Posts Tagged ‘History’

Costa Rica Journal

Well folks, if you were wondering where I have been for the past month, let me clear that up.  I have been in Costa Rica for an internship/tropical ecology class/field work.  So, although I haven’t posted in quite a while, I think I can make it up to all of you by posting my experiences from my journal here.  I will add my pictures to that in order to show you the fantastic place I stayed and the wonderful ecosystem with which I fell in love.  Starting tomorrow, right here, I will post a day from the trip each day.  If you have been following this blog for long enough, then perhaps you remember my virtual trips through Africa and South America.  Well, this will be much like that, except it really happened.  I only hope I can convey, to one degree or another, just how spectacular this place is.  I hope you enjoy it.

Also, just let me know what you think of the new setup and tell me if you prefer this one or the old one.

The new one is up now and here is a picture of the old one.

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Science and Soul: Beyond Pestilent: BP Oil Leak Coverage

***UPDATE:  I will be updating this one post instead of writing twenty thousand little posts and continually adding to it.  So, if you wish to follow this, just scroll down and find out what you missed!***

###Update number 3 is up.###

For my first post back, I have decided to talk about BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  In order to understand what is going on now, we need to look to the past.

Certainly Not Beyond Politics

In 1913 the British took control of Iran’s Oil Fields though the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).  The British government controlled 51% of the company’s stock.  In 1951, the Iranian people democratically elected progressive leader Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.  Mossadegh ran a campaign whose main issue was the control oil fields.  Even though Iran had a huge amount of oil, the Iranian people weren’t getting their fair share of the profits from the AIOC.  So, when Mossadegh was elected, he made efforts to nationalize the oil fields.  Something along the lines of, “Iranian oil for Iranians.”  Not surprisingly, the AIOC wasn’t too happy about this.  In response, they funded SAVAK, the Iranian “domestic security and intelligence agency:” essentially a secret police infamous for its brutality.  In another interesting twist the CIA trained SAVAK forces and Washington DC gave them weapons.  In 1953, SAVAK helped Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi take control of the government in a military coup, essentially overthrowing a democratically elected leader with a military tyrant.  Guess what AIOC decided to rename itself forty years later?  If you guessed British Petroleum (BP), then you guessed right.

But BP didn’t only destroy political stability in the past, but the environment and local people as well.

“To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” –John Muir

Many people remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill which occurred 11 years ago in Prince William Sound of Alaska as a Exxon oil tanker ran aground.  Oil leaked from the tanker, fouling 3,200 miles of shoreline and 10,000 square miles of ocean.  This destroyed local communities who depended on the ocean for their livelihoods, killed countless fish, sea birds, and ocean mammals, and possibly permanently disrupting the ecosystem.  Exxon promised to pay for the damages to local communities (sound familiar?).  They were originally ordered to pay 5 billion dollars.  But after many court appeals, they cut the fee to approximately 500 million dollars.

Collateral damage of our energy greed.

The tanker was bound south from the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline.  The pipeline ran 800 from the oil fields of the North Slope to the port city of Valdez where tanker ships were filled.  This pipeline was established by a group of companies, collectively known as Aleyeska, which included (cue the intro music) BP!  BP was a part of the decision-making process which allowed the spill to occur.  Ecologists long warned that navigating the area would guarantee a catastrophic spill.  Again, the executives of Aleyeska took no heed of the warnings and careened down a dangerous path which ended in tragedy.

“There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee…that says, fool me once, shame on…shame on you. Fool me…you can’t get fooled again.”  –W

In 2005, one of BP’s oil refineries exploded in Texas City, Texas.  The explosion was caused by workers starting the process of separating light and heavy gasoline components without removing sufficient quantities of the resulting gasoline products.  A warning system which would have alerted the workers to the buildup of product was disabled.  The workers however, noticed the problem and opened the discharge valve, to little avail.  Combustible vapors leaked into the nearby area and a car’s ignition started the fire.  The fire and explosion killed 15 people and injured 170 more.  An analysis of the incident revealed that BP violated several safety measures.  Also, several similar incidents with combustible vapor leaks were reported, but corrective actions were not taken because funding was not approved to install safer systems.

