Tag Archives: Oil and Gas

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.

There’s Hurricanes in Florida and Texas Had Rain

Colorado Desert

I am a child of the desert, and the guy sitting next to me in the coffee shop is from Saudi Arabia.  Those of us from dry country usually don’t understand why people would choose to live in wet, low country with hurricanes.  Yes, there is the ocean, but we can always go to Lake Powell or Lake McCounaughy.  We do have a few tornados and hailstorms, and one of the canyons floods every 15 years or so.

On the gulf or Florida coast they get a hurricane at roughly the same intervals, but the damage is widespread and many more people are affected.  For some reason, most of the people in the world live close to a seacoast.  Yes, trade is easier and things tend to grow there (not like our Great American Desert).

Too low, too many people, too wet.  And yes, the oceans are headed inland.  It will be even wetter.   It is somewhat harder to make a living here in mid-continent and the seasons can be more harsh, but grand catastrophes are rarer.  I must confess a warm ocean is good for visits, but I did not like the mid-Atlantic, but maybe it was because I was on a troopship.

Another problem with seacoasts is many of them have a tendency to shake.  The tectonic plates collide on the coasts, thus mountains and earthquakes.  I prefer the ground under me to hold still.  When we visited Carol’s daughter in Menlo Park CA, I was a bit nervous being halfway between the San Andreas and Hayward faults in a flood plain.  The real irony is that the U.S. Geological Survey regional office is there.

Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Here in Denver, there were big earthquakes once when the Rockies were rising, but it has been a while.  We had a flurry of small ones when they were pumping hazardous waste down a drill hole at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.  When they stopped pumping, the earthquakes stopped.  That lesson was ignored in the Oklahoma oil fields where they pump fracking water back down drill holes instead of treating it.  Most of the state is shaking.

“Do it cheaply, don’t bother with doing what is right.”  It seems to be standard procedure in the extractive industries such as oil and gas and mining.  The solution is regulation, but the oil business owns the government in Oklahoma and Texas.  They are close to owning the U. S. Government.

I seem to have drifted into a rant.  Weren’t we discussing living on the coast?  The coasts stand to reason from a short term economic standpoint.  The rivers are there, shipping is cheap, it is fairly flat, and the climate tends to be moderated by the ocean.  Except when it is not.  Hurricanes, nor’easters, increasingly wetter monsoons, and sea level rise is scary.

Tidal Flood in Florida

How would you like having sea water pouring out of the storm drains in your street at high tide?  What about having your crops inundated by incessant rain?  Do you want the roof ripped off your house and be without power for many days?  Then there are tsunamis.  Take a look at the Japan tsunami on YouTube.  If none of this stuff bothers you, live on the coast.

The Empty Quarter

Portion of Flat Tops Wilderness

Well, its not a quarter of Colorado, but it’s big and pretty empty.  North and west of the Colorado River and south and west of the Yampa River, the only towns of any size are Rifle, Silt, Newcastle, and Glenwood Springs along the Colorado; and Meeker in the middle.  Craig and Hayden are on the  Yampa.  I don’t count Rangely on the White River west of  Meeker as a real town.  It is just a bunch of oil field junk with a few forlorn people. I recently traveled through the heart of the region.

I am a Western Slope native, so I have been over the relatively well traveled roads.  I-70 (previously highways 6&24) and SH 13 from Rifle to Craig.  As a kid, I went fishing on Rifle Creek with my parents.  The

White River

White River drains the White River Plateau and The Flattops.  Piceance Creek drains the Piceance Basin and enters the White between Meeker and Rangely.

Meeker is a pretty town in the valley of the White River.  It’s a farm and ranch town with a sad past.  The Meeker Massacre in 1879 was the end of the Utes huge reservation  lands in Western Colorado. They were shipped to Eastern Utah.  The reason was the systematic U.S. Policy of cooping the Indians up or killing them.  There are grisly details, but it was just another example of the U.S. Policy of mistreating Native Americans that continues to this day.

