Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Renewable Fuel Standard, Fraud and Misuse

Last Friday, Rodney R. Hailey, of Perry Hall, Md., was sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison, for selling $9 million in phony renewable fuel credits from his company, Clean Green Fuel, LLC.  Mr. Hailey registered Clean Green Fuel, a company that only existed on paper, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Renewable Fuel Standard, RFS, program as a producer of bio-diesel fuel, a motor vehicle fuel derived from waste restaurant grease and diesel fuel. Though he manufactured no fuel, Mr. Hailey sold the fuel credits and pocketed all the money. Mr. Hailey was also ordered to pay restitution of approximately $ 42.2 million to over 20 companies and forfeit the $9.1 million in proceeds from the fraud, including cars, jewelry, his home and bank accounts, which had already been seized by the government. Mr. Hailey shows no signs of having any other money to pay the restitution.

To encourage the production of renewable fuel and lessen the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, oil companies in the U.S. are required to produce a given quantity of renewable fuel or to purchase credits, called renewable identification numbers (RINs) from producers of renewable fuels to satisfy their renewable fuel requirements. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 established the first renewable fuel volume mandate for the United States. The original RFS program required 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel (primarily ethanol) to be blended into gasoline by 2012. Under the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, the RFS program was expanded to include diesel, in addition to gasoline; increase the volume of renewable fuel required to be blended from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022; and established new categories of renewable fuel, and set separate volume requirements for each one.

Between March 2009 and December 2010, Mr. Hailey engaged in a fraud scheme, selling over 35 million RINs (representing 23 million gallons of bio-diesel fuel) to brokers and oil companies, when in fact Clean Green Fuel had produced no fuel at all and Mr. Hailey did not even have a facility capable of producing bio-diesel fuel. Apparently, there was no requirement to verify production of renewable fuel to register the facility. Federal law enforcement agents investigated the scheme after a tip about the large number of luxury cars parked in front of Hailey’s house. Hailey took in more than $9.1 million from selling the false RINs and used the money to purchase an extraordinary number of fancy cars, including BMWs, Mercedes Benz, a Rolls Royce Phantom, a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati and others, as well as real estate and more than $80,000 in diamond jewelry.

The traders and major energy companies who purchased Hailey’s false RINs are reported to have lost more than $40 million, but the loss also extends to small bio-diesel companies, who had real costs of production and, as a result of Hailey’s scheme, were unable to sell their RINs to recoup any of their real costs and were forced out of business.  “When invalid renewable fuel credits are ‘produced’ and sold, it undermines the integrity of an important program designed by Congress to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and to grow the nation’s renewable energy industry,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Verification of securities is not a new problem, but how EPA chose to operate this market left it open to this kind of fraud. After this fraud came to light, EPA proposed a voluntary quality assurance program to verify that RINs generated under the RFS program have been validly generated. EPA hopes that this will make the RFS program more efficient and effective.  This blatant fraud is unlikely to be the only unintended consequence of the RFS program and how EPA chose register producers of renewable fuel and have RINs generated. The environmental attributes and the federal government created markets may be the wrong tool for achieving their stated environmental or energy independence goals.

While changes the EPA proposes may remedy some of the problems with the sale and marketing of RINs, putting ethanol into gasoline and vegetable oil into diesel is neither cost effective nor does it make the environment a cleaner. Its impact on the U.S. less dependence on foreign oil was never measured. The energy expended in growing and processing the corn or collecting and processing the vegetable oil is an environmental cost that is hidden by various subsidies.  

The RFS is not only subject to fraud (the cheapest RIN is always the fraudulent one), but the RFS’ demand for Biofuels has the ability to change the demand and price of food. The RFS diverts half of the U.S. corn crop into fuel leading to diminished supplies for livestock and food. The RFS determines the crop mix in the U.S. by distorting price and still we might end up importing corn to feed our nation either directly or feed livestock while we pay to convert corn into subsidized ethanol. In 2011, approximately 40% of the corn crop was used for making ethanol to meet the RFS; in 2012 it looks like it will take almost 50% of the corn crop, or 5.05 billion bushels. The USDA has estimated total corn production for 2012 at 10.7 billion bushels, down 13% from 2011. This was the lowest U.S. production of corn since 2006 yet the RFS demand continues to grow. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

BP Will Go to Trial to Set the Civil Penalties for Oil Spill

Last week, BP announced their intent to go to trial for the civil penalties to be assessed under the Clean Water Act. BP says it will vigorously defend itself against the “gross negligence” allegations. The US District Court in Louisiana will ultimately determine the legal and factual issues at the heart of the case, including whether BP or any other party was grossly negligent. “Gross negligence is a very high bar that BP believes can not be met in this case,” said Rupert Bondy, Group General Council for BP in their press release. “This was a tragic accident, resulting from multiple causes and involving multiple parties. We firmly believe we were not grossly negligent.”

