Regs not the problem for oil business


The incoming Trump administration and the oil and gas industry like to talk about the burdens of environmental red tape. But in Deloitte’s “reality check” of the top six issues facing the oil and gas industry in 2015, regulatory burden is absent. These are mostly big companies for whom compliance is a part of doing business and a manageable cost of operations. The entrepreneurs running wildcat operations aren’t strangers to this side of the ledger, either. And keep in mind that these companies, averaged over time (it’s a cyclical business, the world’s largest industry) make money hand over fist and can afford to do their part in minimizing the environmental impacts. For every Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL, there are hundreds of projects that go forward unhindered.

Industry-bought statements by the likes of the American Petroleum Institute in the wake of the joint U.S.-Canadian protection of thousands of square miles of seas from offshore drilling that talk about the importance of these places for energy security – they’re a joke. Arctic offshore today accounts for about 0.025 percent of U.S. crude production. The Gulf of Mexico offshore produces 23 percent of all U.S. crude and basically all of the offshore production.

We won’t need it long-term, either. Electrification of the vehicle fleet will drive down domestic demand, meaning less oil will satisfy it over time, obviating the need to drill sensitive areas that threaten tourism and the environment (not even getting into global warming here).

Shell abandoned its drilling plans in the Arctic, where an oil spill would be catastrophic: imaging trying to clean up after a Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, but in 40 mph winds at minus-20, with no local fishing fleets or anyone else to help out (caribou being notoriously lazy). The industry would have to self-fund the entire cleanup infrastructure, even if they found a bonanza of oil, which Shell at least didn’t.

Exxon Mobil had a “rough” year in 2016, its net incoming falling by about half – still, it made $16 billion on $260 billion in sales. God knows what their regulatory costs were, showing up in various accounting buckets all over the world. But this company’s – and most oil companies’ – profits hinge not on the relatively minor costs of doing their part in keeping the planet more livable, but on the whims of global oil production and demand.

My solar panels save their volume in coal every year

Stack of solar panels in a garage

Solar panels tend to generate substantially less electricity when in garages.

Given the success of the global climate talks in Paris, it’s time to post a hyper-local piece on our household’s greatest carbon-mitigation endeavor: our solar panels.

Specifically, I got a wild hair to compare the volume occupied by the stack of solar panels to the volume of the coal that wasn’t incinerated thanks to their non-garage-based efforts over the past five-plus years.

I can do this because, thanks to a wicked hailstorm in June, we needed a new roof, which in turn meant our solar panels had to come off temporarily. They’ve been off since late October now, collecting very little sunlight where I’d typically park in our two-car garage (Denver’s roof inspectors face a crazy backlog, which today’s ten inches of snow is not helping). But this allowed me to actually measure this block of solar panels and, out of curiosity, figure out how much coal they’ve spared.

Solar panels in garage

A garage is not known as an appropriate natural habitat for solar panels.

Our east-southeast-facing, 2.86 kilowatt system (thirteen 220-watt REC Solar modules) generated 20,597 kilowatt hours of electricity from the time it went live on July 21, 2010 through their removal on Oct. 14, 2015.

Local utility Xcel Energy’s 2014 fuel mix in Colorado was as follows:

18.90% wind
1.20% solar
1.70% hydro
0.00% biomass
52.70% coal
25.30% natural gas

Note wind number — big. Solar is way up from just a few years ago, too, but still a rounding error.

Focusing on coal, multiplying the kilowatt hours the panels generated by the percentage of coal in Xcel’s Colorado energy mix, the panels displaced 10,855 kilowatt hours of coal-fired electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that it takes about 1.05 pounds of coal to generate one kilowatt hour of electricity, so that’s 11,374 pounds/5,170 kilograms/2.58 metric tons. (Note that, assuming coal is almost all carbon, burning it would amount to about 3.6 times that weight in carbon dioxide, thanks to the two Os hooking up with each of those liberated Cs).

Five cubic yards, in dirt form

Five cubic yards, in dirt form (courtesy Guins Yard)

Assuming 337 cubic centimeters of bituminous coal per pound (trust me), we get 135.4 cubic feet, or, thankfully, almost precisely 5 cubic yards of coal that wasn’t burned.

The panels themselves, stacked and parked in the garage, consume 1.07 cubic yards.

