Tag Archives: Energy

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.

Climate Change

Florida Flooding

Florida Flooding

Here it is, the last day of November, and we still have some tomatoes from our garden.  We had the hard freeze a couple of weeks ago, but we brought quite a few in before it froze.  This fall has been the fall of pasta sauce and tomato soup.  Traditionally the first freeze is in September or early October.  Not this year.  Now, just because we have one warm fall doesn’t necessarily mean global warming, it is a matter of relatively long term trends.  That is happening, folks.   

Worldwide, it is about one degree Celsius and climbing.  The culprit is carbon.  We need carbon, our bodies are mostly water, but carbon hangs everything together.  Florida, for example, is mostly calcium carbonate, limestone.  The limestone formed even the peninsula was underwater with a climate encouraging the growth of untold billions of tiny organisms with calcium carbonate shells.  They die, and if whales don’t eat them, their shells sink to the sea floor.  Well, even if they do get eaten, the whale turds are calcareous.   

Porous Limestone

Porous Limestone

Millions of years and sea level change, and Florida emerges.  The cycle doesn’t end there.  It rains on Florida, and the slightly acidic rain starts dissolving the limestone, sending the carbonates back to the sea.  Enough of the limestone has dissolved to make the peninsula a honeycomb.  Sinkholes, underground rivers, high tides bringing ocean water inland and flooding streets in  Broward county.  The southern part of the state is headed back underwater.   The really big deal is that sea level is rising.   

I have given an example of the carbonate cycle, which is going on worldwide.  The other cycle going on is the water cycle.  Our planet is delicately balanced in temperature around the freezing point of water.  The water evaporates, and if it is cool enough, some of it falls as snow and accumulates, mostly in the polar regions.  At times the ice forming from all that snow has made it as far as Central Park in New York,  that is a lot of water tied up on land.  Sea level drops, and Florida emerges.  

Currently, the cycle is going the opposite direction.  The ice is melting, and the process seems to be accelerating.  Why?  Carbon.  Here in Denver, I see huge coal trains hauling coal south to be burned to run air conditioners in Texas.  The coal, carbon, is ripped from the ground where it has lain for millions of years, mostly dead plant life converted into coal.  It is burned, sending carbon into the atmosphere.  I drove here to the coffee shop burning gasoline, which comes from oil made deep underground from what once were living organisms.  The carbon goes into the air, the climate changes due to human activity.  We are in a new epoch, the Anthropocene.

Elemental carbon is fairly rare.  Diamonds, graphite.  Carbon likes to combine with other stuff to make, well, us and other living things.  That carbon gets sequestered in the earth, reducing the amount of carbon available to make new stuff.  There is a cyclical balance, dependent on worldwide temperature and, lately, us.  We burn carbon based fuels and the carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere.   

The sun shines, warming everything up.  A lot of that heat gets radiated back into space, maintaining a balance favorable to life.  When that radiant heat meets a CO2 molecule, it warms the molecule.  More carbon, more heat in the atmosphere.  That’s greenhouse gas doing its thing.  The global climate warms up, making some regions wetter, some more dry.  We have gotten used to having a relatively stable climate, and we adapt to it in many ways.   

When the rain and snow fall changes, our adaptations stop working so well.  This is especially important in coastal regions, because all that polar ice starts melting and sea level rises.  Most of the population lives near the coast.  With the coasts moving inland, the people and all their stuff will have to move as well.  Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan gets flooded in big storms.  The subway tunnels flood, and people have trouble getting around.  The time is coming when they will be living in central New Jersey.  The horror. 

There are lots of people denying all this, saying it is just the normal weather cycle.  That is true, but it is a new normal, and is changing.   What to do? Stop putting so much carbon into the air and start putting it back into the earth.   That means big change in the way we do things, and those getting rich on the status quo don’t want their businesses upset.   Oil and coal, mostly, but they drive all of our economy.  So, they say it isn’t so, and let’s burn, burn, burn.   

What goes around comes around.  It is just a matter of time.

