Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “We’re not running out of oil. We’re running out of easy oil.” One place where oil is hard (and heavy) is below the Californian ground, where extractors must blast the sludgy petroleum with steam to get it flowing. Most such operations use natural gas to make the steam, but one startup has turned to an unusual partner for oil mining—solar energy—to try to make the business more efficient.
How? Greenhouses full of mirrors.
GlassPoint, a company based in Fremont, California, wants to use solar thermal energy to cook up some steam. Unlike photovoltaic solar, which converts the sun’s radiation directly into electricity, solar thermal projects trap and focus the sun’s heat. Those projects typically involve using the heat to turn turbines and create electricity, but this design is simpler.
GlassPoint’s system is cheaper because it doesn’t need the turbines, and because it has redesigned its mirrors and pipes to pump out steam that’s 250 °C to 300 °C (whereas the steam required to drive turbines must be 350 °C to 400 °C). [Technology Review]
As BP’s oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico week after week last summer, we got accustomed to wildly different estimates for how quickly the oil was leaking and how much entered the gulf. Now, 10 months after the mess began, government and independent scientists have wildly different estimates for how much of the oil remains.
Oceanographer Samantha Joye, speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington this weekend, revealed the findings of her trips to the Gulf to study the seafloor. In December she dove to areas around the site of BP’s well blowout, finding—and photographing—layers of gunky hydrocarbons. The oil was up to inches thick in places.
“Magic microbes consumed maybe 10 percent of the total discharge, the rest of it we don’t know,” Joye said, later adding: “there’s a lot of it out there.” [AP]
To explain how so much oil got down to the seafloor, Joye’s team did an experiment when they got back to the lab. Joye put a dab of oil from the BP well into a vial of water taken from nearby in the Gulf, then watched.
After just one day, naturally occurring microbes in the water began growing on the oil. After a week, the cells formed blobs, held together by spit, that were so heavy they began sinking to the bottom of a jar. Two weeks later, large streamers of microbial slime and cells were evident. Brown dots visible inside the mix were emulsified oil. “This is the mechanism that we propose deposited oil to the [Gulf’s] bottom,” Joye said. [Science News]
Villagers living in Ecuador’s remote rainforests won a victory in one of the longest-running, most complex environmental lawsuits ever this week. A judge in Ecuador awarded $8.6 billion—with the possibility of another $10 billion or so on top of that—to plaintiffs suing Chevron for polluting the Amazon region during decades of energy exploration. But in a turn of events befitting the tangled web of international environmental law and fights over who should pay for pollution, there’s no guarantee the plaintiffs will actually see that money.
Judge Nicolas Zambrano awarded the $8.6 billion to pay for cleanup and for health care for Ecuadorians made sick by the pollution, plus 10 percent of that total added on top as reparations to the Amazon Defense Coalition. If Chevron doesn’t publicly apologize within 15 days of the ruling—and it isn’t going to—the ruling tacks on another $8.6 billion in punitive damages.
The pollution case itself is full of weird twists and turns. The first thing to know about this mess is that “Chevron” didn’t pollute the region—at least, not under that name.
Chevron does not, in fact, operate in Ecuador today; the American company acquired the lawsuit when it bought Texaco in 2001. Texaco started oil exploration activities with Ecuador’s state oil company Petroecuador back in 1964, and for the next three decades, the 47 plaintiffs say, the company contributed to dumping billions of gallons of waste oil in the region, causing loss of livelihood, widespread health problems and up to 1400 deaths. [TIME]
The oil stopped spilling from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead months ago, but the Gulf of Mexico’s environmental saga continues. Researchers have investigated the chemicals used to disperse the oil flow in the first place, and found that these “dispersants” didn’t disperse. The effects of this massive chemistry experiment, however, are still unknown.
“The dispersants got stuck in deep water layers around 3,000 feet [915 meters] and below,” said study leader David Valentine, a microbial geochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara…. “We were seeing it three months after the well had been capped. We found that all of that dispersant added at depth stayed in the deepwater plumes. Not only did it stay, but it didn’t get rapidly biodegraded as many people had predicted.” [National Geographic]
In total, the response team pumped over 800,000 gallons of dispersants into the oil flow; dispersants break down oil into smaller droplets that can degrade more quickly. But the impact of the dispersants themselves has been up for debate. For the new study, scientists tracked the dispersants by following one of its ingredients: dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS).
On Tuesday the U.S. government repealed the six-month ban on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, enacted in May in response to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“We are open for business,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters in a phone call Tuesday afternoon, adding, “We have made, and continue to make, significant progress in reducing the risks associated with deep-water drilling.” [The Washington Post].
