosphere, accelerating the warming trend.

So, what is the tipping point where the warming trend is irreversible?  Nobody knows for sure.  We do know, however, that greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is increasing and left unchecked, reaching the tipping point is inevitable. We just don’t know when.  Our earth has been through this warming – cooling trend many times.  The planet will seek equilibrium at some point.  This takes thousands to millions of years.  Humans don’t work in that time scale.

Don’t panic.  As John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

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”.