Rocky Flats

Rocky Flats

Rocky Flats

 What is now is the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge once was the Rocky Flats Plant where triggers for nuclear weapons were manufactured.  The main raw ingredient for the triggers was plutonium, one of the most toxic and radioactive substances known, with a half-life of over 4000 years.  During the forty years the plant operated, there were two major fires in glove boxes where plutonium discs were handled.  In this and other incidents, many pounds of plutonium were released.  The Wikipedia article has an excellent summary and bibliography.   

I was talking to a woman recently about Rocky Flats.  Her father worked there for several years when the plant was in full operation.  He had to deal with a glove box where the plutonium had started to burn.  The gloves were so hot he had to wear other gloves before he could put his hands into the glove box gloves to stop the reaction.  He probably saved some lives.  He died of cancer. 

I became more interested in Rocky Flats after reading Full Body Burden, by Kristin Iverson, an English Professor who grew up in the area.  The book is controversial, disagreeing with the environmental assessments by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Given all I have read, I am skeptical of the official lint that the area is safe, and exposure to the public was and is minimal.  Decide for yourself. 

Iverson writes that a large area of contaminated topsoil was covered with more topsoil and pronounced safe.  Rocky Flats is aptly named, as millions of tons of glacial erosion products have covered the area with gravel.  The surface is called ground armor, mostly rock, as the high winds in the area have blown much of the finer material away.  That continues, and rodents burrowing bring buried soil to the surface where it blows into the Denver Metro area..  

The nearby Standley Lake, a large irrigation reservoir that provides water to Westminster and Broomfield, allows boating and water skiing but bans swimming because the lake bottom is contaminated with plutonium.  Many experts have advocated banning development in the area, but houses are going up. 

I got interested again recently because the NOAA National Weather Radar website is my go-to means of weather monitoring.  The TV weather people are either warning the apocalypse is imminent or it is fine, no rain, just before a major hailstorm.  Over a period of months I noticed a nearly constant radar image indicating precipitation over the NWR.  Day or night, weekends or weekdays, the image is there.  If it really is rain, the refuge would be a major swamp at the base of the Rocky Mountains.   

Many years ago I was a radar repairman in the Army.  One of the radars we maintained put out so much radio frequency energy it would kill birds flying in front.  We had quite a bit of training about ionizing radiation.  Radars emit radiation, so does decaying plutonium.  I could not come up with any explanation for the radar image other than radioactive decay.  This would be  disastrous, as much of the Denver metro area is downwind of Rocky Flats.   

I sent a number of emails to the NWS, TV stations, and the CDPHE.  I guess I stirred things up a bit, because I got a long, thoughtful letter from CDPHE outlining the investigation I generated.  The conclusion reached is that the radar image is from dust coming from a gravel mining and crushing operation just adjacent to the refuge.   Here is the letter:

Begin forwarded message:

From: “Spreng, Carl” <carl.spreng@state.co.us>
Date: July 13, 2016 at 3:56:58 PM MDT
To: levanks@me.com
Cc: Phillip Peterson – CDPHE <phillip.peterson@state.co.us>, Surovchak Scott <Scott.Surovchak@lm.doe.gov>, “Moritz, Vera” <Moritz.Vera@epa.gov>, Lindsay Masters – CDPHE <lindsay.masters@state.co.us>, Darr Bob <Bob.Darr@lm.doe.gov>, Rob Beierle – CDPHE <robert.beierle@state.co.us>, Smith Warren <warren.smith@state.co.us>
Subject: Rocky Flats

William Shanks

Mr. Shanks,

Your message sent to Phill Peterson in our Radiation Control Program was forwarded to me for response. I discussed your observations with a representative of NOAA. NOAA scientists apparently notice a fairly consistent dust cloud in the Rocky Flats area. This is consistent with the adjacent gravel operations — current and historic. You can observe the dust that rises off these operations as you drive by the site.
During remediation, the source areas of radiological risk in the Central Operable Unit (managed by the US Dept. of Energy) were excavated and shipped out of state. The human health risks inside the Central Operable Unit and the remainder of the site (managed as a refuge by the US Fish and Wildlife Service) were assessed following remediation and risks were found to be very low. A final decision for the site declared that any conceivable use would be appropriate in the Refuge area. That decision was based on an enormous amount of data (surface soil, subsurface soil, groundwater, surface water, air). After the remediation was completed, an aerial survey was conducted using a low-flying helicopter with detectors.
Offsite areas in the vicinity of Rocky Flats are also safe for any use. Numerous offsite surveys confirm the conclusion that only a few samples just east of Rocky Flats detected plutonium concentrations above background levels. You can read more information about the sampling on and around Rocky Flats on the Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE) web page at:  http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/hm/rf/index.htm.
 