BP also contends that US Government inflated their flow rate estimates. The determination of the total oil released will be subject of phase two of the trial set for September 2013. Oil flow rate and quantification of barrels of oil spilled are very important issues for determining total liability. BP has said, although there is inherent uncertainty, they believe that the U.S. government’s public estimate of 4.9 million barrels of oil released is at least 20 % overstated. In addition, whatever the final number of barrels released from the reservoir is proven to be in trial, BP does not believe that the 810,000 barrels of oil that the company successfully captured from the Macondo reservoir without it entering the Gulf of Mexico waters should be considered in the Court’s future determination of Clean Water Act penalties. Under the Clean Water Act, civil penalties are assessed only on oil that has actually entered the environment and potentially caused harm. If BP can reasonably prove their flow estimate of 20% below the government estimate and deduct a further 810,000 barrels for the captured oil, then the spill would be 3.1 million barrels of oil spilled that would be used in calculating a Clean Water Act penalty.

The Court has broad discretion to assess a per-barrel Clean Water Act penalty between zero and the statutory maximum which is $4,300 per barrel. According to BP, in deciding on the per-barrel fine, the Court must consider not only the level of culpability, but also seven other statutory penalty factors. The intent behind the statute was to enable courts to account for the violating company’s conduct following the violation. In practice, courts have historically awarded only a fraction of the statutory maximum penalty.

Mr. Bondy summarized the company position, “In determining the penalty, we believe the Court should consider, among other things, the fact that BP immediately stepped up and acknowledged our role in the accident. We waived the statutory cap on liability, and to date, we’ve spent more than $23 billion in response, clean-up, and payments on claims by individuals, businesses, and governments...”

Back on November 15, 2012, BP agreed to plead guilty to 11 counts of felony manslaughter, one count of felony obstruction of Congress, and violations of the Clean Water and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts., all arising from the 2010 Macondo Well/ Deepwater Horizon blowout that killed 11 people and caused the largest oil spill and what EPA called in their press release the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. BP agreed to pay $4.5 billion, including $1.26 billion criminal fine, to end all criminal charges and resolve securities claims against them.

In addition, on November 28th 2012 EPA announced that it had temporarily suspended BP Exploration and Production, Inc., BP PLC and affiliated companies (BP) from new contracts with the federal government. This includes oil development leases in a Gulf as well as contracts with the Department of Defense. The suspension does not affect existing agreements and contracts BP has with the government. Since the Deepwater Horizon accident, the US has granted BP more than 50 new leases in the Gulf of Mexico, where the company has been drilling since the government lifted the drilling moratorium. In addition, in 2011 BP was the largest fuel supplier to the U.S. Department of Defense and is likely to be the largest supplier in 2012, and 2013. 

BP has also reached an agreement to settle claims from fishermen and others affected by the oil spill for $7.8 billion that was approved by a federal judge on December 21, 2012. According to a press release by BP, this raises to $41.95 billion the charge taken against income in the third quarter financial statements. BP’s financial statements as of  December 31, 2012 reflect this additional charge that reflects the criminal settlements, the $18 billion spent on cleanup costs and the $15 billion  paid into the trust fund to compensate victims.  This settlement only addresses economic and property damage and does not address claims made by cleanup workers and other who say exposure to oil or oil dispersant has made them sick.

In addition, as agreed in a negotiated settlement with the US government on Thursday, February 14th 2013 Transocean Deepwater Inc. pleaded guilty to a criminal violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and was sentenced to pay $400 million in criminal fines and penalties. In total, the amount of fines and other criminal penalties imposed on Transocean are the second-largest environmental crime recovery in U.S. history – following the historic $4 billion criminal sentence imposed on BP Exploration and Production Inc. in connection with the same disaster.

Separate from the corporate charges and settlements, a federal grand jury has indicted two BP supervisors, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine who were on board the Deepwater Horizon with seaman manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter for each of the 11 men killed in the blast, as well as a criminal violation of the clean water act. Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine were the on-site supervisors representing BP on the Deepwater Horizon drill rig. They were the Well Site Leaders known colloquially as the “company men.” Their job was to ensure that BP had “well control” by supervising the implementation of BP’s drilling plan and ensuring the safety of the operation.

According to charges filed by the United States against Mr. Kaluza and Mr. Vidrine on April 20th 2010 a negative pressure test was performed on the well to ensure that the temporary cement seal just installed would hold when the drilling mud was removed when the well displacement took place. During the test the pressure quickly built up above acceptable values. Each time the pressure was bled off it built up again along with abnormal fluid flow.