Beyond Prosecution

Part of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Spill

In 2006, BP’s oil pipeline in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska leaked nearly 270,000 gallons of crude oil into the Alaskan tundra: the largest oil spill on the Alaskan North Slope.  The North Slope boasts high biodiversity, with many species endemic to the area.  It also contains most of Alaska’s oil.  Fortunately, if such a word can be used to describe an oil spill, the incident occurred during the winter while the land was frozen.  Had it occurred during the summer, cleanup would have been much more difficult with oil leaking into the Beaufort sea.  Analysis of the pipeline revealed large amounts of corrosion, to which management did not pay heed.  Warnings were sent by inspectors and workers.  BP claimed that the lack of action was caused by a lack of available funding.  Interesting, seeing as how they made $22,000,000,000 in profits that year.  Hmmm…it seems that BP has a habit of cutting costs without paying heed to the possible implications of their decisions.

The EPA was in charge of the investigation surrounding the spill.  Investigators learned that several workers along the pipeline were concerned about the corrosion and state of the pipeline and alerted authorities.  They did this at their own risk, as BP has a history as a vengeful company where workers who reported such issues could very well be laid off.  Unfortunately, there was little governmental oversight of the Alaskan pipeline at the time.  This information proved that the upper tiers of the company knew about the problems, but opted not to fix it, choosing instead for the risky cost-cutting strategy: criminal negligence.  EPA investigators dug deeper into the issues, but their efforts were constantly being undermined by BP’s stalling and cover-up.  When legal teams asked the workers who spoke up before, they were very unforthcoming, which is understandable, considering the vindictive nature of the company.  After the grand jury was used to obtain the witnesses’ testimonies, the legal team were forced to use a subpoena to obtain documents regarding the pipeline.  BP buried them in quite literally millions of pages of documents in order to slow down prosecutors, many of which were not necessary.  The final death blow to the investigation was dealt in August of next year.  The US State Attorney under Bush’s administration asked the EPA investigators what they could prove at that point in time.  The investigators admitted that due to BP’s efforts to hamper the process, they could only prove a criminal misdemeanor at that given time.  This was a far lesser offense than what could have and should have been tried.  They they added that they would still need more time to complete the investigation.  The State Attorney’s office then ordered them to close the investigation.  This was an unbelievable decision which was unheard of before that time.  An EPA investigator was never prevented from completing their course of action.  Well, unheard of before the Bush/Cheney years.  At any rate, BP later paid only $20,000,000 in fines out of the possible $800,000,000.  Apparently, this slap on the wrist did not really cause BP to change their ways.

It is worth mentioning that BP had 760 willful egregious safety violations in the last three years according the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.  Which is 759 more than Exxon (they had 1).  Exxon!

New Sheriff in Town

The Minerals Management Service is an agency of the Department of Interior charged with…

charged with the management of the renewable energy, oil and gas, and mineral resources on the federal outer continental shelf in an environmentally sound and safe manner, and to collect, verify, and distribute, in a timely fashion, mineral revenues generated from federal (onshore and offshore) land and Indian lands.

The agency is often accused of being in bed with oil, coal and gas industry corporations.  For example,  Paul Stang was a supervisor for the Mineral Management Service, or MMS, but later went on to work for Shell (an oil company).  Jim Mayberry was Special Assistant to the Associate Director of MMS for three years.  After he left, he created an energy consulting company and negotiated a contract with guess who: the MMS.  He was later convicted in violation of conflict of interest law. Other administrators received “gifts” from oil and gas execs.

Ken Salazar: New Sheriff in Town

But then everything was changed, because, in his words; not mine, Ken Salazar was, “the new sheriff in town.”   In reality, not much changed.  He allowed the Grey Wolf to be removed from the Endangered Species List in Montana and Idaho, opening them for hunting.  Evidently, 95 breeding pairs of wolves in the country is enough.  It’s not like they are incredibly important to the ecosystem or anything.  He also upheld the Bush junta decision not to allow greenhouse gases to be regulated by the Endangered Species Act.  Even though he himself said that melting sea ice due to global warming is the leading threat to polar bears, this was not the place or time to act.