So: the panels have saved four times their volume in coal over their lifetime. They will, assuming they don’t degrade too much over their 20-year lifespan and that Xcel doesn’t continue to cut back on coal (this assumption, I hope, proves false) obviate their volume in burned coal — a cubic yard — every year they silently produce. That does’t count the roughly 10,000 cubic feet of natural gas they aren’t burning every year.

So good on ya, solar panels. And get on back up to the roof so I don’t have to keep scraping snow and ice from the car in the morning.

A couple of final notes:

  • I’m not sure if the EIA’s coal-to-electricity calculations include transmission and distribution losses or not. Looks like it accounts for about 6 percent of actual power generation in the United States, according to the World Bank.
  • The solar panels are not actually ours: they belong to Sunrun, which we pay $39 a month. This doesn’t count the $2,800 that vanished pretty much immediately after Sunrun’s IPO cratered from the $14-a-share at which we pre-IPO customers were so kindly offered to invest to the $7 range after hitting the NASDAQ (it has since rebounded somewhat). I find this a curious approach to building customer satisfaction, but the service itself has been great, and I still very much recommend them as a solar provider (just maybe not as an investment vehicle, but who knows).
  • Because Sunrun took ownership of the RECs (renewable energy credits) up front and most surely sold them to a utility who most likely used them as an excuse not to install renewable-energy capacity equal to that of our panels’ generation, it’s not clear that we technically saved any coal at all. (Because, the argument goes, had the utility not bought the RECs, it would have had to install its own renewable energy. But that’s a glass-half-empty view, isn’t it?)

AVs Drive Themselves Straight into a Service Model

Google AV

Google’s driverless, autonomous vehicles portend a radical chance in how we get around. (courtesy Google)

AVs (not audiovisual, but rather autonomous vehicles) are poised to change the developed world. It seems that about everyone who looks at transportation comes to the same conclusion. It takes a bit of explaining as to why, and a recent piece I wrote for Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solutions Journal takes a shot at. RMI is launching an AV-focused research group, led by longtime GM research executive Jerry Weiland. Weiland and colleagues the first to admit they’re not the only ones thinking about the implications of self-driving cars. But RMI’s involvement brings heavyweight intellect and a long track record in working with government and business to the party.

It’s one of those stories that was rewritten pretty heavily but came out just as well (freelance writers learn not to take these things personally). I had originally led with:

Perhaps discussions of lightweighting, electrifying and autonomizing vehicles doesn’t quite get your blood pumping. Maybe, to you, the notion of a deeply networked, multimodal mobility infrastructure optimized to move people with great efficiency, striking economy and minimal environmental footprint smacks too much of transpo-geekery.

Fine. How about the idea of slashing your annual driving costs by about 75 percent sound, then? With combined U.S. savings of a trillion dollars a year?

That’s a serious number, and it’s the bottom line of RMI’s latest transportation initiative, one riding a wave of academic and commercial recognition that our century-old, car-and-truck centric mobility system is about to be disrupted in a big way.

Where do the trillion bucks come from? We in the United States spend $1.2 trillion a year – 20 percent of our incomes, on average – for the privilege of paying 56 cents a mile to drive our personally owned, isolated, gas-powered vehicles, which the RMI team calls PIGs. (That’s not even counting the $2 trillion or so annually that pollution, sitting in traffic, roads and parking lots, and traffic accidents cost us). The idea is to shift to fleets of shared, electrified, automated, lightweight vehicles (SEALs), which would, if deployed broadly over the next 20 to 30 years, provide the same or better mobility benefits as PIGS for just 15 cents a mile, or a total of about $200 billion, the RMI team calculates. It all depends on cars going from being personal property to being fleet-based elements of networked, shared, multimodal mobility services.

When I wrote it, I was pretty sure “transpo-geekery” wouldn’t survive an editorial gauntlet of transpo-geeks. But I figured you, intelligent laypeople, and not transpo-geeks, were the true audience. And why not have a little fun?

The only line I’d like them to have kept is this: AVs drive themselves straight into a service model. To understand what I’m talking about, you’ll have to read the story.

Denver Storm of June 24, 2015: Tornado in Lowry



Sixth Avenue and roughly Trenton St., at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sixth Avenue and roughly Trenton St., at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 25, 2015

I was going to get up and work on something entirely different, but my dusty Daily Camera reportorial instincts got the better of me and, at about 6:30 a.m., I took to the streets of our east Denver’s Lowry neighborhood to survey the destruction.