The two men were presented with what the U.S. Government characterizes as a nonsensical explanation that this was due to a "bladder effect” and directed the testing of the “kill line.” The government charges that rather than consult with BP engineers on shore about the continued high pressure in the drill pipe and ask for advice, Mr. Kaluza and Mr. Vidrine passed the negative pressure test. The government characterizes this as gross negligence.

The well was not secure. The abnormal readings during the negative pressure test were the indication that the well was not secure and Mr. Kaluza and Mr. Vidrine failed to adequately account for the abnormal readings during the testing. The government charges that these two men by deeming the negative pressure test a success allowed the displacement of the well to proceed and resulted in the blowout that killed 11 men aboard the rig that same evening. Mr. Kaluza and Mr. Vidrine are charged with involuntary manslaughter, seaman manslaughter and criminal violation of the Clean Water Act. Both men have pleaded not guilty in a New Orleans court. They face up to 10 years in prison on each of 11 counts of seaman's manslaughter and eight years in prison on each of 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The trial has been delayed until 2014 to allow the defense to adequately prepare. It is unknown how the corporations pleading guilty to the criminal charges will impact their cases.

Finally, former senior BP executive David Rainey pleaded not guilty to obstruction of justice charges for lying about how much oil was gushing out of the runaway well. He faces five years in prison if convicted.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Texas Leads the Nation in Water Recycling

The drought burns on in Texas. The state's water plan calls for construction of new reservoirs, desalination plants, pipelines and greater conservation and recycling of water to  make the water supply in Texas sustainable, and Texans are doing it. Direct recycling of wastewater is about to begin in Big Spring, Texas. No other state is taking such bold action to secure their future, but without a reliable potable water supply there is no future. 

The earth has a fixed amount of land and water. All the water that ever was or will be on earth is here right now. More than 97% of the Earth’s water is within the in oceans. The remaining 2.8% is the water within the land masses, as groundwater, rivers, streams, lakes, and within the ice caps and glaciers (over 77% of fresh water is currently frozen and according to climate scientists a significant portion of that may melt). Only a tiny fraction of water falls as rain each year to make the rivers flow, recharge lakes and groundwater. Precipitation does not fall uniformly- there are wet locations and arid locations within a country or region and rainfall varies from year to year and over time as climate changes. Water availability is determined by the weather, climate and the variable length of different parts of the water cycle. Texas has suffered a long drought. 

As the demand for water grows in our population centers, we are straining to meet the demand. Even in generally water rich areas there are limits to the availability of water and United States has slowly and quietly begun to address the availability of water by recycling the water indirectly. In the United States municipal wastewater represents a significant potential source of reclaimed water, an estimated 32 billion gallons of water a day (121 million m3/day) is treated in wastewater treatment plants throughout the country. Currently, National Research Council Water Science & Technology Board estimates that only about 7% to 8 % of this municipal waste water is reused, but a third of this water could be reused.(NRC Water Science & Technology Board titled Water Reuse: Potential for Expanding the Nation’s Water Supply Through Reuse of Municipal Wastewater)

Direct water recycling is reusing treated wastewater for beneficial purposes such as agricultural and landscape irrigation, industrial processes, toilet flushing, and replenishing a ground water basin (referred to as ground water recharge) and less commonly returning the water directly to reservoirs. Many of the existing projects that recycle waste water avoid the negative emotional response of drinking water from wastewater treatment plants by either using the water for irrigation and municipal irrigation (golf courses in Arizona) or by treatment and then supplementing river flow, reservoirs or groundwater.

Since 1978, the upper Occoquan Sewage Authority here in Virginia has been discharging recycled water into a stream above Occoquan Reservoir, one of the two potable water supply sources for Fairfax County, Virginia. Recycled water has been part of the Occoquan supply for 34 years supplying Fairfax, parts of Prince William and Loudoun counties with water. Noman M. Cole, Jr developed the Occoquan Watershed Policy in 1971 that specified the type of waste treatment practices that would  be adopted on a basin-wide scale, and provided for an on-going program of water quality monitoring to measure the success (or failure) of the wastewater treatment. This resulted in the construction of the Upper Occoquan Service Authority, UOSA, advanced wastewater treatment plant with tertiary treatment to replace the eleven small secondary treatment plants and the creation of the Occoquan Watershed Laboratory to monitor water quality.  

For 30 years Los Angeles County has recycled the water from wastewater treatments plants. This water from both secondary and tertiary treated wastewater is discharged into spreading basins to recharge groundwater. Groundwater recharge can be done by surface spreading or direct injection wells. California guidelines recommend spreading over injection because of concerns about water quality and potential health hazards. The groundwater is then mixed with other fresh water supplies for delivery to customers. Many of the existing projects that recycle waste water avoid the negative emotional response of drinking water from wastewater treatment plants (the Toilet to Tap Yuck factor) by either using the water for irrigation and municipal irrigation or by treatment and then supplementing river flow, reservoirs or groundwater.

