/* Added by TWP, 10/12/2012 */ /* End of addition */

One of the live oaks that bless my home

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Radioactivity in water and natural gas fracing

In this post I attempt to provide a context for an article in NYT, Drilling Down: Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers by IAN URBINA, published on February 26, 2011.  The article seems to imply that much of the potentially deadly radioactive contamination of drinking water supply in Pennsylvania comes from "frac water" produced after hydrofracturing the deep natural gas wells there.  Such an assertion is not supported by facts, and here is why.

The raw data from the NYT spreadsheet, emailed to me by Mr. Urbina, are plotted here.  In the spreadsheet, there are up to five different measurements of radioactivity in the water produced from each of 212 natural gas wells in Pennsylvania.  Total alpha radiation refers to all alpha-particle-emitting radioisotopes present in the produced water.  In some wells there were additional measurements of alpha-radioactivity from two isotopes of radium and two isotopes of uranium.  By subtraction, the difference of between the total alpha radioactivity and those of the other radio-isotopes can be attributed mostly to radon.

Drinking groundwater can have trace quantities of dozens of  the naturally occurring radioactive elements. Radon 222 is a ubiquitous naturally occurring radioactive gas that is water-soluble. Radon's decay in air or water is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L). The fast-decaying radon is produced during radioactive decay of uranium 238 and thorium 232 that have been in the earth's crust since the earth was formed.

A picocurie per liter is 0.037 radon atoms giving out radiation in one second in one liter of water, or 1 atom of radon giving out radiation in 1 second in 27 liters of water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 10,000 pCi/L of radon in water translates to about 1 pCi/L of radon in air.

The maximum total alpha-particle (mostly from radon, but in some wells also from radium-226 and -228, and uranium- 235 and -238) emissions measured in water produced from two natural gas wells in Pennsylvania were 32,360 pCi/L and 40,880 pCi/L, respectively. I will address the much smaller radium and uranium radioactivity in the produced water  and the dilution factors in a later post.

The current "action level" for airborne radon is 4 pCi/L. The EPA recommends that action be taken to lower airborne radon if it exceeds 4 pCi/L in your home. While there are no EPA standards for radon in water now, a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 300 pCi/L and an Alternative Maximum Contaminant Level (AMCL) of 4,000 pCi/L for public water supplies have been proposed.

Water directly out of the tap contains about 0.01 pCi/L each of uranium, radium, and radioactive lead. It may also contain between 100 and 400 pCi/L of radioactive hydrogen, between 100 and 500 pCi/L of radioactive carbon, between 10 and 30 pCi/L of radioactive beryllium, as well as a variety of other radioactive elements such as aluminum, chlorine, silicon, lead, bismuth, polonium, and argon. It can contain several hundred to several thousand pCi/L of radon gas, particularly if you get your drinking water from a well.

We have about 120,000 picocuries of radioactivity in our bodies from all sources. These naturally-occurring radioactive substances expose our bodies to about 25 "millirem" per year, abbreviated as "mrem/yr". (Millirem measures energy of radiation, like heat.)  If you live in Denver, you are exposed to 50 millirems per year. A single CT-scan test exposes you to up to 1,000 mrems of radiation.  CT radiation alone contributes 1/4 of U.S. population's radiation exposure!

Public groundwater supplies seem to have the highest radon levels in places where the water flows through granites in the Piedmont. (The Piedmont is a plateau region located in the eastern United States between the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the main Appalachian Mountains, stretching from New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the north to central Alabama in the south.)

The highest readings there have been well over 10,000 pCi/L. The lowest concentrations occur in the coastal plain region, where many readings are below 100 pCi/L. Concentrations from about 500 to 10,000 pCi/L occur in groundwater water samples drawn from metamorphic rocks, such as the gneisses and schists found in the piedmont and mountain regions.  Both types of rock are used as building materials. 

In conclusion, the two highest radon concentrations measured in frac water back-produced from natural gas wells in Pennsylvania are in line with some groundwater samples in the region.

A high concentration of radon in the groundwater in your area does not necessarily mean that there will be a high concentration of radon in your drinking water. Radon escapes harmlessly into the air when water is being treated for use in a municipal system. Also, radon decays into other substances over time while the water is being stored. Municipal systems that mix surface water—a lake or a river—with groundwater will have lower waterborne radon levels. 