The MMS has played a key role in the BP oil spill as well.  In March of 2008, they sold the rights to drill to oil in an action to BP.   In 2009, they decided that acoustically controlled shut off valves aren’t really required against underwater spills at the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling site.  It was only the deepest offshore well in history at 35,000 feet below water.  Finally, the MMS, exempted BP from having to file environmental impact statements.  The MMS justified this claiming that the risk from offshore oil drilling was practically nonexistent (to be fair, so did Obama; oops).  They also allowed BP, as well as other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without obtaining permits from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  NOAA assesses the threats of activities to endangered species.  Apparently, oil drilling is not very threatening.  The MMS overruled staff biologists and engineers who brought up issues about the safety and environmental impact of  drilling proposals in the Gulf of Mexico and on the North Slope of Alaska.  In fact, the MMS allowed industry officials to fill out their own inspection reports and file them.  In a final slap in the face, after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and spill, the MMS approved 27 new offshore drilling projects.  2 of them were for our favorites: BP.

“We’re Never Out of Our Depth”

The Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling rig is owned by a company named Transocean, the world’s biggest offshore drilling contractor.  Their motto is: “We’re never out of our depth.”  Depsite the comforting slogan, Transocean has a checkered past (well, to be fair, most offshore drilling contractors do).  In 1979, a Transocean oil rig blew out in Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico.  It was capped just under a year later.  During that time 71,500 barrels of oil impacted 162 miles of U.S. beaches.  It was the third largest spill in history.  In six years before the Deepwater Horizon rig blowout, 12 people were killed in accidents on Transocean rigs.

Look Familiar: Bay of Campeche Oil Spill

Them Again?

Oh, and Halliburton is involved in all of this.  They were the service provider to the rig.  We all know about their business transgressions (you know, Cheney…CEO of Halliburton…Vice President…Iraq…service provider in Iraq…etc.  They also had a number of environmental transgressions.  Toxics Release Inventory reports show that Halliburton’s Farmington, New Mexico facility generated a toxic cloud of gas to evacuate their homes.  They have also been implicated in the oil spills in the Timor Sea in 2009.  They also had a part to play in the BP spill.

And They All Came Tumbling Down

In February of last year, BP filed an environmental impact plan for the Deepwater Horizon to the MMS.  The company came to the conclusion that even though a oil spill would occur as a result of drilling, the well was far enough offshore to prevent severe impacts.  Thanks to 2008 regulation changes, they did not have to file a contingency plan.   The BP well was fitted with a blowout preventer, but was not fitted with acoustically-activated alert triggers.

In March 2010, the oil rig had problems with drilling mud and gas releases.  In the same month, the blowout preventer was damaged.  This damage was never reported.  and it was found that the last inspection was in 2005.  Workers interviewed after the blowout said that they did see warning signs pointing to a potential catastrophe, but they were afraid of being fired if they alerted authorities.


Deepwater Horizon Burns

On April 20,2010, pressure in a marine riser, a temporary extension of a subsea oil well to a surface drilling facility, expanded the pipe, causing an explosion.  This was followed by an inferno.

According to an unnamed witness, Deepwater Horizon installation manager Jimmy Harrell, an employee of Transocean, was speaking to someone in Houston, Texas when the fire started, and was heard screaming, “Are you fucking happy? Are you fucking happy? The rig’s on fire! I told you this was gonna happen.”

The Coast Guard airlifted all but eleven workers out of the rig.  The remaining eleven, after intense searching, were declared dead.  The rig sank two days later.  The oil officially began to spill from the well on that day.  Two robotic submersibles tried to cap the well, but ultimately failed.

BP somehow only calculates 1,000 barrels leaking into the Gulf of Mexico each day.  In only three days, an oil slick covering 580 square miles was formed.  The slick was only 30 some odd miles from shore at that time.  Booms were set up to prevent the oil from hitting the coast.  Three days after that, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates the leak flowed at 5,000 barrels or 210,000 gallons each day.  It appears that BP made another slight miscalculation.  To cut their losses, BP tried to burn the oil off of the surface of the water.  It didn’t work.  And, on April 30, oil washed ashore at Venice, Louisiana.

