Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Recapturing carbon dioxide from the air

Would-be practitioners of "climate engineering," once called "geoengineering," are stumbling across a minefield of problems. Early investigations assumed the key issue would be finding ways to block sunlight from reaching the lower atmosphere. [1] [2] Reducing solar inputs could retard and possibly reverse warming trends. However, more recent investigations, using weather modeling and weather records after large volcanic eruptions, show that blocking sunlight reduces rainfall. [3] Land areas already at low rainfall could become deserts.

Discovery of major hazards from blocking sunlight sparked renewed interest in recapturing carbon dioxide already released by human activity, a difficult prospect that would face three key challenges:
(1) a very large amount of carbon dioxide to be recaptured
(2) low concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
(3) lack of storage capacity for gaseous carbon dioxide

The total carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere from human activities has been about 800 billion tons since the early 1800s. [4] [5] [6] A large majority came from burning coal. Since 2000, the total has been increasing an average of 2.0 percent per year. [4] Those observations set practical requirements for any proposals to recapture carbon dioxide. A realistic approach must extract and permanently store several hundred billion tons.

Carbon dioxide penetrates some solid materials, including many rubbers and plastics, more than other gases do, making possible separation by a solid, semi-permeable membrane. Other potential membrane separations depend on molecular size differences and porous membranes. [7] Commercial membrane systems for removing carbon dioxide from pressurized gas streams are available. As applied to recapture from the atmosphere, key limitations are the need to compress very large air volumes, the need for a cascade of separation stages because of the low carbon dioxide concentration, and the low permeabilities and flow kinetics of known membranes. Recapture systems using membranes would be enormous, energy-intensive and costly; practical systems have not yet been demonstrated.

Absorption of carbon dioxide by strong alkali is a well known separation technique, widely applied in equipment that maintains sealed environments. It has been demonstrated for recovery of carbon dioxide at atmospheric concentrations, and a closed-cycle process is known. [8] The last process stage is calcining lime at very high temperatures, as used to make cement. It yields concentrated carbon dioxide but takes large amounts of energy, about 2 MWh per ton of carbon dioxide. [9] To recapture the atmospheric inventory of carbon dioxide released by human activities would require a total of about 2 billion GWh. Supplying that energy from fossil fuels would work at cross-purposes. Supplying it from nuclear power would take 5,000 large, 1 GWe reactors about 50 years. Costs would approach US$100 trillion for energy, [10] plus costs of chemical processing steps.

Those and other methods of recapturing carbon dioxide would be useless alone, because there would be no place to put all the carbon dioxide. Even when compressed to a liquid, carbon dioxide occupies about six times the volume of the same amount of carbon as coal. In all the world's mines and wells combined, there is no space for more than a small fraction of the carbon dioxide that human activity has released. Most mines and wells have rock fissures that allow carbon dioxide to seep back to the atmosphere. Permanent storage requires combining carbon dioxide into a stable, solid mineral. While not difficult, most mineralization processes start with a substrate that was made from a carbonate, by driving off carbon dioxide. Obviously that will not do.

Rock formations containing substantial fractions of calcium and magnesium oxides readily combine with carbon dioxide, making carbonates. The formations useful as substrates are geologically young, because when weathered alkaline earth oxides have been consumed. Suitable formations are uncommon and variable in reactivity. [11] Rock formations containing substantial calcium silicate as wollastonite or magnesium silicate as forsterite are also potential substrates. [12] [13] Suitable formations are more common than those containing alkaline earth oxides but are also variable in reactivity. Reaction rates are slower than those of alkaline earth oxides, taking many hours to reach only modest yields.

Silicate carbonation is enhanced when rock substrates are pretreated at very high temperatures and ground to very fine dust. About three-fourths of silicate will then carbonate with a half-hour exposure. The process is energy-intensive; costs have been estimated at about US$70 per ton of carbon dioxide. [14] An unanswered question is emission of carbon dioxide from high-temperature pretreatment. Using the process to store the inventory of carbon dioxide released by human activities, costs would approach US$50 trillion.