High levels of waterborne radon tend to occur in homes on an individual well or a community well system (serving up to about 100 homes) if the groundwater has a high level of radon.  However, a private groundwater well should not receive the produced frac water.

Based on a second 1999 NAS report on radon in drinking water, EPA estimates that radon in drinking water causes about 168 cancer deaths per year, 89 percent from lung cancer caused by breathing in radon released from water, and 11 percent from stomach cancer caused by drinking radon-containing water.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated 52,447 deliberate and 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States during the year 2000. The majority of gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides, with firearms used in 16,907 suicides in the United States during 2004. Thus, an average U.S. resident is almost 1,000 times more likely to shoot him/herself with a gun, than die from stomach cancer caused by drinking radon-contaminated water. By the way, each year there are about 150,000 lung-cancer deaths the U.S. (157,300 in 2010).   It is estimated that about 21,000 of the lung-cancer deaths are caused by breathing airborne radon that seeps into our homes from soil. CT scans alone might lead to 29,000 new cancer cases in the U.S.

In 1994 there were 41,000 deaths in traffic accidents, down to 34,000 in 2009.  In 2007, CDC reported 182,479 deaths and injuries due to accidents in the U.S., including 18,773 homicides and law enforcement-related deaths.

So, please, pick your risks wisely. Otherwise, you will be frightened and distracted by a mere scary-cat. Instead, you should be watching for a brick falling directly onto your head.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Do renewables decrease global CO2 emissions?

Given the noisy propaganda about the positive impact of renewables, or "clean energy,"  or "green energy" on global emissions of carbon dioxide, one expects there would be some.  Unfortunately, there is none as far as I can tell.  In fact, the situation is even more hopeless than I feared in my darkest dreams.

Here is the data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), plotted originally by P.F. Henshaw, and replotted a little differently by me. You can click on the plots to see them in high resolution.

Above you see a semi-logarithmic plot of the normalized
  1. Global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 
  2. Rate of use of energy in the world (Energy), 
  3. Rate of global carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), and 
  4. Dollars of income generated per unit of energy expanded globally per year ($/Btu).  
All values are relative to those in 1971, and all curves start from 1. All trends are exponential, so they plot as approximately straight lines on the semi-logarithmic scale.  The global GDP grows roughly 1.85 times faster than global energy use and global CO2 emissions, and 3.7 times faster than global efficiency.

By rescaling the slopes of the trends above with the multipliers shown in the inset box, all trends more less overlay.  So here is the really bad news:
  1. The rate of energy use and carbon dioxide emissions are virtually identical and have grown exponentially over the last 40 years.  
  2. The impact of large dams and nuclear power plants has been barely visible, and disappeared by 2007.
  3. The renewable energy sources, wind turbines, biomass cogeneration, and biofuels (photovoltaic panel area is too small to be relevant), are barely keeping up with the deforestation and general paving of the world.
  4. Increased efficiency leads to more energy use and the ratio of the slopes has remained constant (3.7) over the last 40 years.  Thus, just as Stanley Javons predicted, higher efficiency leads to more energy use which leads to still higher efficiency.
  5. Since the Earth is finite, this trend cannot continue and the current global economy must break down.  There is nothing we can do about it, unless we fundamentally change, and the approach to breakdown is exponential.  I spoke more on this subject here.
  6. For example, the expected period of doubling of global energy consumption is 34-37 years.  Since this doubling is impossible, claims to the contrary by the IPCC notwithstanding, the global economy as we know it today will cease to exist within the next 10-20 years.
Now the good news:
  1. Something's gotta give! It is quite possible that earthlings can learn and act when faced with an old problem with no old solutions.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dot-con ventures

Our society, like a novel lunatic, needs bad ideas, so that our collective craziness can have shape and direction.  Biofuels are one of such brazenly bad ideas that have crystallized a bunch of lunatic government policies and attracted other, completely unrelated lunatics. All these lunatics became friends of biofuels.

"Ideas on Earth," observed Kilgore Trout, "were badges of friendship or enmity.  Their content did not matter.  Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness.  Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity." 