The ban was supposed to be lifted on November 30th, but the government lifted it a few weeks early under pressure from Gulf Coast lawmakers. The drilling halt was deeply unpopular in the Gulf states where up to 12,000 jobs were temporarily lost (though some experts number the jobs directly and indirectly lost by the moratorium at around 175,000).
Drilling won’t resume immediately. The Obama administration has issued strict new operating and safety rules, and each offshore rig will need to pass inspection before it can resume work. The first permits allowing drilling will likely be issued before the new year. Says Michael Bromwich, director of the new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement:
“We’ll be inspecting in a very careful and comprehensive way those rigs to make sure they’re compliant with the new rules,” Bromwich said…. “We won’t know [if they're compliant] until we begin to do those inspections.” [The Washington Post].
How to make natural gas? Flush the toilet, and wait three weeks. At least that’s the plan for homes involved in the Didcot Renewable Gas Project, which will be recycling residents’ waste into renewable natural gas, aka “biogas“.
Gearóid Lane, managing director of communities and new energy at British Gas, said: “This renewable gas project is a real milestone in Britain’s energy history, and will help customers and the environment alike. Renewable gas has the potential to make a significant contribution to meeting the UK’s energy needs. Gas from sewage is just one part of a bigger project, which will see us using brewery and food waste and farm slurry to generate gas to heat homes.” [The Guardian]
The renewable gas won’t smell bad or function any differently than the gas already being provided to customers’ homes. This isn’t the first biogas plant in the U.K. or the world, but it is the first facility whose biogas is made directly from human waste and transferred back to those humans’ homes. Most of the other plants run off of agricultural and food waste.
The plant is just a test project, able to provide gas to about 200 homes. But the British government is hopeful that more such projects will help the country reach its goal of 15 percent renewable energy by 2020. Said Martin Baggs, chief executive of the utility company Thames Water:
“Every sewage works in Britain is a potential source of local renewable gas waiting to be put to use.” [BBC News]
Five months later, BP might finally stop up its leaking well for good this week. As of yesterday, drilling crews had about 50 feet of rock left to drill through to complete their “bottom kill” operation.
Federal officials have said it should take about four days to drill the final stretch of the relief well so that it intersects with the original well. From there, it will probably take a few days to pump in mud and cement and perform tests to determine that the well is fully killed. [Los Angeles Times]
Meanwhile, we continue to hear conflicting reports regarding the whereabouts of the leaked oil, and how much of it persists in the Gulf environment. Last week we heard good news from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which said that not only were microbes consuming much of the oil, but they also weren’t depleting the Gulf of Mexico’s oxygen to dangerously low level, which had been feared.
Back in May, when executives from BP, Halliburton, and Transocean were hauled in front of Congress to account for the Gulf of Mexico disaster, it was a merry-go-round of blame. With BP publishing online its own internal investigation into the accident this week, it’s more of the same.
BP’s report is far from the definitive ruling on the blowout’s causes, but it may provide some hint of the company’s legal strategy — spreading the blame among itself, rig owner Transocean, and cement contractor Halliburton — as it faces hundreds of lawsuits and possible criminal charges over the spill. Government investigators and congressional panels are looking into the cause as well. [AP]
BP cites eight different places where the accident of April 20 aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig could have been prevented, but points the finger mostly away from itself. One of those problems, it says, was with the workers on the rig.
An EPA report published Tuesday told residents near Pavillion, Wyoming to avoid drinking and cooking with well water after tests revealed petroleum hydrocarbons and other contaminants in 17 out of 19 wells near the town. Many residents worry that local drilling for natural gas is to blame. The EPA is still investigating.
“EPA has not reached any conclusions about how constituents of concern are occurring in domestic wells,” the report said. [Reuters]
As the agency continues its investigation, it along with other government organizations and the natural gas company EnCana, will provide alternative drinking water sources for affected residents. EnCana volunteered to provide the water, though a company representative told the AP that company’s tie to the contaminated the wells is unclear–since the chemicals appeared in earlier EPA tests, before EnCana’s drilling started in 2005.
Mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, nickel, zinc—they’re all getting into the waters of northern Canada in dangerous amounts because of mining in the oil sands, according to a study coming out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Canada‘s oil sands hold an estimated 13 percent of the proven oil reserves in the world, and the United States grows increasingly reliant upon them to meet our petroleum needs. However, the process of extracting and refining the oil is energy-intensive, and dirty. An industry-led group called Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) oversees the pollution coming from oil sands exploration, and it has maintained that elevated levels of toxins in the nearby Athabasca River system come from natural oil seepage. However, the University of Alberta’s Erin Kelly and David Schindler say in their study that no, it’s the oil exploration that’s increasing the concentration of these elements in the water.