In Texas they are taking it even further. The population of Texas is expected to double in the next 50 years and several cities in Texas have been forced by the population growth, the extended drought and extreme heat of the past several years to address their water supply and sustainability problems head on. Cities in Texas currently use reclaimed water for power plant cooling, argument stream flow, and to irrigate golf courses and landscapes. Now, the city of Big Spring is the first  in the nation to make the direct leap to piping completely treated wastewater to a drinking water treatment plant. 

The Colorado River Municipal Water District in Big Spring, Texas is finishing construction on a $14 million wastewater recycling plant. Previously, Big Spring discharged its wastewater into a creek, which passed it through a wetland area that processed it naturally, making the wastewater potable again. The water recycling plant will short circuit that process, fully treating the wastewater and produce approximately 1.8 million gallons per day of raw water and piping it directly back into the town's water treatment plant where it will be blended with other raw water from the reservoirs for treatment and distribution.

This is a huge and unprecedented step. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and EPA have lagged behind Big Spring, failing to develop guidance regulations on direct water reuse. Texas law strictly prohibits interconnection between reclaimed water and potable water systems, though both Big Spring and Brownwood Texas have received permission to build water reuse plants connected to the water treatment plants. In addition the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has funded a study to develop a resource document that can assist in planning future direct potable reuse projects in the state. No other community has ever bridged the emotional gap of direct water reuse before and Big Spring will shortly be followed by Brownwood. Texas leads the way into the future.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Meteorite Slams into Russia-Didn't See That Coming

The GIF animation below comes from NOAA and consists of 8 separate images captured by satellites in 15 minute increments until the vapor trail blends into the reflected light of the morning sun.

NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory - Meteorite Slams into Atmosphere Above Chelyabinsk, Russia

On February 15, 2013 at around 9:20 am local time a meteor entered the atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia. According to the revised information from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, the meteor was 55 feet in diameter and had an estimated mass of 10,000 tons. The meteor was traveling at about 40,000 miles per hour when it entered the atmosphere, streaking across the sky for 32.5 seconds, releasing a sonic boom that blew out windows and doors and exploded in the atmosphere above the earth. The meteor was a made of rock material that grazed the atmosphere and exploded into what scientists expect to be a large number of meteorites. Scientists now believe that 500 kilotons of energy was released in the explosion. This is more than 33 times the size of the explosion at Hiroshima during World War II. Peter Brown, a scientist at the University of Western Ontario, Canada used infrasound data collected from monitoring stations around the world to estimate this information. Infrasound data is monitored around the world to monitor for nuclear testing to ensure compliance with nuclear treaties.

Scientists had been monitoring the sky for the 2012 DA14 asteroid that had been discovered in 2012 and was scheduled to make a close pass by earth on the same day, but did not see the Russian meteor coming because it was coming from the east- the daylight side. The trajectory of the Russia meteor was significantly different than the trajectory of the asteroid 2012 DA14, which hours later made its flyby of Earth, making it an unrelated coincidence. The 2012 DA14 meteor was a 130,000 ton 150 foot diameter meteor that passed 17,200 miles above earth without event.

The Russia meteor is the largest reported meteor strike since 1908, when a meteor hit Tunguska, Siberia, but meteors strike earth all the time. Most are small and burn up in the upper atmosphere, some are seen in the night sky as shooting stars.  These days satellites monitoring the earth for missile launches and the infrasound monitoring stations can quickly identify a large meteor strike, but in earlier times large meteors could have struck the earth in uninhabited areas or the ocean and been unnoticed. Small meteor fragments do occasionally strike earth (becoming meteorites by hitting earth) and injure a couple of people, but nothing on the magnitude of this meteor where over 1,000 people were reported to be injured from broken glass and the damage of doors and windows blown out by the sonic boom. NASA states that though meteorites strike earth daily, a meteor of this size is a once in a century event with even larger hits occurring every couple or more millennium.  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

2011 U.S. Electrical Power Generation by Fuel

Last week when the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA released the second year of reported greenhouse gas emissions data from large sources they stated in their press release that “Power plants remain the largest stationary source of GHG emissions, with 2,221 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (mmtCO2e), roughly one-third of total U.S. emissions. In 2011 emissions from this source were approximately 4.6 % below 2010 emissions, reflecting an ongoing increase in power generation from natural gas and renewable sources.”