And so it goes.

Unfortunately, there were more bad news for the imaginary "advanced biofuels."  These no doubt miraculous, but yet undiscovered substances seem to fall into the domain of dot-con ventures sponsored by the fabulously well-to-do ventriloquists. 

[Ventriloquy, is an act of stagecraft in which a person (a ventriloquist) manipulates his or her voice so that it appears that the voice is coming from elsewhere, usually a puppeteered "dummy."  This puppeteered dummy seems to be the U.S., also pronounced as "us."]   

But I already spoke on this subject here (OECD) and there (Sustainability Journal),  and do not want to bore you again.  However, if you cared to check Figure 14 in my 2007 OECD paper, you'd discover that Range Fuels promised the highest efficiency of their imaginary refinery among the six takers of 382 millions ($382,000,000.00) of our tax dollars.  Our money was shipped to Range Fuels by a group of friends of their fabulous friend, the ventriloquist.  Friends help friends to express friendliness. So it goes.

BIOMASS: Closure of ethanol factory dashes economic aspirations in Ga. (02/15/2011)

Ambitions to convert tree waste into fuel have fallen flat with the closure of the Range Fuels cellulosic ethanol factory in Georgia.

More than $162 million in local, state and federal grants had already been spent on what critics have called unproven science.

"We gave those subsidies in hopes of getting something in return -- jobs," said Wallace Little, a laid-off special education teacher who applied for a job at the factory. "And we hope they come back, as far-fetched as that sounds. We need jobs. We need them bad."

In 2007, Vinod Khosla, the dot-com billionaire who backed Range, announced a plan to "declare a war on oil" using cellulosic ethanol as a weapon. An economic impact study conducted by University of Georgia estimated a statewide boost of $150 million if the Range facility were built.

Bud Klepper, a plant manager for Range, said the shutdown would not be permanent. Critics doubt the country's six cellulosic ethanol producers made even 6.5 million gallons of product in 2010 -- a slashed version of a previous goal of 100 million gallons that year.

"Their technology did not work," said Sam Shelton, research director for Georgia Institute of Technology's Strategic Energy Institute and a longtime Range critic. "It was a high-risk technological development program. Chemical processing plants just don't scale up that fast. They were promising too much too quick" 

(Dan Chapman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 15). -- PK

P.S. July 8, 2011.  One of the chief characteristics of lunatics is that they never learn.  So here we go again with another round of DOE and USDA funding for the Ventriloquist and his friends.  This time around, it is a waste of $405,000,000.00 of our good tax money that we could spend on so many more useful things, like beer. I simply do not have the strength to point out to you all the idiocies fed to this gullible ignoramus Matthew Wald.  Just read again my OECD paper.  Literally everything I said there applies again, with vengeance.  The Kundera principle also applies:  The same old lies can be safely reused in a new context, because there is no return to the past, and no one remembers what already happened.  Mr. Wald applies this principle in his writings, by repeating essentially the same lies he was fed 7,6,5,4,3,2 and 1 year ago.  He needs to start using his own internal CPU and memory banks.

As to Mr. Khosla, why is he still called a "venture capitalist"?  A "venture food-stamper" or a "big government crony," living off the handouts of taxpayers' money, would be more appropriate.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

This Can't Be!

Barely three days have passed since I posted "Lies, health, hunger and biofuels," hoping that this sore subject would go away for several days.  Today I opened the Business Section of NYT, rubbed my eyes, and cried: "This cannot be!"

I just read that madmen inside a federal government agency are trying to usher a new era of self-decomposing food supply in the U.S.  Can you imagine?  Your cereal, bread, corn flakes, anything, will be self-digesting and liquefying on your table if you wait a little, regardless of how well you keep it?   These madmen are attempting to introduce the U.S. public to a practical lesson in enzymatic chemistry:  just 1 genetically modified corn grain with the alpha-amylase enzyme in it per 10,000 other grains will make corn flour and its products go soft and unappetizing.  That's 1/100 of 1%! One could hardly think up a better allegory for the intellectual rot and moral decay blowing from Washington.