In Memorium

Jason Anderson, 35, Midfield, Texas; Aaron Dale Burkeen, 37, Philadelphia, Mississippi; Donald Clark, 34, Newellton, Louisiana; Stephen Curtis, 39, Georgetown, Louisiana; Gordon Jones, 28, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Roy Wyatt Kemp, 27, Jonesville, Louisiana; Karl Klepping, 38, Natchez, Mississippi; Blair Manuel, 56, Eunice, Louisiana; Dewey Revette, 48, State Line, Mississippi; Shane Roshto, 22, Franklin County, Mississippi; and Adam Weise, 24, Yorktown, Texas.

Well, that takes us through April.  Next week, I will discuss the cleanup efforts that occured in May and June, and are still ongoing.

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John Cleese on Science

Sorry, so little to do and so much time.  Sorry.  Strike that.  Reverse it.  And we’re off…

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Science and Soul: Bloom Box

I admit, I have been absolutely awful about posting as of late.  I apologize.  Work and assignments have kept me very busy indeed.  Now that spring break has rolled around, I am back…at least for a little while.

Perhaps you saw the 60 minutes segment as well, but if you didn’t, I am going to write about the Bloom Box.

Bloom Box inventor, KR Srihdar, with his new invention.

This new technology is a type of fuel cell.  A fuel cell, simply put, is a cell capable of generating electricity from chemical reactions.  Although fuel cells have been around for many years, this one promises to be quite interesting.  The Bloom Box is a small tower of these metal alloy fuel cells packaged together.  It is said that one can power a European home and 2 can power an American home (yeah, we use more energy).   These are then placed in a larger unit.  This piece of equipment takes in oxygen and some kind of raw fuel, and will then react in a chemical reaction to produce electricity.  There are no carbon emissions as a result of the reaction, and it eliminates the need for the large-scale power grid currently in place.  Each home would have its own.  Magic…

Hmm….sounds too good to be true.  Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but in some senses it already is, and could be even more so.

First off, the Bloom Box still needs some kind of fuel input, be that fossil fuels, biomass, or alternative energy.  The box itself doesn’t combust the fuels, but it does need some energy to start the chemical reaction.  Now, using fossil fuels would negate any benefits to the fuel cell.  Biomass, quite frankly, isn’t much better due to the environmental costs associated with accumulating it.  However, assuming that we use alternative energy like a rooftop solar panel then this could be an energy-efficient mechanism.  When speaking about energy efficiency, we must remember energy is not lost, it is simply converted into another form.  Energy can either be kinetic (in motion) or potential (stored).  Kinetic energy forms include electricity (movement of electrons), heat, light (electromagnetic waves), sound, and motion.  Potential energy comes in the form of chemical, gravitational (function of height and mass), mechanical (tension), and nuclear (the energy holding together atoms).  Also, net energy yield decreases with each energy of conversion.  So, for example, lets say we take solar energy and use it to generate steam (thermal energy), to turn a turbine (mechanical energy), to produce electricity.  This wastes much more energy in the conversions than just taking chemical energy and producing electrical energy (like in the Bloom Box).

Secondly, it’s the economics, stupid.  The Bloom Box currently costs about 2,000 USD per unit.  This is not something most people want to spend on a relatively new, and experimental technology.

Third, nobody besides the inventor, KR Sridhar, knows exactly how it works.  The company has remained oddly secretive about their new product, only announcing it recently.  The exact fuel conversion process is also unclear.

Finally, the Bloom Box, as clean as it is, may cause some negative unintended consequences.  The law of unintended consequences states,

“Any intervention in a complex system may or may not have the intended result, but will inevitably create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes”.