Known technologies can recapture carbon dioxide from the air and store it permanently. However, potential costs of applying them to recapture all carbon dioxide released by human activities probably approach US$200 trillion. With total emissions of carbon dioxide increasing at two percent per year, incremental costs to recapture from the atmosphere the current carbon dioxide emissions probably approach US$4 trillion per year. Such an amount could be viewed as remediation of potential environmental damage. It could be raised by taxing carbon dioxide emissions at about US$900 per ton of carbon. That is far more than US$1 to US$50 tax rates factoring in recent political controversies.

Taxing carbon dioxide emissions enough to pay for their recapture from the air and their permanent storage, using those known technologies, would probably raise U.S. retail gasoline prices from about US$3 to about US$6 per gallon. It would probably raise wholesale U.S. prices for coal-fired electricity from about US$.05 to about US$.60 per KWh. Ending further carbon dioxide additions and recapturing all the releases from human activity, carried out over 50 years, would probably cost about 12 percent of the gross world product, estimated from the current level. Less expensive technologies may eventually be developed. For example, carbon dioxide capture from power-plant flue gases is being tested and will probably be less costly. Catalysts that reduce energy consumption have been conjectured, but so far no economically effective catalyst has been found. Substantial improvements are not likely to be found quickly in such longstanding, well known areas of technology.

[1] James E. Hansen and Andrew A. Lacis, Sun and dust versus greenhouse gases, Nature 346:713-719, August 23, 1990.

[2] Edward M. Teller, Lowell Wood and Roderick Hyde, Prospects for physics-based modulation of global change, UCR Livermore National Laboratory Report UCRL-JC-128715, August 15, 1997, available at

[3] Gabriele C. Hegerl and Susan Solomon, Risks of climate engineering, Science 325:955-956, August 21, 2009.

[4] Pieter Tans, Mauna Loa carbon dioxide records, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth Systems Research Laboratory, 2010, available through

[5] D.M. Etheridge, L.P. Steele, R.L. Langenfelds, R.J. Francey, J-M. Barnola and V.I. Morgan, Historical CO2 record derived from ice cores, Australia Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Division of Atmospheric Research, 1998, available at

[6] Kevin E. Trenberth and Lesley Smith, The mass of the atmosphere, Journal of Climate 18(6):864-875, 2005.

[7] Colin A. Scholes, Sandra E. Kentish and Geoff W. Stevens, Carbon dioxide separation through polymeric membrane systems for flue gas applications, Recent Patents on Chemical Engineering 1:52-66, 2008, available at

[8] Gregory V. Lowry, Joshuah Stolaroff and David Keith, CO2 extraction from ambient air using alkali-metal hydroxide solutions, American Chemical Society, Division of Fuel Chemistry Proceedings 49(1):362-363, 2004, available at

[9] Wicky Moffat and M.R.W. Walmsley, Understanding lime calcination kinetics for energy cost reduction, Australian Pulp and Paper Industry Technical Association Proceedings 59:487-494, 2005, available at

[10] Craig A. Severance, Business risks and costs of new nuclear power, Electricity Journal 22(4):112-120, 2009, draft version available at

[11] N. Koukouzas, V. Gemeni and H.J. Ziock, Sequestration of CO2 in magnesium silicates, International Journal of Mineral Processing 93:179-186, 2009, available at

[12] Sebastian Teir, Sanni Eloneva and Ron Zevenhoven, Production of precipitated calcium carbonate from calcium silicates and carbon dioxide, Energy Conversion and Management 46(18):2954-2979, 2005.

[13] George D. Guthrie, Jr., J. William Carey, Deborah Bergfeld, Darrin Byler, Steve Chipera, Hans-Joachim Ziock and Klaus Lackner, Geochemical aspects of the carbonation of magnesium silicates, Los Alamos National Laboratory, National Conference on Carbon Sequestration, Washington D.C., May 14-17, 2001, available at

[14] W.K. O'Connor, D C. Dahlin, G. E. Rush, C. L. Dahlin and W. K. Collins, Carbon dioxide sequestration by direct mineral carbonation, Minerals and Metallurgical Processing 19(2):95-101, 2002.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Disaster by design, the Deepwater Horizon blowout