What happens when these self-rotting plants start cross-breeding with normal corn?  Corn pollen can travel for miles and cross-pollinate other corn plants.  And this madness is unleashed on all of us to make it easier to produce something that would never exist if we were not paying for it with our hard-earned tax dollars to begin with.  This something is large-scale production of ethanol from corn.

I am speechless.  I hope that we will finally start to demonstrate our feelings and never, ever elect anyone, who panders to an Iowa caucus.  I mean anyone!

Here is the reaction of Richard Brenneman.

Here is a comment by Professor Ignacio Chapela.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Lies, health, hunger, and biofuels

"Cowardice is the worst vice of men," Yeshua Ha-Nozri said softly to the fifth Procurator of Judea, the cruel knight Pontius Pilate, when they met at the Herod's palace on that fateful, unbearably hot 14th day of Nisan. If you do not believe me, please read the crown jewel of all literature, "The Master and Margarita," written  some 80 years ago by a Russian doctor and writer, Mikhail Bulgakov.

Yeshua is of course Jesus. But what does His quiet remark have to do with food, biofuels, poor health, hunger, and politics as usual by the rascals who have Jesus' name smeared all over their campaign slogans, even when they try to eat our souls? 

We are cowards because we loath to resist the more powerful in our lives, even when we know they are wrong. As importantly, we are cowards because we are afraid to think for ourselves and draw our own conclusions.  Since we are cowards we are eager to accept half-truths, or blatant lies, if they sooth us and make us avoid difficult choices.  With time, lies that surround us soak in through our skins and become parts of who we are.  This is how we elect and re-elect most politicians.  This is how we eat bad cheap food and buy expensive vitamins and mineral supplements to make up for what we miss. This is how we come to believe that the food-like edible substances we purchase in the centers of all supermarkets are actually food.  This is how we maintain that burning freshly killed plants is morally superior to burning the ancient ones.

But enough about us.  An agricultural policy that has supported growing corn, wheat, soybeans, sugar, and cotton (and rice sometimes) to the exclusion of everything else has consequences.  We now eat corn products in pretty much all processed food and we also eat it as meat.  Cheap sugar saturates soft drinks we gulp by the buckets.

There are side-effects, though.  We have grown obese and unhealthy, and we have essentially emptied countryside of farmers in exchange for industrial plantations that cover the vast, empty swaths of land with a single plant, cause soil erosion and chemical pollution everywhere, and use cheap temporary labor - preferably illegal Mexicans.  As we get Type II diabetes and heart disease, and our health care costs skyrocket, the farmers grow old and tired, and their children move to town.

So we are left with more of the same.  Enter corn ethanol.  Archer Daniels Midland had a brilliant idea to expand corn acreage and subsidies, and use dirt cheap corn to produce a substandard, ecologically damaging, and thermodynamically unfeasible car fuel - and a large profit for themselves.  We cooperated and, munching on popcorn,  accepted another lie: America's energy independence.  Corn ethanol would provide us with energy independence?!  Please, I am too tired and disgusted to laugh.   But if not corn ethanol, then "cellulosic" ethanol from grass, for sure, cross my heart!  Oh, please again, I am tired of laughing even more.   

Now, on to the food prices.  Yes, they are going up because we have decided to burn ever more food as car fuel, and support Monsanto's design to control the global supply of all seeds. (Now, that's really dangerous!) We do not care yet in the U.S., but let's look at Egypt and Mexico, and you will see that the food price increases in the first case, and driving out subsistence farmers in the second one do have consequences.  But, again, we have known this for years. See here and here.

So, in summary, our hard-earned tax dollars support a few ag-corporations that in return deliver cheap commodities, which are then chemically transformed by other corporations into what we came to believe is food.  Still other corporations treat us for the ill-effects of consuming this stuff, and others sell us expensive vitamins and medications.  We have destroyed farming that used to produce food, not merely commodities, and allowed up to 1/2 of U.S. corn to be burned as fuel at a huge expense of water, soil, our health, coal and natural gas.  We have caused food prices to go up worldwide, and destabilized dozens of countries.

But, most importantly, we have remained content in our self-delusion, and continued to re-elect the same rascals, who tell us the same tired lies. Should we finally snap out of it?

Yes, it is time.

Remember Jesus' words: "Cowardice is the worst vice of men."