 Many news sources published the press release verbatim. If the increase in renewables was due to the recent surge in construction of wind and solar power generation installations this could be just the beginning in the shrinking of the CO2e footprint of the U.S. electrical grid. A fuel change from coal to natural gas would also significantly reduce the CO2e footprint of electrical power.  I decide to take a hard look at the Electrical Generation Data available from theU.S. Energy Information Administration. The major uses of energy in the United States are heating of residential and commercial buildings (11%), industry (20%), transportation including cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships (27.4%), and electric power generation (40%). Clearly, changes in the makeup of the generating sectors would have a profound effect on the CO2e generation of the nation.
From the U.S. EIA Data

 Overall from 2010 to 2011 electrical power generated in the U.S. fell fractionally less than half a percentage point- 19.40 billion Kilowatt hours to 4,105.7 billion Kilowatt hours of power generated in 2011. Power generated from coal fell 113 billion Kilowatt hours to 1,743.3 billion Kilowatt hours. Power generated from natural gas rose 28.9 billion Kilowatt hours to 1016.6 billion Kilowatt hours. Nuclear power generation fell 16.8 billion Kilowatt hours to 790 billion Kilowatt hours. Hydroelectric power generation rose 64.9 billion Kilowatt hours. Wind generation rose 25 billion Kilowatt hours and solar generation rose 0.6 billion Kilowatt hours.

The big reduction in greenhouse gas emissions appears to be from the overall reduction in fossil fuel based power generation of 93.4 billion Kilowatt hours which also included a reduction in coal generation and an increase in natural gas generation that generates only 56% of the CO2e per Kilowatt hour of power as coal and the significant increase in hydroelectric power. Power generated from renewable sources increased 92.7 billion Kilowatt hours in 2011 over 2010 the largest portion of which is attributed to an increase in hydroelectric power generation.

Since it has been two generations since the U.S. has built large damns, it seems most likely that the increase in hydroelectric generation was due to the heavy rains in that year increasing hydroelectric generation. Unfortunately in the drought year of 2012 the amount of power generated by hydroelectric will fall and fossil fuel generation will have to make up the difference. There has been a permanent  increase in wind power generation capacity as newly built wind farms have been tied into the power grid. This is likely to continue to increase in the short run as long as building the wind farms are subsidized by the government and the expense of connecting the wind generation to the power grid is carried by the rate payers. 

The drop in fossil fuel generation from 2010 to 2011 is almost exactly equal to the increase in renewable power generation- primarily hydroelectric and wind. The U.S. use of electricity is fairly stable at this time. The overall reduction in fossil fuel generation accounts for half the reduction in CO2e the other half of the reduction of CO2e appears to be coming from the migration to natural gas.  A slight reduction in overall generation would account for the difference. While this is exciting news, I was surprised how big hydroelectric generation was overall. Also, we have not built any damns in over two generations so that the hydroelectric capacity is very dependent on how wet a year it is. In the past40 years hydroelectric power generation has fluctuated from a high of around 325-350 billion Kilowatt hours a year during the wet years of the mid 1980’s and 1990’s to the lows of 220-250 billion Kilowatt hours during the early 2000’s. Since, 2012 was a drought year, the CO2e of electrical generation in the U.S. will increase despite the growing importance of wind power generation from 1.34% of power generated in 2008 to 2.92% of power generated in 2011. 
Hydroelectric Generation vs total Electrical Generation 1949-2011

Monday, February 11, 2013

Carbon Footprint-Restaurants vs Home Cooking

Though last week I said that Greenhouse Gas Emissions no longer matter, I only meant that no action that we as a nation could take would stop the further increase in carbon dioxide, CO2, concentrations from the emergence of China from a developing nation to developed nation and the ecological consequences from the increasing CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere. It’s done, whatever is going to happen will happen because the earth’s atmosphere is interconnected, and worldwide CO2 emissions will continue to grow. That fact does not absolve me from the responsibilities of sustainable living. Of the developed nations, the United States has the second highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions or CO2 equivalent (CO2e) generation rate. (It’s nice not to be the worst of the developed world.)  Policy mandates to have the United States adopt constraints on fossil fuel energy consumption will have little impact on the global level of CO2e emissions because the United States CO2e emissions are 16% of world CO2e emissions and falling. Our nation’s CO2e emissions are fairly stable at this time while our per capita CO2e emissions appear to be slowly decreasing. Still, as a nation, we should be more sustainable. Making sustainable choices is a moral choice.

 In the real world of finite resources, careful consideration must be given to how and when we expend our resources- money, manpower, water, fuel or land. The CO2e footprint has become shorthand for how sustainable you are. However, the method of calculating that footprint and assumptions made will determine if that measurement is an accurate reflection of how sustainable your life is. When seeking to determine the amount of CO2e emitted from an activity or a life choice, it is impossible to measure the emissions directly. Emissions are estimated from a known quantity such as fuel burned, or units of electricity consumed, but that can be misleading. While the combustion of fuel is a chemical reaction where the mass of CO2 emissions is directly related to the type and quantity of fuel burned, only heating your home is a simple calculation. For every kWh of energy supplied by gas the CO2 emissions are 0.206 kgCO2.