Please contact us again if you have more questions.

 

Carl Spreng
P 303.692.3358  |  F 303.759.5355  |  C 303-328-7289
4300 Cherry Creek Drive S, Denver, CO  80246-1530
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Carol Leavenworth <levanks@me.com>
Date: Tue, Jul 5, 2016 at 12:39 PM
Subject: Rocky Flats
To: phillip.peterson@state.co.us

 

Sir,
I notice there is a consistent radar image over the Rocky Flats NWR when viewing the NOAA national weather radar website.  I am no physicist, but ionizing radiation is detectable by radar.  Is this the case at Rocky Flats?  Is there a radiation hazard outside the closed zone?  Is there a public health risk for the nearby residential areas?I was a radar repairman in the Army in the 1960’s and remain interested in the field.  There weren’t many RF energy safeguards back then and there were nuclear weapons stored where I was stationed in Germany.
Thanks.
William Shanks
2032 S. Logan St.
Denver CO 80210
303-830-0599

After Cleanup

After Cleanup

I was skeptical, so I drove out there.  I made a couple of circuits around the area, passing through new subdivisions where grading was going on and decided that was not the source.  I then turned off SH 93, the road from Golden to Boulder into what used to be the west gate to the bomb plant.  I went past lots of no trespassing signs to a big gravel mining and crushing operation.  The crusher was producing a significant dust cloud.  There were lots of big gravel trucks, indicating a major operation.    

I left without getting stopped for trespassing and made another lap around the refuge.  The gravel operation is to the southwest of the refuge, and I could see the dust cloud from north of the refuge.  Mystery solved.  it is not ionizing radiation creating the radar image, it is dust.  

There is no radioactive cloud coming off Rocky Flats.  There is, however, still a lot of radioactive and chemical pollution out there.  I suggest you not buy one of the nice new houses being built in the area..  

More on Discontent

The Age of Steam

The Age of Steam

Our economy has been one of change since the beginning.  When the railroads came to Colorado in 1870, a lot of teamster jobs hauling freight from Omaha and Kansas City went away.  The automobile would not have happened without the new petroleum industry.  Coal retained its strength from powering locomotives, heating homes, and fueling industry.  Industry and manufacturing grew, making the American economy one of the largest in the world.

What a combination, land, natural resources, transportation, a growing population of people with ambition, mobility, and a willingness to try something new.  Some were left behind.  Native Americans, African Americans, and those new citizens in the Southwest who were once part of Mexico with its traditional ways.  As always, immigrants ended up at the bottom because of language and discrimination.

There were troubles.  Low wages, a turbulent labor history, drought, an unstable business cycle creating panics individuals were helpless to influence.  There were some adventures the government engaged in, such as Cuba, the Philippines China, Japan, all the trappings of empire.  In many ways the American West was an empire, won at the expense of those who were living there.

John Deere

John Deere

Agriculture was becoming more mechanized, displacing people who moved to the cities to work in industry.  All the change continues.  There is a tremendous amount of wealth in Silicon Valley, not so much in Michigan.

The West has been boom-bust from the start.  The fur trade collapsed, but the gold rushes started.  The government started giving land to the railroads and individuals.  The short grass prairie boomed with hopeful wheat growers, then the droughts came.  Oil and gas grew and grew, and grew.  As old fields played out, new oil fields were discovered.  A couple of big wars really heated things up.

It all looked great.  Yes, lots of change, but people could find good jobs and things steamed along.  The real upheavals were when the business cycle threw millions out of work.  The 1930’s were a terrible time, but a war healed all that.