The April 20, 2010, blowout of an oil and gas well in the Gulf of Mexico, south of the Louisiana coast, created the worst environmental crisis for the United States since the massive dust storms of Great Depression years. Both occurred because of mismanaged natural resources, but otherwise they greatly differed. The Dust Bowl was a result of hundreds of thousands of farmers tilling marginal land without crop rotation, leaving soils vulnerable to severe drought. [1] The well blowout came from a highly concentrated activity, involving a few hundred people attempting to access a high-pressure reservoir, drilling from the high-technology Deepwater Horizon platform in about one mile water depth without adequate margins of safety. [2]

Both disasters might have been prevented by adequate government regulation. In the 1920s, when it would have mattered most, there was hardly any government presence in agriculture other than the field stations set up by states and the federal government to assist with, but not to regulate, crop management. The federal government and many states were in the grip of deeply conservative, even reactionary administrations, firmly opposed to government regulations. Their closest approach had been the federal Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, passed during the Theodore Roosevelt administration and largely aimed at unsanitary meat packing. [3]

The 2010 Gulf of Mexico well blowout came 41 years after a similar disaster, the 1969 well blowout in Santa Barbara Channel, a few miles off the California coast. Shocked by gross pollution of the Pacific coastline, Congress swiftly passed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. [4] It formed a basis of regulation that had become institutionalized in missions of government agencies by the time of the 2010 disaster. Yet like the Pure Food and Drug Act, the National Environmental Policy Act proved susceptible to manipulation and evasion. Regulations created and enforced under it failed to prevent a catastrophe, even though when one occurred the federal government was a progressive administration committed to environmental protection.

The major cause of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico well blowout was quickly assessed, only several days after public release of a well schematic. [5] Dr. Arthur Berman, a Houston petroleum geologist, showed that unsafe design for the Macondo 1 well had left unrestrained areas of bare drillhole, above a high-pressure oil and gas reservoir, connected to the sea floor through an annulus between metal casings. [6] His analysis of the final cementing operation was soon confirmed through a public release of data from the well owner. [7] What had yet to be released at that point were documents showing the faulty design as submitted to and approved by the Minerals Management Service (MMS), an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior set up to supervise offshore oil and gas operations.

As of 2010, MMS had managed federal leases of outer continental shelf lands and supervised their operations for 28 years, under authority of the Federal Oil & Gas Royalty Management Act of 1982. Many responsibilities were created by the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental impact statements for such activities. During several years before the 2010 blowout, MMS had been repeatedly troubled by mismanagement and corruption. In 1998 and subsequent years major blunders occurred. Faulty contracts allowed leaseholders to avoid many billions of dollars in oil and gas royalties, disclosed by the New York Times February 15, 2006. Although the problems were discovered within MMS in 2004, MMS took no action to correct them until the public disclosure, according to the inspector general for the Interior Department. [8]

MMS had long paid cash bonuses to employees for expediting work related to oil and gas development, a key element in creating a corrupt job environment. [9] In 2008 MMS was found by its inspector general to host what he called a "culture of ethical failure." Abuses cited included patronage, inside dealing, kickbacks, revolving door employment and misuse of federal property--extending over a period of at least four years. As a result of the investigation several employees were reassigned, some quit, and at least one was convicted of a felony. [10]

In 2010 the Macondo 1 well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico led reporters to discover that its lease and many other projects in the Gulf of Mexico had been exempted by MMS from environmental reviews. As a result, companies had not been required to prepare and document emergency responses. The Deepwater Horizon platform lacked a fail-safe blowout preventer, and the Macondo 1 well owner lacked salvage equipment. In budget documents MMS had claimed efficiency from using "categorical exclusion" for a "streamlined" form of environmental review. [11] What the agency did was generate a prepackaged deal for companies. A pro-forma environmental review was prepared by and approved within the agency. After companies paid for leases, they were automatically exempted from reviews, and their applications to conduct operations were, quite literally, rubber-stamped.