The energy consumed to create, manufacture, distribute and deliver any product is complicated and much of the work that has been done is based on averages, which can be misleading. Nonetheless, the information can be useful. I ran across a paper “The American Carbon Foodprint: Understanding
your food’s impact on climate change,” by Mathew Kling, and Ian Hough (2010). The paper was  sponsored by Brighter Planet, Inc., a company whose technology platform calculates the carbon, energy, and resource impact of a variety of real-life emission sources. Brighter Planet sells consulting, but gives away really interesting research including the Carbon Foodprint study.  According to the authors food represents 21% (5.46 metric tonnes CO2e emission) of the typical American’s 26 metric tonne total annual carbon footprint. The actual CO2e emissions associated with your food consumption is dependent on where, how much and what you eat, how the food is grown, transported, processed, prepared and what you do with the leftovers.

The transportation of the food from farm to store was a surprisingly small contributor to the total CO2e emissions embodied in the food. A larger source of CO2e emissions in food are from the delivery of inputs like, fertilizer, water, and animal feed. So that grass fed beef that is pasture raised would have a much smaller CO2e emissions than beef that is feed with remotely sourced grain. (In addition, pasture raised cows are less flatulent than grain fed cows.) Crops grown without irrigation, conservation agriculture and organic agriculture all have different ecological and CO2e emission footprints versus the “conventional agriculture” similar products. One farmer may be more sustainable than another for a variety of reasons. However, most of the food’s transportation related CO2e emissions are from travel to the grocery store and restaurants by the consumer. Personal food-related driving comprise 14% of the average family’s carbon footprint.

It is much more sustainable to eat at home.  The average American eats out at a fast food or full service restaurant about 4.5 times a week, or roughly 20% of the time. The Carbon Foodprint study tells us that restaurants and food service operations consume roughly the same amount of energy as home kitchens producing only 20% of the meals in America– and that's before you consider the carbon impact of traveling to the restaurant. A typical restaurant meal’s CO2e emissions if 3.67 times the CO2e emissions of a meal prepared and eaten at home. Cooking and eating at home is a simple way to reduce your carbon footprint. It is also healthier and saves money.

In addition with some planning and thoughtful actions you can significantly reduce the CO2 emissions associated with your kitchen. The authors tell us that kitchens consume 21% of total household energy and are one of the most energy-intensive rooms in the house. Over 35% of the kitchen energy use is for heating, cooling, and lighting the kitchen itself, with the remainder related to the cooking process and food storage. Refrigeration is the biggest energy hog in the kitchen. On average a refrigerator consumes 30% of all kitchen energy, and emits 650 Kg of CO2e. A modern Energy Star refrigerator performs considerably better than that. Cooking food consumes an average of 293 Kg of CO2e, 14% of the total energy used in a kitchen. Microwaves are the most energy-efficient followed by induction, and traditional burners. Ovens are the least efficient cooking method. Cleaning up and washing dishes uses 14% of kitchen energy. The most energy efficient method to wash dishes is to use a modern Energy Star dishwasher- running it when it is fully loaded.

Recycling, waste reduction and reuse all have an impact on CO2 emissions. Americans discard over 280 billion Kg of garbage each year (excluding recycling and composting) of that trash 29% is food related. The trash is collected and trucked to landfills and accounts for 143 Kg CO2e per person per year that is responsible for 28% of landfill gas emissions each year. In Prince William County about 36% of all trash is recycled and includes packaging and containers, but not food scraps. Knowing how to deliciously use up leftovers will also reduce your carbon footprint.  By simply cooking all your meals at home the average person can reduce their carbon footprint by 1.39 metric tonnes of CO2e a year. Other steps to reduce your carbon footprint further would be: eat more plants, buy unprocessed, whole foods, minimize car trips to the grocery store, use all your leftovers, recycle and compost, buy Energy Star appliances. All of these steps will reduce the per capita carbon emissions further, but will not stop the climate of the earth from changing.  Certainly, anthropogenic activity has been a significant contributor to the 150 parts per million (0.015%) increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the past 113 years. The exact relationship of greenhouse gasses to climate is not fully understood, but if all of the United States (or even mankind) were suddenly wiped off the face of the earth climate change would not stop. Nonetheless, dine at home.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Greenhouse Gas Emissions in U.S. No Longer Matter

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA released the second year of reported greenhouse gas emissions data from large sources, posting it on its website in case you want to view it, but the data is summarized above. The 2011 data was collected through the mandated Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Reporting Program, and includes information reported from facilities that emit large quantities of greenhouse gasses. Greenhouse gases are believed by the EPA to be the primary driver of climate change, and these large facilities account for about half of the greenhouse gas emissions in the nation. While the planet generates greenhouse gases, mankind has vastly increased the generation of greenhouse gases by drilling for and recovering coal, oil and gas from the earth then burning those fuels to generate electricity, power automobiles and manufacture and deliver all the products of our modern life.