The West That Never Existed

The West That Never Existed

The 1950’s seemed like a golden age.  Lots of jobs, the U.S. Ruled much of the world, and television built a myth of stability, prosperity, and a bright future for everyone.  the myth came from relative prosperity and the ubitiquous westerns on television promoting a life that never existed.

The 1960’s brought social upheaval accompanied by a growing shift in how people made their living.  Steel mills closed, imported cars were on the roads, and computer-driven automation started taking industrial jobs.  The word Yuppie became a term of derision, but the Yuppies were the wave of the future.  They possessed education and a skill set many people could or would not obtain.

The skilled trades fell out of favor. It is college or else.  The trade jobs are filled the way they have always been filled, by immigrants.  This time however, the immigrants are not easily assimilated Europeans.  They are Latin, and and bring their culture with them.  Many are just not as interested in assimilating, and many are undocumented.

All this change leaves a huge segment of our society out of the good life.  Many are rural, where big mechanized farms haven taken jobs.  Many just do not have social and intellectual requirements to move into the new economy.  What’s left?  Low-paying service economy jobs, often for an out of date minimum wage inadequate for one person, let alone a family.  It is hard to build a life mowing lawns and doing kitchen work.  Much of the time jobs that used to be stepping stones have turned into dead ends.

The trouble is just beginning.  Those people marginalized by an economy where they don’t fit can be radicalized and turn to violence and terror or Donald Trump, which may be same thing.  The discontent is just not with the marginalized working class.  There are lots of well-educated people from middle class families making pizzas and living in their parents’ basement.  They thought they were doing the right thing going into debt to get an education and found nobody wants them.

This is still a rich country.  There is a huge imbalance in the distribution of wealth which has to change.  The change agent must be government.  A true progressive tax structure and an end to the massive influence of special interests in government are desperately needed.  The nation has the resources to provide everyone with an income providing them some dignity and the flexibility to enhance their station in life.  Given a decent income, most will seek ways to do even better.

We will always have the wealthy and the poor.  Now, there is too much concentrated wealth for a few and too many poor.  Trying to revert to an American utopia which never existed will only add to social instability.

Happy Days Are Here Again

Happy Days Are Here Again

There should be no food banks or coat drives.  There should be no one sleeping on the streets.  People with mental health problems should not be cast out.  Everyone should have the time and resources available to build better lives for themselves rather than being trapped in poverty.

In other words, we need a new time of progressive change, not an attempt to return to a myth.  How to pay for it all?  A realistic progressive tax system to redistribute income.

King Coal’s Crown is Slipping

Idle Coal Car

Idle Coal Car

Recently I have done a couple of road trips where I paralleled abandoned or seldom used railroads.  On one trip I came down the Arkansas from Salida to Pueblo, years ago the main line of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.  The other route was from Alamosa to Walsenburg, the route of the Rio Grande to the San Luis Valley and on to Gunnison over Marshall Pass.   

On both trips the lower portion of the railroad grade had literally miles of parked gondolas, or coal cars.  The gondolas on the Arkansas were the old-fashioned steel cars.  Those cars are replaced by mostly aluminum cars which are significantly lighter.  The railroads make more money hauling coal instead of heavy steel cars.  Dropping down to Walsenburg were miles of the more modern aluminum cars holding air rather than coal. 

The railroads have lost a huge amount of coal hauling business.  All over the country, coal mines are shutting down, the coal replaced by cheaper natural gas.  Not all the coal trains are gone, I saw one yesterday on its way south through Denver.   

Colorado Springs Power Plant With Idle Coal Cars

Colorado Springs Power Plant With Idle Coal Cars

Colorado Springs has a socialist Utilities Department, generating power and delivering natural gas along with the traditional water and wastewater systems. The big power plant south of the city used to burn so much coal the city bought its own coal train.  All those cars are idle, sitting at the power plant.  Now, it is natural gas powering the generators. 