The Macondo 1 well was mainly regulated under a "multisale EIS" (Environmental Impact Statement) covering 11 Gulf of Mexico leases, prepared by MMS staff in 2007. Its risk analysis finds that over 40 years, "there is a 69-86 percent chance of one or more spills [of] 1,000 barrels [or more] occurring" [page 4-231]. The "multisale EIS" finds substantial risk that a spill of 1,000 or more barrels will pollute many miles of coastline [page 4-234]. It also indicates that pollution can persist for many years [page 4-238]. Thus MMS knew that a disaster in this area was likely and that consequences would probably be widespread and long-lasting. [12]

The exploration plan filed with MMS to drill the Macondo 1 well described a worst-case oil discharge as 300,000 barrels per day, giving a number without saying "barrels." However, MMS instructions for such plans show daily volume in barrels. In less than 12 days such a discharge would exceed the world's worst ocean oil disaster, the 1979 Ixtoc 1 well blowout, also in the Gulf of Mexico. MMS knew the Macondo 1 well had the potential to cause a catastrophe, yet it gave the plan routine approval, letting the owner go ahead without documented procedures for responding to such a radical emergency. [13]

Immediately after the Macondo 1 well blowout the U.S. Coast Guard failed to mount coordinated rescue, control and salvage operations. Years of focusing on terrorism rather than natural and industrial disasters had left it unprepared for such an event. MMS permitted relief wells without requiring any more safety preparation than it had required for the well that blew out. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration distributed a hasty assessment of the crude oil discharge rate that was soon shown to be scientifically faulty, and then it refused to release data and methods. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a hasty decision endorsing untested use of large quantities of dispersants, when environmental evidence showed that similar chemicals had led to long term environmental damage. [14]

Despite contributions to the problems, the Coast Guard and MMS were put in charge of an initial investigation. [15] Outrage over crude oil reaching beaches and marshland and protests over a compromised investigation led to a rapid series of actions: reorganization plans for the MMS, resignation of the MMS director, suspension of all offshore drilling in deep water, new drilling permits and offshore oil and gas leasing, and appointment of a Presidential investigating commission. [16] The U.S. Geological Survey prepared an estimate of the discharge, putting it at 12 to 19 thousand barrels (500 to 800 thousand gallons) of crude oil per day. [17]

Through May, 2010, the Macondo 1 well owner tried a series of maneuvers to trap or plug the oil discharge, without much success. Similar maneuvers had been tried with previous subsea well blowouts, notably the 1979 135F platform, Ixtoc 1 well blowout in the Bay of Campeche off Mexico. Despite the same kinds of attempts, that blowout flowed for 290 days, discharging an estimated 120-200 million gallons of crude oil into the southern Gulf of Mexico, the world's greatest accidental ocean oil disaster so far. [18]

Sometimes such maneuvers succeeded, as with the 1977 Bravo platform, well B14 blowout in the North Sea off Norway. But when reservoir pressure was high and consequent gas flow was strong they failed, as they recently did with the Montara platform, well H1 blowout in the Timor Sea off northwest Australia, which flowed for 70 days. [19] Company and U.S. officials lied, saying the Macondo 1 well blowout was "unprecedented," and success of the maneuvers would be unpredictable. All that was really unprecedented was water depth. There was otherwise substantial experience with similar blowouts, but there was an unprepared industry and a similarly unprepared government. [20]

The blowout preventer (BOP) configured for the Deepwater Horizon platform failed; otherwise the blowout would have been prevented. That failure was also by design, as the U.S. Minerals Management Service has been made fully aware. [21] Current-generation blowout preventers depend on shearing blind rams (SBRs) to cut drill pipe, so as to allow floating platforms like Deepwater Horizon to seal a well, disconnect from it and move away. Current-generation SBRs cannot cut through pipe joints, the enlarged, hardened sections of steel that join segments of drill pipe. About ten percent of the lineal extent of drill pipe is joint. However, BOP rams do not close with a snap. Their hydraulic systems are regulated, and they take most of a minute to close. During that time the force of a blowout is pushing drill pipe upward. As an SBR nears the point of full closure, inevitably an upward-moving pipe joint lodges in it. After trapping the pipe joint, the SBR then cannot cut it.