The data that was reported to the EPA shows that power plants remain the largest stationary source of greenhouse gas emissions, with 2,221 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (mmtCO2e), roughly one-third of gross U.S. emissions. (The United States has significant woodlands that absorb carbon dioxide and act as a carbon dioxide sink so that net emissions for the U.S. are approximately 1,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide less than CO2e generated.)  The transportation sector which consists of small non-stationary sources is the second largest generator of greenhouse gas emissions, but is not tracked by the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.  Petroleum and natural gas systems were the third largest sector, with emissions of 225 mmtCO2e in 2011. This was the first year this group of generators were required to report. Refineries were the next largest emitting source, with 182 mmtCO2e, slight increase over 2010. The major uses of energy in the United States are heating of residential and commercial buildings (11%), industry (20%), transportation including cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships (27.4%), and electric power generation (40%). Overall, CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 1.7% to an estimated 5,32o million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions net of the carbon sinks that are our vast forests and open lands.  U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide are less than 10% higher than they were in 1990 while the population has grown by 24% over the same period.
US Greenhouse Gas Emissions from EPA

To achieve this reduction the EPA has used regulations that will ensure that total CO2 emissions are reduced over time. In 2012 EPA proposed the first Clean Air Act standard for carbon dioxide. Under the new rule, new power plants will have to emit no more than 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of energy produced. That standard effectively changes the fuel of choice for all future power capacity additions to natural gas, nuclear, or the renewable category (with government subsidies), and EPA has begun action to reduce CO2 emissions from existing plants.  In addition the EPA and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) new millage and emission standards for automobiles and light trucks for model year 2012 through 2025 requiring continued improvement of about a 5% per year in average fuel economy from 2016 when they are required to have at least a 35.5 mpg fleet average for vehicles sold in the U.S. and will have to boost car and light truck fuel economy to an average 56.2 miles per gallon by 2025 significantly reducing the use of fuel.   Passenger cars, light trucks and motorcycles represent 17% of the national greenhouse gas emissions. With the CO2 standard and fuel economy standards the U.S is on track to reduce their CO2 emission in the coming decades, but that will have little if any impact on global CO2 concentrations. Though we remain the nation with the highest CO2 emissions per citizen, we are no longer the nation with the highest total CO2 emissions.

According to the annual report ‘Trends in global CO2 emissions’, released  by the Joint Research Centre and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), global emissions of CO2 reached 34 billion metric tons in 2011. The top emitters of CO2 in 2011 were: China (29%), the United States (16%), the European Union (11%), India (6%), the Russian Federation (5%) and Japan (4%). China, the largest emitter of CO2 increased their emissions the most. China contributed almost three quarters of the global increase, with its emissions rising by 720 million metric tons, or 9.3% to 8,460 million metric tons of CO2, and is now driving global CO2 emissions bringing China within the range of 6 to 19 metric tons of CO2 per capita emissions of the industrialized countries.  It is estimate that China will emit around 10 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2013 entirely negating reductions from all other nations.  There is no interest in reducing CO2 emissions or even stopping emissions growth in China. They are not yet a rich nation and are currently experiencing the coldest winter in 28 years. Though Beijing is becoming aware of the impacts of particulate air pollution, they are far from being concerned about global CO2 emissions. China remains focused on food and growth. 

The climate of the earth is constantly changing on a geological time scale, but the geological record hints that sudden shifts can happen. The controversy over both the science and policy relating to climate change is far from over, but clearly the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and oceans will have significant impact on the ecology of the planet and mankind. Policy mandates to have the United States adopt constraints on fossil fuel energy consumption will have little impact on the global level of CO2, and our CO2 emission and economy no longer appear to be in a growth phase.  However, the earth’s atmosphere is interconnected and worldwide CO2 emissions will continue to grow powered by China and India in the short run. We need now to appropriately respond to the changing planet and prepare to respond to those changes to ensure that mankind survives.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Radon in Your Home

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced by the breakdown of uranium, thorium, radium, and other radioactive elements that naturally occur in granites as well as some metamorphic and sedimentary rocks in soil, rock, and water and is widespread in the United States.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the general population, and estimated to cause about 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year making it the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Like all environmental pollutants, there is some uncertainty about the magnitude of radon health risks. However, because estimates of radon risks are based on studies of cancer in humans (underground miners) we know more about radon risks than risks from most other cancer-causing environmental risks.

Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas derived from the decay of radioactive elements that naturally occur in granites as well as some metamorphic and sedimentary rocks. As radon gas is released from bedrock, it migrates upward through the soil and can seep into the basements of houses and other buildings through dirt floors, cracks in concrete, and floor drains. Radon has a tendency to accumulate in enclosed spaces such as buildings. Although areas of the country where Uranium concentrations are higher are more likely to contain higher radon levels, radon is a house specific issue. Even in an area of low radon potential a house can have elevated radon while neighbors’ houses have low radon levels. Migration and concentration of radon varies considerably, and depends on the amount of radioactive material especially uranium in the bedrock, the moisture levels in the soil, groundwater circulation, and atmospheric pressure. Uranium, thorium, and radium can be highly mobile in groundwater and can move considerable distances and be re-deposited in soils.

Air pressure inside your home is usually lower than pressure in the soil around your home's foundation. Because of this difference in pressure, your home acts like a vacuum, drawing radon in through foundation cracks and other openings. Radon, in its natural state cannot be detected with human senses- you cannot see, taste or smell it. The only way to detect radon is to test. Levels of about 0.4 picocuries per liter, pCi/L, of radon are typically found in the outside air. EPA recommends mitigating radon if the results of one long-term test or the average of two short-term tests show radon levels of 4 pCi/L or higher. According to the EPA, radon levels in most homes can be reduced to 2 pCi/L or below using standard mitigation techniques.  Most people only test their home at purchase, but the It is a good idea to retest your home if you make any changes to the structure and every few years to be sure radon levels remain low. In addition, if a radon mitigation system is installed it is important to monitor the system and retest at least every two years to make sure the system is functioning.

Yellow is low radon potential, orange is moderate radon potential and dark orange is high radon potential from DMME VA
Professional radon testers and mitigation contractors operating in the Commonwealth of Virginia and many other states can be found on the websites of the National Radon Safety Board  and the National Environmental Health Association . Radon contractors are not specifically licensed in Virginia, but many states require radon professionals to be licensed, certified, or registered, and to install radon mitigation systems that meet state requirements. Check with your local building department or the state department of health for the local requirements in your area. In 1986, the Virginia Department of Health, VDH, conducted a survey of 800 homes throughout the state and found that about 12 % had radon levels above the EPA’s recommended action level of 4.pCi/L. It would be reasonable to assume that radon probably is a significant problem in land overlying the regions of uranium deposits in Pittsylvania County and other areas of the Piedmont.

Radon mitigation takes one of two approaches either preventing the radon from entering the home or reducing the radon levels by dilution after the radon has entered the home. There are several techniques that can be used depending on the type of foundation the home has. According to the EPA it is better to prevent radon from entering the home in the first place so I will discuss the preferred methods of prevention. The type of foundation, construction materials and condition will determine the kind of radon reduction system that will work best. Homes are built with some kind of foundation- a basement, slab-on-grade, a crawlspace, or a combination of the three. It is common to have a basement under part of the home and to have a slab-on-grade or crawlspace under the rest of the home. In these situations a combination of radon reduction techniques may be needed to reduce radon levels to below  4 pCi/L.

Soil suction techniques are the preferred method of mitigation and prevents radon from entering your home by drawing the radon from below the home and venting it through a pipe(s) to the air above the home or outside the house where it is diluted by the ambient air. An effective method to reduce radon levels homes with crawl spaces is covering the dirt floor of the crawl space with a high-density plastic sheet. A vent pipe and fan are then installed and used to draw the radon from under the sheet and vent it to the outdoors. This is called sub-membrane suction, and according to the EPA when properly installed is the most effective way to reduce radon levels home with crawlspaces.

In homes with concrete slab foundations or basements, sub-slab depressurization is the most reliable radon reduction method. One or more suction pipes are inserted through the floor slab into the crushed rock or soil underneath the home and a fan is used to draw the radon from under the slab or basement floor to a roof or wall vent. It is possible, and in many cases preferable, to install the suction pipe under the slab by running the pipe on the outside of the house. Another variation is to use the drain tiles or perforated pipe that are installed in modern homes to keep basements dry. Suction on these tiles or pipes can be effective in reducing radon levels. This system is most effective if the drain tiles are on the inside of the footer, sealed beneath the floor and form a complete loop around the foundation of the building. In homes that have sump pumps the sump can be capped so that it can continue to drain water and serve as the location for a radon suction pipe. There are kits that can be purchased for capping the sump pump. It is important that the sump cover lid is readily removable for service of the sump pump.

There are several other techniques such as sealing cracks and passive methods that are often installed in new construction that are not as effective as active depressurization of the slab, basement or crawl space.  As a temporary measure ventilation will reduce the radon levels by introducing more outside air, but it will increase your heating and cooling bills. After a mitigation system is installed do confirmation testing of radon levels before you make the last payment to the contractor to ensure that the mitigation system works. For more information of mitigation approaches and techniques see the EPA’s Consumer's Guide to Radon Reduction .