Category Archives: environment

On Fracking…

Over at Reason and Politics, there was a really nice post about the use of shale gas as a short-term solution to reducing GHG emissions.  You can see the really nice post for my initial comment.  As we are finding out in Connecticut, there is a concerted national effort to get shale gas (the kind of gas you get from hydaulic fracturing, or fracking, the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that stretches from upstate New York to West Virginia) on tap as a way to displace, for instance, fuel oil for space heating and light industrial/commercial needs.  This approach does have the potential to reduce GHG emissions and other pollutants on a BTU basis.  It will also generate jobs, though they are likely to be gone in 10-15 years once the gas distribution expansion is finished.  Its success also depends on the long-term costs and availability of natural gas regardless of its source.  All said, it can be seen as a placeholder/transition program until renewable energy technology can step in.  And before we go too far down that road, I prefer to immediately cease all subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and move them directly to renewable energy R&D and manufacturing.  That said, and regardless of its merit, I don’t have a billion dollars worth of government subsidy money that I can now use to hire lobbyists to ensure I get billions more in government subsidies… alas… the subsidy merry-go-round is not meant for chumps like me.  If only I had a lobbyist…. oh, yeah, right, congress…

So here, friends, is an open comment to R&P, instead of just posting another comment on their blog:

First, I really enjoy your blog.  It is as advertised, and you do a great job of bringing reason to political discussion.  Second, the risks of fracking are what they are… drilling through aquifers to get to to deep shale gas is always going to create a potential for contamination of the aquifer.  There are parallels to the mechanics of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but the potential disaster in a fracking scenario could make that look like a walk in the park.  The risks are made worse by the failings of the US legal and regulatory systems.  There is simply too much palm greasing going on (see the subsidy merry-g0-round above) to effectively address things like safety and legal responsibility.  The US EPA has done things like requiring/allowing MTBE as a gasoline additive, which had the predictable side-effect of massively increasing the area impacted by a leaking fuel tank, and making the spill much harder to remediate (has a lot to do with MTBE having a high solubility in water), and allowing much higher public exposure to the pollutants the EPA is supposed to regulate.  And when I say predictable, I mean Chem101 predictable, not Nobel Prize predictable.  So I think it is fair to say that in the big picture we can’t rely on US EPA for anything, and I deal with their programs every day as part of my job.  I think the problem with energy and environmental policy in the US, if not the world, is that to get the job done right you have to be really effective at integrated long-range planning, and have effective regulations, and effective enforcement, and effective interface with economic policies.  And as if it weren’t hard enough, those things simply will not happen when you are having a multi-decade political slap fight… as we are finding out in the good old U S of A.  A common sense approach would use sound science, and lead to a pricing method that didn’t give the fossil fuel, nuclear, automotive, etc… industries a free ride on their social costs, not to mention the massive subsidies that these companies receive on the front end.

In short, we are screwed until we get adults in the room, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Back in the Saddle

Quick update before I get back to blogging again…

The Halloween Storm did a number on things here at the ranch.  A few trees down, a week without power, and a general setback for musical, photographic, and otherwise enjoyable productivity.  If productivity involved a rake or a chainsaw, then yes, it has been a productive period.

Got a gig coming up with two NHIC groups at Firehouse12 on December 3rd. 8:30pm and 10:00pm.  The first is nhic:atlas, a six-piece mostly acoustic affair.  I am playing my Tacoma CB10F fretlsss ABG and it sounds really nice with this group.  The second is NHIC Electric, a noisy electric affair.  That is a job for the Zon Sonus. I am in hog-heaven as a bass player because Atlas will have Mike Paolucci on drums, and he played in my short-lived jazzy Soul Cryptographers band.  I really enjoy playing with Mike and it is good to be working with him again.  NHIC Electric will have Peter Riccio on drums, and that is VERY badass.  I had been hoping that we would have this opportunity, and it is sounding very nice in rehearsal.

If there is any bright side to this “winter” it is that we are still getting warm temps.  Last weekend I put on about 20 miles on the bike, in short sleeves!  getting that opportunity after Thanksgiving in New England is rare.  I am definitely not complaining.  My friend Chris James calls it Global Weirding… Well, let’s keep it weird!  Oh… rising sea level and food chain disruption?  P’shaw!

a little bit o’ change

The big news on the work-front has been that the Gina McCarthy, commissioner of the Connecticut DEP (my employer), has been appointed to an administrator post at the US EPA. I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with her on a few projects and as much as it is a huge loss for the staff of the DEP, it is a kind of confirmation that someone else agrees that she is as great as some of us think she is. If it sounds like fawning, it isn’t. What it is: The CT DEP has had some truly awful commissioners in the 16 years that I have been there, ranging from ineffective to demonstrably corrupt. With Gina we have had a true professional. She set a very high bar for performance, ethics, and public service, treated staff and management in a professional manner, and expected the same in return. Being treated as a professional is rare in the public sector, and it was nowhere to be found in the years before her appointment to our agency. Gina brought that approach to an agency that had been at a morale nadir when she arrived. There is no such thing as turning a bureaucracy on a dime, but she did alter the nature of the agency, in a huge way, for the better. When you have a focused and consistent commissioner you get a focused and consistent agency. I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. The bar has been set for whoever fills that job next. The pressure will be on that person to not backslide. The Fed will be picking up a strong leader and a dynamic personality. I’m gripping the rails hoping that we get someone even half as qualified in her place.