U.S. government says it will revise offshore oil and gas regulations and agency organizations. However, few if any people working in U.S. government actually know what to do. In the aftermath of the 1969 Santa Barbara disaster laws were written, but then they were often ignored. If the aftermath of the 1979 Bay of Campeche catastrophe, industry developed a slightly improved blowout preventer (in use at the Macondo 1 well), and U.S. government prepared a few internal studies. [22] As a result, MMS knew that existing offshore oil and gas well development was unsafe and knew that neither government nor industry was prepared for a major emergency, but it failed to generate plans, conduct relevant research, arrange for improved equipment and supplies, perform engineering evaluations or coordinate such efforts with companies or other agencies. Decades of opportunity were squandered, leading to another catastrophe.

[1] R. Douglas Hurt, The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History, Burnham, 1981.

[2] Tom Fowler, Experts have their doubts on well's design, Houston Chronicle, May 26, 2010, available at Ian Urbina, Documents show early worries about safety of rig, New York Times, May 30, 2010, available at

[3] James Harvey Young, Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906, Princeton University Press, 1989.

[4] Matthew J. Lindstrom and Zachary A. Smith, The National Environmental Policy Act: Judicial Misconstruction, Legislative Indifference and Executive Neglect, Texas A&M University Press, 2002.

[5] U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, Testimony of Timothy Probert, May 12, 2010, available at

[6] Arthur E. Berman, What caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster? The Oil Drum, May 21, 2010, available at

[7] U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, BP presentation: Deepwater Horizon interim incident investigation, May 24, 2010, available at (19 MB), page 14.

[8] Edmund L. Andrews, U.S. has royalty plan to give windfall to oil companies, New York Times, February 15, 2006, available at Edmund L. Andrews, Oil lease chief knew of error, report asserts, New York Times, January 18, 2007, available at Inspector General, Interior Department, Lack of price thresholds in Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leases, January 2007, available at

[9] Edmund L. Andrews, As profits soar, companies pay U.S. less for gas rights, New York Times, January 24, 2006, available at William Yardley, Arctic drilling proposal advanced amid concern, New York Times, May 20, 2010, available at Juliet Eilperin, U.S. agency overseeing oil drilling ignored warnings of risks, Washington Post, May 25, 2010, available at

[10] Charlie Savage, Sex, drug use and graft cited in Interior Department, New York Times, September 10, 2008, available at Inspector General, Interior Department, OIG investigations of MMS employees, Re: Gregory W. Smith, MMS Oil Marketing Group and Federal Business Solutions contracts, September 9, 2008, available at

[11] Juliet Eilperin, U.S. exempted BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study, Washington Post, May 5, 2010, available at Minerals Management Service, Budget justification and performance information, fiscal year 2010, available at, page 85.

[12] Minerals Management Service, Gulf of Mexico Oil and Gas Lease Sales, 2007-2012, Nos. 204, 205, 206, 207, 208, 210, 213, 215, 216, 218 and 222, Final Environmental Assessment, Volumes 1 and 2, April 2007, available at and

[13] Minerals Management Service, Initial exploration plan, lease OCS-G32306, block 252 Mississippi Canyon area, March 10, 2009, available at (rubber-stamped NOTED-SCHEXNALIDRE). Minerals Management Service, Contents of plan (Appendix A NTL No. 2006-G14 Guidance for MMS-137 OCS Plan Information Form, August 2003), available at

[14] Scott Berinato, Coast Guard, DHS and Deepwater: same ship, different day, CSO Magazine, May 1, 2004, available at Susan Saulny, Finger-pointing, but few answers at hearings on drilling, New York Times, May 12, 2010, available at Ian Urbina, U.S. said to allow drilling without needed permits, New York Times, May 14, 2010, available at Justin Gillis, Scientists fault U.S. response in assessing Gulf oil spill, New York Times, May 20, 2010, available at Lynn Yaris, Caution required for Gulf oil spill clean-up, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, May 4, 2010, available at Jason Dearen and Ray Henry, Associated Press, Chemicals used to fight Gulf of Mexico oil spill a trade-off, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 5, 2010, available at