In this case, everybody may think, “Hey!  I’ve got all this clean energy now.  Let’s waste this stuff like there is no tomorrow!”  Well not exactly that, but people might conserve much less energy once they think it is “greener.”  And that kind of defeats the purpose of creating an alternative energy, as energy conservation, for me, is equal parts prevention of climate change and pollution, and controlling yourself and becoming a better, more efficient, less wasteful person.

So, although I love the idea of this new technology, further development will be needed to perfect the process, and drive down prices. Oh, and it would help to know whether it actually works.  But who knows, perhaps the little, decentralized Bloom Box will be the energy of the future.

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Science & Soul: Clean Coal My Butt

I have been very busy and have not had time to post or read others’ blogs.  Sorry ’bout that.

Clean coal technology  aims to permanently capture and isolate carbon dioxide gas resulting from coal combustion so that it does not

contribute to global warming. The most promising method of sequestering carbon dioxide is carbon capture and storage. The coal must

undergo gasification to remove the carbon dioxide before combustion. In this process, the coal is exposed to steam at high pressures and

temperatures, producing syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen gas, and methane. This syngas then reacts

with chemical scrubbers which isolate and capture the carbon dioxide.  This captured carbon dioxide is then transported and injected into

either underground or ocean waters. Unfortunately, clean coal does not exist. There are far too many environmental and economic

problems associated with the burning of coal, whether it be considered conventional or clean.

Clean Coal process

The fastest and most cost-efficient method of obtaining coal in many situations, depending on the depth and location of the coal, is to
simply remove the overburden. In some cases, this requires mountaintop removal. This involves blasting the summit of a mountain with
explosives and pushing the excess soil and rock aggregate into surrounding valleys so that miners can remove the coal deposits.  Despite
precautions, this form of mining is extremely destructive to the environment.  Mountaintop mining operations often fill in the streams
surrounding the mountain they are excavating.  This leads to an increase in mineral levels and acidification of water due to chemical
runoff from the mine causes a decrease in aquatic biodiversity in the surrounding region. Many native aquatic organisms cannot adapt to
the change in stream chemistry rapidly enough and die as a result. Biomagnification in the aquatic food system causes the
aforementioned toxic chemicals to accumulate in any organisms living down-stream of the mines.  This has caused a number of
documented reproductive mutations in fish. Furthermore, these fish are considered unsafe for human consumption because of the levels
of chemicals in their tissues.  Mountaintop removal also endangers human health.  Residents near such mining operations face a sixty-four
percent higher risk of respiratory diseases like bronchitis and emphysema. Scientists believe that these illnesses are caused by the coal
dust that often rains down on towns while mining companies blast the nearby mountains. This dust consists of many toxic impurities
which cause further medical problems for humans.

An example of mountaintop removal.

Even when sequestered, there remains a possibility that the carbon dioxide will leak out of the soil or waters and back into the
atmosphere.  If even a portion of this carbon dioxide escaped, the benefits of carbon dioxide sequestration would be mitigated. Also,
carbon dioxide leaks could be potentially lethal.
The largest cost associated with this technology is retrofitting previously built coal burning plants with clean coal
carbon sequestration facilities. This major undertaking is prohibitively expensive.  Once running, clean coal technology would have to be
maintained, causing a doubling in costs, which would then effect prices.  Based on the amount of carbon dioxide produced from burning
coal, governmental agencies estimate that the total cost of building and maintaining such systems in the United States amounts to
approximately sixteen billion dollars per year.
Clean coal is an oxymoron. It can only be viewed as “clean energy” when one does not take into account a rising number
of environmental and social costs associated with burning fossil fuels for power, including mountaintop removal, carbon dioxide leakage,
and restrictive costs. Using carbon dioxide capture and storage may decrease our carbon emissions, but only perpetuates our
dependency on nonrenewable fossil fuels.  We must stop trying to find ways to extend our use of nonrenewable energy sources and instead
revitalize our search for more efficient and sustainable power supply.  The solution is not reducing wastes associated with fossil
fuel combustion, but rather living within our means and curtailing our own wastes and inefficiencies.
Falkowski, T. B. Clean Coal: An Environmentally and Economically Expensive False Hope. Binghamton University. Web. 10 Mar.

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