Colorado has a colorful coal mining history.  The Colorado Fuel and Iron steel mill in Pueblo got its coal from mines just west of Trinidad.  That region had lots of mines accompanied by lots of labor trouble around the turn of the twentieth century.  There were mines in Colorado Springs, west of Denver, a big industry around Louisville and Lafayette.  The mines at Somerset, just north of Paonia are in the process of shutting down.  Craig and Hayden are in trouble, and the mines in the Grand Junction region are long gone. 

“Clean Coal”, a big lie if there ever was one, is on its way out.  Peabody Energy is bankrupt, along with many other mine operators.  We will have coal’s legacy for a long time.  Climate change, fouled rivers and air, areas mutilated by strip mining, and huge piles of mine waste are our children’s inheritance.   

wind_energyAlternative energy, including solar power and wind generation are part of the equation, but cheap and more clean burning natural gas is the main reason for the change.  Gas is cleaner than coal, but it still puts huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.  It is just another fossil fuel.  The fossil fuels sequestered huge amounts of carbon that otherwise would contribute to global warming.  Now we are burning all that carbon and heating up the planet. 

Gas is better, but still bad.  All that cheap cleaner burning gas may even slow the transition to renewable energy sources.  On balance, however, we are better off with gas than coal. 

Where is all that cheap gas coming from?  There has been a major technological advance in the oil and gas industry.  The advance is horizontal drilling.  In past years, one hole went into the ground and the oil and gas was extracted froze around that single hole.  The amount recovered was highly dependent on the porosity of the rock formation holding the oil and gas.   

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking), developed in the 1950’s expanded the amount removed from less porous strata, but not on a huge scale.  To get more out of any field with tight rock required lots of expensive drill holes.

The big change was the development of horizontal drilling.  The process took years of development, but now slant drilling is cost effective and allows hydraulic fracturing over a much wider area compared to down hole drilling.  Fracking the slanted holes allows gas and oil to be extracted from oil and gas bearing shales formerly not economically feasible. 

There is much opposition to fracking because the technology allows drilling in new areas where the population is not used to a dirty industry in their back yards.  Traditionally, the industry did not pay much attention to leaking wells.  There was little regulation, and all that stuff went into the atmosphere.  The oil fields in the Four Corners region are the source of the highest atmospheric methane readings in the country.  

Leaks are common because it costs money to prevent them, lowering profits.  The leaks can be prevented, it just takes more work and money.  The big blowout in the Gulf shows that oil companies tend to cheat when the dangerous practices are taking place where no one can see them.  On-site regulation can stop the cheating and oil and gas production from horizontal drilling and fracking can continue safely. 

The downside is the clear need to eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels.  We need to remove carbon from the atmosphere, not increase the amount.  Until more alternative sources come on line, natural gas is preferable to coal, and King Coal can be deposed.  The current difficulty in making the transition is political, with the extractive industries resisting the change at every step.  They are spending money to delay the changes that could be used to make change, not enrich politicians and the advertising industry. 

Residential Solar Power

Residential Solar Power

We have solar panels on our house and garage.  Out utility bill this month will be less than twenty dollars.  Xcel Energy is attempting to eliminate the incentives for home solar power so they can continue to produce power using natural gas.  It’s political, folks.

The Green River Formation

The World Famous Green River Formation, for oil shale, not beauty

The World Famous Green River Formation, for oil shale, not beauty

About fifty million years ago the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River did not exist.  The area was surrounded by the Wind River Mountains, the Uintah Mountains, the San Juans, the Uncompahgre Plateau, and the newly formed Rocky Mountains.  This huge area had no outlet to the sea.  The climate was similar to our current Gulf Coast, warm and moist.  During the six million years we are exploring, things changed.  Lakes formed and receded, land rose and subsided, and through all this the surrounding highlands were sending their sediment into the lakes.   

The Green River Formation is the result of all the sedimentation.  It is up to ten kilometers in depth, thinner at the margins.  At first the lakes were fresh water, but later became saline, leaving large deposits of carbonate rocks.  The trona deposits at Green River, Wyoming are some of the richest in the world.  The margins are sandstone and conglomerate interlaced with the fine silt that filled most of the basin.  The formation is rich in the fossils of the abundant life in the lakes.  They are world famous for their variety and abundance.   