Beijing F(SM)OG – Part 2

When I travel I am kind of a nut for air pollution and atmospheric stuff. Sandy thinks I’m nuts, but when we visited LA for the first time I was like a kid in a candy store. From being able to smell the “burning tire” signature as we come over the basin rim from the north (before becoming desensitized about 2 minutes later), to seeing that big, fudgy, textbook inversion over downtown… it was pretty damn cool. Coughing up a big black chunk of LA’s finest when we pulled in to a rest stop in Joshua Tree… less damn cool.

(Warning: Air Pollution Geekery Ahead)

So China was something I really looked forward to. First, the flight to Beijing meant flying over the North Freaking Pole. That was worth it right there. Then came the air quality nerdvana experience. Some people taste fine wine… I taste air! In Beijing it was pretty straight forward: very forward sulfate acidity, dark nitrate overtones, and a lingering punch of particulates that just won’t quit! The deal with China is that their air pollution is not urban, like we are accustomed to in the US. Theirs is regional… and often continental. Huge areas of the country are smothered in smog. There are a lot of sources, but one that might be missed is charcoal.

Air pollution sources can be aggregated and into an “inventory”. You develop one by trying to account for the different activities that contribute to pollution. Fossil fuel combustion is easy because fossil fuels are a well-managed commodity. It gets used in electric power generation, transportation, industrial applications, and home heating, to name the big ones. The “Beijing Plan” was to cut back on transportation and electric generation, and try to restrain some manufacturing emissions. We could argue that cutting back on electricity and transportation while hosting the olympics is a bad idea, or impossible, but who would listen? In the US we cook our food primarily with electricity or natural gas. We have a lot of infrastructure to deliver that energy to our homes. Very little of that infrastructure exists outside of the modernized central Beijing. When you are talking about a population of 15 million, a huge amount of them are on the outside looking in on electric and gas stoves. What you see is the “charcoal man” with a wheelbarrow full of these fuel cartridges that are about the size of a coffee can. That fuel is the core of the typical Beijinger’s kitchen. They fit into a concrete, metal, or ceramic “stoves” and generate the blast of concentrated heat needed for traditional wok cooking. Cooking fuel can be a huge factor in air pollution. It doesn’t sound like much until you do the math, and try to feed about 10 million (I’m being kind) people from charcoal burners. All of those storefront, neighborhood, night market, and fly-by-night food joints… they are not cooking with gas. They are cooking on charcoal, coal, or maybe wood. This is the definition of an “area source”. A power plant or factory is a “point source”. Regulating point sources is effective if you don’t have massive area sources. Beijing has massive area sources.

So while the “Beijing Plan” is well intentioned, it is (IMO) a complete waste of effort. A lot of pollution is “secondary”, meaning that it forms in the atmosphere as opposed to being emitted directly. Secondary pollutants are notoriously hard to reduce because the starting materials are so abundant. Ozone is the king of secondary pollutants, and as the Chinese know so well, ozone is the primary constituent of smog. It forms when volatile organics (VOC) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) combine under UV light. China has all three in SPADES, brotha. You could shut the whole country off, cold turkey, and you would still have plenty of smog for quite a while. To their credit, the Chinese government did *something* to try to mitigate their air pollution issues. But it is basically window dressing. The underlying air pollution sources have not been attenuated.

Beijing F(SM)OG – Part 1

…statement by the committee [IOC] president, Jacques Rogge: “The fog you see is based on the basis of humidity and heat. It does not mean to say that this fog is the same as pollution. It can be pollution, but the fog doesn’t mean necessarily that it is pollution.”

I find this patently offensive. Even if I hadn’t spent two weeks in China last year, and seen this “fog” firsthand, it would reek of bullshit. But I was, and I did, and ambient air quality is my bag, baby. Fog is a dew point event, relative humidity vs temperature to be specific. The gray miasma that you see enveloping Beijing, and don’t get to see enveloping the other regions of China, is not just smog, it is beyond smog. It is a heavy cocktail of all the major air pollutant groups, and it can and does have devastating effects on living creatures.

All of the public information regarding air pollution monitoring in China suggests an extremely cynical approach. They only monitor for coarse particulate matter (PM10), they don’t monitor fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulfates, or volatile organics. When their PM10 measurements let them down, they either moved the monitors to cleaner areas, or simply shut them off. When asked if they planed on improving their air monitoring, the response was “Yes, after the olympics”. What is ironic is that most air pollution monitoring gear is very low-tech by modern standards. Heck, they Chinese actually make some decent air monitors that are used in the west.

I don’t want to be misunderstood on this. I am pro-China, in that I see the potential for their role as a positive force on the planet. The people I met in China were genuine, warm, and giving. Their culture is rich and diverse. Their food is astonishing if you can find the real stuff and stay out of tourist joints. But damn, there is a strong undercurrent of purposeful foot-dragging and feigned ignorance that undermines the current state of their culture. That is largely a government function, but it permeates the culture at large. Big Bother is not a derogatory concept in China. More bluntly: Beautiful people, diverse culture, shitty government… just like the USA!