There was a reputed tornado, though the National Weather Service remained dubious as of this (6/25) morning. Former reporters with 45 minutes to spare and an easy post-disaster commute (I rode around the 1990 Specialized Hard Rock) can’t resist these sorts of opportunities. So I fed the bullying puggle and  set forth on NewsBike 7773.

I will now post another disaster picture to keep you interested. There are many more, but you’ll have to either read on or, for those in hurry, scroll down.

These folks lost about all of their trees.

These folks lost about all of their trees.

Now, some background on this storm. First, this was no hurricane, no murderous Oklahoma tornado atomizing a mile-wide swath of civilization. Denver is too close to the mountains for true, wicked-crazy tornados to develop – the storm cells that produce them haven’t quite had the time to get their shit together (a meteorological term. Look it up.).

But we to get some wild T-storms, and as a result I have become something of a NEXRAD addict. If I’m on my PC, Weather Undergound is the go-to; on the phone, it’s RadarNow! (their exclamation point).

This used to be a trampoline. It was reportedly, for a brief time, on this house's roof.

This used to be a trampoline. It was reportedly, for a brief time, on this house’s roof.

I was not on my PC during this one, but rather in the Costco Warehouse on Havana Street, there to buy a new cordless phone set to replace the one toasted in a lightning strike last Friday (garage door opener, sprinkler-timer box, and Obi200 were also killed). I had noted some clouds off to the west and had packed an umbrella.

I had chosen a nice Panasonic number and bought the requisite raspberries, unsalted nuts, Kind bars and a few other items I had not planned on buying (85 percent of Costco revenues stem from unplanned purchases. Look it up.) when my phone rang. It was my wife, in something of a panic.

On Sixth Avenue just west of Trenton Street.

On Sixth Avenue just west of Trenton Street.

“Have you seen this storm?” she said. She sounded out-of-breath.

No, I said. It’s always sunny, if in a fluorescent way, here in Costco.

She explained that she was out of breath because she’d just run outside to move the 2001 Jetta into the garage, an effort complicated by our garage door opener having been electrocuted last week. The solution involved enlisting our 12-year-old daughter to help Carol open the door. She described rain and hail like in a Weather Channel promo, quarter-sized ice balls hammering the house and shredding leaves and collecting on the patio like malignant snow.

Either that tree really wants in the house or there was a meteorological event.

Either that tree really wants in the house or there was a meteorological event.

I pushed my cart to a point I could see outside. Nearly dark, hammering rain – but no hail here, three miles south. I noted a Costco employee moving a garbage can below drips from the metal roof, the sound of rain now audible.

“I think I’ll wait it out here,” I said.

I was hoping for a doll with a severed head, but settled for a soccer ball.

I was hoping for a doll with a severed head, but settled for a soccer ball.

As I settled onto a leather couch near the open-air seafood freezers, it dawned on me that a gigantic erector-set metal box crammed with millions of untethered items (flat-screen TVs would take off like sailplanes) might not be the optimal shelter during a tornado event. I could be impaled by spears of C batteries. Or smothered by swarms of clothing one is never quite sure is fashionably acceptable or not. Or maybe greased-burned by the salty skins of rotisserie chickens. I would have to ensconce myself amid bags of cheese-caramel Chicago Mix popcorn, which could provide a sort of air-bag buffer as well as vital sustenance.

The nicer houses seemed to get the worst of this one in Lowry, I suspect Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are behind this.

The nicer houses seemed to get the worst of this one in Lowry, I suspect Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are behind this.

I opened RadarNow! to the biggest, baddest storm I’d ever seen over Denver – a bit of green (rain), a lot of yellow (wind and heavy rain) , a whole lot of red (crazy T-storm) and, in the center, a blob of fuchsia, which meant god knows what. The entire city was draped in anger. The fuchsia pixels looked to be right about where we live.

Those are brick columns.

Those are brick columns.

I called Carol back – she was surfing news on her iPad; the girls had headed to the basement.  The crowd of Costco seemed light but stable, and engaged in filling their carts. Some were in raincoats, meaning the consumption imperative had trumped the survival imperative. Evolutionary biology probably has something to say about this.

Fences, adieu.

Fences, adieu.

