Friday, November 17, 2017

210,000 Gallons of Oil Spill at Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota

Click for photo credit.
News broke yesterday that 210,000 gallons of crude oil spilled in rural South Dakota along the Keystone Pipeline. The company was aware of the spill, but didn't notify authorities for hours, thereby delaying a rapid response to address the problem. This delay reminds me of a similar problem in a mine waste spill after a sinkhole formed in Florida under radioactive mine waste. If companies do not report problems in a timely fashion, it makes it difficult to have trust in their environmental efforts.

The geology where the spill happened is problematic. The surface consists of deep unconsolidated glacial sediments that serve as a local aquifer. Glacial sediments can be highly variable in grain size and thus in permeability and porosity. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that the spill will contaminate the surficial aquifer in the area. However, the seriousness of the problem will depend upon the particular characteristics of the site where the spill happened.

Of course, the spill brings into question the wisdom of the permitting of the Keystone XL Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation's source of drinking water (note that the spill happened on the Keystone Pipeline which is different from the Keystone XL Pipeline). For more background on this issue, you can read my series about the Keystone Pipeline and the Standing Rock Sioux here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Keurig in a Coal Mine

Click for photo credit.
Last night I had a dream that the U.S. launched a drone strike on the Miss World Pageant. I know it is an odd dream, but private organizations seem to be in the crosshairs of governments and other organizations--and in my dreams. From Wikileaks to Facebook, organizations face greater scrutiny due to their role in society.

One group, Keurig Green Mountain, came under attack recently and folks across the country are destroying their coffee machines due to an advertising decision. I don’t want to comment on the politics of the situation, but instead would like to focus on the fact that the destruction of the machines may be good for the environment. According to this article in the New York Times, the number of pods used in the machine each year would circle the earth 10 times. There are certainly green options available for the Keurig, but most people do not use them because they are slightly more expensive. Thus, I hope that everyone who broke his or her machine returns to a more environmentally friendly French press, percolator, or drip.

At the same moment, the coal industry is representing the U.S. at the United Nation’s Bonn Climate Summit this week. The Guardian reports that Michael Bloomberg called coal’s presence as like “promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.” I have written quite a bit in this space that coal is yesterday’s energy source. It isn’t going entirely away, but energy technology has moved on to more efficient and cheaper energy sources. The federal government’s support of coal is particularly tragic for the coal states where miners hope for a renaissance that is unlikely to arrive. The region should be finding new forms of economic development.

Private organizations have always had a prominent place in American society. However, many are questioning their current role in influencing government. Perhaps we are at a Keurig in a coal mine moment when we begin to deemphasize what is good for organizations but instead focus on what is good for Americans. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

EPA Bans Experts from Expert Panels

Click for photo credit.
The New York Times published an article yesterday by Lisa Friedman that details how the EPA is banning some of the science experts they fund from serving on expert panels. It is a move widely seen as stacking industry advisors on the environmental panels that oversee EPA policy.

The move is a strange one, but not wholly unexpected during these strange times.

Here is why it is so odd:  Imagine that you are the EPA and you want to understand how mercury is cycled in the environment. You put out a request for proposals to the scientific community for someone to do a detailed multi-year study on where mercury ends up getting stored in the environment. You receive dozens of proposals and develop a peer-review process by which the proposals are evaluated by experts in the field. Eventually, you select a three of the best proposals to conduct the study. One of the teams does amazing work, identifies mercury cycling and storage, and provides clear evidence for their conclusions. They publish their work in peer-reviewed journals and receive accolades from the scientific community. You would think that that team should be represented on a panel deciding mercury policy.

Not any longer. Instead, industry experts will be empaneled.