Maybe you have heard of Trappers Lake.  It is an enclave surrounded by the Flattops Wilderness, a huge area of timberland dotted with many small lakes.  The only access is on horseback or backpacking.  It’s wet country, catching the storms as they leave the lower country to the west.  Hunters, fishermen, and tree huggers are the only travelers.

I never backpacked there, but two friends humped there way in years ago.  They talked about the beauty,  but mostly about the rain.  One of them had one of those convoluted open foam pads with no cover.  When the water came into the tent, he was lying on a sponge in a soaked down sleeping bag.  They left early.

West of SH 13, along the Grand Hogback,

Grand Hogback Between the Colorado Plateau and the Rocky Mountains

you are on the Colorado Plateau.  Go east, and you are in the Rocky Mountains, but not the Rockies you are used to.  The hogback is a remnant of the uplift that formed the Rockies.  The equivalent on the east side are those red rock hogbacks called the Flatirons, Red Rocks, and the Garden of the Gods.

No big mountains here, just a region of high plateaus.  The reason? Volcanism in the form of lava flows.  The White River Plateau was uplifted along with the rest of the Rockies, but instead of being eroded into those jagged peaks we are used to seeing, the basalt from the lava flows formed a resistant, flat caprock.  It’s not rugged mountains, but it has a beauty all it’s own.

Flat Tops Trail

The is a scenic byway between Meeker and Yampa I took for the first time,  At first, it is in the White River valley, then climbs up on the plateau and heads on east to Yampa.  The view to the south is where the Flattops drop down to the river.  It’s not a gentle slope.  The basalt caprock is underlain by the soft White River Formation.  The steep slope is subject to landslides, leaving large open, green slopes surrounded by timber.  It’s great summer range country for sheep and cattle.  It is also some of the prettiest country in our state.  I think I met two pickups on the road east of Buford, where the road turns off to Trappers Lake.  It’s gravel much of the way, but good gravel.

West of SH 13, on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, is the huge Piceance Basin.  It is a Structural basin next door to the Uinta Basin, mostly in Utah.  The basins are separated by the Douglas Arch, crossed by Douglas Pass, country where I spent a lot of time in my youth.  The arch is a western extension of the Laramide Orogeny, the mountain building period that formed the Rocky Mountains.  The edges of mountain ranges usually have foreland basins, areas of subsidence.   I am sitting over the Denver Basin.  The Piceance is the equivalent west of the mountains.  As the mountains rose, the fringes sank, creating huge synclines filled with the erosion products of the mountains.    The basins formed huge inland lakes which filled with sediment that became the Green River Formation, famous for its fossils and oil shale.

The Greater Piceance Basin

Because of all that rising and sinking, pockets form, trapping reservoirs of gas and oil.  The Piceance is one of the most productive natural gas fields in the country.  Rangely’s oil is also from the Piceance.  I drove the road running along Piceance Creek, which drains the basin to the west.  The area is all about natural gas, with some ranching along the creek.  There is a gas plant every few miles, and lots of truck traffic.  The basin used to be the home of a huge migratory deer herd, the deer summering in the Flattops and wintering in the basin.  The herd is still there, but all the drilling has greatly reduced the numbers.  Lots of elk there as well, their numbers increasing somewhat, probably due to less competition from deer.

The area is known as the Roan Plateau, which drops off to the Book Cliffs, an escarpment runnng from Palisade, CO to well past Greenriver UT.  It feels like home country to me, with memories of deer hunting in the Douglas pass area.  The scenery isn’t as dramatic as the red rock country to the south, but has its own beauty.  Plus, it isn’t as cluttered up with people.

Piceance, Uinta, Roan Plateau, Book Cliffs, all names for roughly the same country.  My list now includes going up into the basin proper, known mostly by Ute Indians, ranchers, oil field people, geologists, and aging wanderers.

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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