I waited until it was merely raining and drove home. The girls described the storm scene excitedly. Carol showed me a welt on her thigh – from a single hailstone. I took stock of the shredded vegetation and picked up inch-plus diameter hailstones, which were, for the record, agglomerations of standard hailstones frozen together. The open Royal Crest Dairy cooler on the front porch held two-plus inches of hail-water that had fallen in 35 minutes. The nuggets did a number on our window stripping and screens, and, probably roof. The tomatoes had been reduced to green sticks. But a quarter-mile south… well, the pictures tell that story. And just now a bit ago, from the National Weather Service:

June 24th East Denver/West Aurora EF-1 Tornado

On Wednesday, June 24th between 4:48pm and 5:10 pm, a tornado touched down in east Denver and west Aurora. The tornado first touched down near Quebec and 6th Ave. It then moved east-northeast across the Lowery Campus into the west part of Aurora. The tornado then lifted near Mount Nebo Memorial Park. Based on tree damage there was low end EF1 with wind speeds estimated in the 86-90 mph range. Most of the damage caused by the tornado was in the EF0 range. Some homes had minor roof damage with one former apartment building on the Lowry Campus having some higher end roof damage with estimated wind speeds in the 86-90 mph range. The tornado path length based on damage points was 2.8 miles and the width was less than 50 yards.

Tornado0624 tornado2015-06-24-NWS

And a few more from the house:

A few hailstones (45 minutes after they fell, so diminished)

A few hailstones (45 minutes after they fell, so diminished)

The tomatoes are not quite thriving anymore.

The tomatoes are not quite thriving anymore.

These were, until recently, strawberries.

These were, until recently, strawberries.

Our Royal Crest Daily cooler, keeping very cool.

Our Royal Crest Daily cooler, keeping very cool.

Going deep for far-out life

NAI astrobiology team mid-jump

The Borup Fiord Pass Glacier Astrobiology research team (L to R): Christopher Trivedi, Steve Grasby, Alexis Templeton, Graham Lau, and John Spear. In addition to advancing microbiology, this research team proved that humans can indeed hover. (Courtesy of John Spear).

I do some writing for the Colorado School of Mines, which is really one helluvan institution (while they do pay me to write for them, they didn’t pay me to say this).

Mines, as we in Colorado know it, is best known for… well, guess. Yes, and oil and gas expertise. But they do a ton of other stuff out on their Golden campus. One recent story I did there, published recently in Mines Magazine, had the additional benefit of harking back to one of the first science stories I ever wrote.

Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau

As somewhat of an aside, in about 1993, some friends of mine from Michigan, where I grew up and went to school, flew out to Vail to crash on the floor of a buddy ski-bumming and working as a lift-op. Somewhere up there, I assume in Eagle County, there was a roadside sign marking some sort of Mines infrastructure. We had never heard of the Colorado School of Mines, and one of us said, having honestly muffed the data capture, “What’s the Colorado School of Mimes?” This prompted us to laugh our asses off, U-turn, exit the vehicle and, doing our best Marcel Marceau imitations, pose with the sign. One of us covered the right-edge of the “N” in Mines for ambiguity’s sake. I would post this photo, but I believe it to be lost to history. Probably for the better.

Anyway, in 2005, John Spear was a postdoctoral researcher up at Norman Pace’s microbiology lab at CU, and I was writing a story for the Daily Camera on his discovery of hydrogen-eating bacteria in the hot pools of Yellowstone. While their insistence on a steady supply of scalding, brackish water leaves these bacteria something to be desired as pets, they represent a form of life that needs nothing more than water and a bit of rock to subsist. This has big implications  among people interested in the origins of life.

Well, a decade later nearly to the month, and now long removed from the Camera, I met with  John Spear, now a Mines professor with a thriving lab, once again. It was great, underscoring my generalization that, if you are empathetic toward the tiniest life forms, you do a pretty good job with multicellular sorts, too. He’s helping lead a very cool new NASA Astrobiology Institute project called “Rock Powered Life,” and Mines Magazine’s new editor, Laurie Schmidt, had called out of the blue to see if I’d be interested.

She beat me up a bit in the editorial process, nothing I didn’t deserve, and the lead came out like this:

In February 2005, a research team led by microbiologist John Spear set out to study geothermal ecosystems in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. What they found astonished them: microbial communities in the boiling waters were thriving not on sulfur, as was previously believed, but on hydrogen. The findings, which were published in a cover story of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2005), provided evidence of the first hydrogen-eating microbes ever identified in an Earthly ecosystem. It may seem a minuscule advance, but it was as if an alien visitor had confirmed the existence of giraffes and could now muse about the prevalence of other possible “herbivores.”

The rest is, as previously linked, here.

Should someone from Mimes Magazine call with a story idea, I’ll certainly pretend to listen. But I doubt that the simulated reporting process would be nearly as interesting.