There was an anoxic layer at the bottom that preserved the organisms settling there.  The lakes were abundant in blue-green algae.  The remains of the algae are the source of the oil shale deposits the region is known for.  The oil shale is there in millions of barrels, but it is expensive to extract the petroleum from the rock.  It may never be commercially viable, but the formation has been extensively studied as a result.  

Green River Formation Map

Green River Formation Map

Standing in my home town of Fruita looking north, the white cliffs behind the Book Cliffs are the Green River Formation.  The Roan Plateau is huge, but does not attract visitors like the red rock country to the south.  A huge exposure is the highlands west of I-70 from Rifle to DeBeque Canyon. 

My interest is from visiting ranchers and hunting in the Douglas Pass area in my youth.  Most of our visits were to ranches in the Green River Formation.  The elevations varied greatly.  The ranches were along West Salt Creek, but there were back country roads that went from sagebrush desert to piñon-juniper to oak brush shaly hillsides with sandstone rims to high country timber with world class mud.  In fact, the mud is world class everywhere in the region. 

Back before four wheel drive became common, there was a pile of rocks at the bottom of every big hill.  Load them in the back of your pickup, go where you planned, and unload them on the way home.  There is a network of canyons with side canyons branching off.  All of it is fine deer habitat.  My favorite places were at the head of a canyon with the wind in my face and a view of the LaSal Mountains and the Uncompahgre Plateau in the distance.  Flat, wooded country gives me the creeps. 

Access to a lot of the country is difficult.  Most of the land is BLM land, but the early ranchers homesteaded the choice land that had water.  The private land meant locked gates.  We knew some of the ranchers, family friends.  Hunting season was a big deal.  There were maybe a dozen or more people, hunting during the day and drinking and playing poker at night.  The big ranch house had a big kitchen with a wood burning stove along with the stove in the big main room.  There was a light plant in the shed next to the house.  It looked like no generator you see these days.  There were also lots of Coleman lanterns when the light plant failed.  Good times and lots of venison.  The unheated bunkhouse was upstairs. 

Douglas pass was up the main road, gravel in those days.  It isn’t that high by Colorado standards, but made up for it with the switchbacks up the head of the canyon to the summit up through that shale.  When the shale is wet, it moves.  The road trapped the runoff, wetting the soft shale, and most every spring one or more places slid.  The mountainside now is braided with old road cuts.  It wasn’t much of a main road in the 1950’s, but now there is so much oil and gas development that the road is a paved state highway that the highway department spends money on. 

The road crosses the desert above the Highline irrigation canal before it goes into the canyon.  It is on the Mancos shale, responsible for all that flat desert in Colorado and Utah that turns to grease when it is wet.  There was one hill the road went over then descended into the wash on the north side.  That meant the road was on a north facing slope for a distance.  That hill was named Coyote, because it could bite and gnaw on you if it was wet.  A bit farther north was a ten or twelve foot high rock on the side of the road, all by itself.  

The county employee maintaining the road in those days had his grader blade scrape on that rock every time he bladed the road.  It would leave a bump, so he would have to drag dirt over to level things out.  One day he got fed up and dug that rock up and moved it off the road.  It was probably a two day project, but he never had to fight that damn rock again. 

After I could drive, I ran around that desert quite a bit.  I learned how to drive a two wheel drive pickup in that greasy stuff from my father.  He was the telephone man in Fruita, responsible for maintaining the toll line as far as Cisco, Utah.  That meant navigating two ruts through the cheat grass and sagebrush.  He could put a two wheel drive pickup into places that were a challenge for a Jeep.  Rocks in the back, chains if needed, put it in second gear and putt along.  He seldom used the granny gear or used the gas pedal.  Those old Chevy sixes would just lug their way along.   

I am as guilty as any back country explorer for spending most of my time in the Rocky Mountains or the Utah red rock country, but the Mancos Shale and the Green River formation are calling me.  I just need to see if my tire chains are in good shape.  I think I will go over Douglas Pass, loop around and look the Piceance Basin over. From Rifle I will go down to Plateau Creek (my father and grandfather said platoo crick) and up to Collbran to look at the big slide.

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.

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