[15] The White House, President Barack Obama, Administration-wide response to BP spill, May 3, 2010, available at "Secretary Napolitano and Secretary Salazar signed an order establishing the next steps for a joint investigation that is currently underway into the causes of the explosion of the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and the Minerals Management Service (MMS) share jurisdiction for the investigation." Matthew L. Wald, Independent inquiry into oil spill is urged, New York Times, May 15, 2010, available at

[16] John M. Broder and Shaila Dewan, White House to create panel to study Gulf oil spill, New York Times, May 18, 2010, available at Juliet Eilperin and Scott Wilson, Birnbaum 'took fall' after MMS played catch-up after lapses in ethics, oversight, Washington Post, May 29, 2010 available at Debbi Wilgoren and Michael D. Shear, Obama to ban new deepwater oil wells, cancel lease sales off Virginia and Alaska coasts, Washington Post, May 27, 2010, available at Juliet Eilperin and David A. Fahrenthold, Graham, Reilly to lead investigation of oil spill, Washington Post, May 22, 2010, available at The White House, President Barack Obama, Executive order, National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. May 22, 2010, available at

[17] Tom Zeller, Jr., Estimates suggest spill is biggest in U.S. history, New York Times, May 28, 2010, available at Flow Rate Technical Group, U.S. Geological Survey, Flow Rate Group provides preliminary best estimate of oil flowing from BP oil well, May 27, 2010, available at

[18] Energy Resources Co., Ixtoc oil spill assessment, final report, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, March, 1982, available at March Schliefstein, BP's "top kill" process fails, forced officials to attempt yet another strategy, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 30, 2010, available at Jeffrey Kluger, As top kill drags on, BP's credibility problems grow, Time, May 28, 2010, available at,8599,1992627,00.html.

[19] David Prestipino, Cause of western Australia oil spill revealed, Western Australia Today, November 10, 2009, available at Montara Commission of Inquiry, Australia Ministry for Resources and Energy, multiple documents available at

[20] Steven Mufson and Michael D. Shear, Pressure grows for action by BP, Washington Post, May 1, 2010, available at Debbi Wilgoren, Joel Achenbach and Anne E. Kornblut, Gulf Coast oil spill may take months to contain, officials say, Washington Post, May 3, 2010, available at

[21] West Engineering Services, Shear ram capabilities study, Minerals Management Service, September, 2004, available at

[22] PCCI Marine and Environmental Engineering, Oil spill containment, remote sensing and tracking for deepwater blowouts, Minerals Management Service, August, 1999, available at West Engineering Services, Mini shear study, Minerals Management Service, December, 2002, available at West Engineering Services, Evaluation of secondary intervention methods in well control, Minerals Management Service, March, 2003, available at

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Making an energy extraction disaster worse

Extracting energy from natural resources often carries hazards that are not well known. Because of the April, 2010, explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, some hazards of coal mining are once again widely publicized, [1] although coal mine disasters have been common for near two centuries. [2] But other coal mining hazards, including stream disturbance from subsidence, methane discharges, underground fires and the vast destruction of environment from surface mining, remain little known to most of the public. [3]

When disasters occur while extracting energy from natural resources, human errors can make them worse. April of 2010 has been a cruel month. Several incidents during the Macondo 1 well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, including origins of the blowout itself, appear to come from human errors that should have been preventable. [4] Few of the many errors are more vexing than acts of U.S. government agencies trying to respond to that disaster.

Evidence from news reports suggests little or no U.S. Coast Guard planning and coordination for responses to the immense fire. Water, sprayed from several vessels on the fire, entered pontoons of the semi-submersible Deepwater Horizon platform, causing it to capsize and sink after about a day and a half. [5] The huge volumes of natural gas and oil discharges continued to burn at the sea surface, but water sprays were then used to extinguish the fire. As previous ocean oil disasters showed, like the 1979 Ixtoc 1 well blowout in the southern Gulf of Mexico, sea surface fires can burn more than half of blowout discharges, reducing environmental impacts. [6] Through mid-May, 2010, the Coast Guard had provided no detailed public explanation of its actions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued instructions allowing the U.S. Air Force and BP, owner of the Macondo 1 well, to apply hundreds of thousands of gallons of dispersant chemicals, both on the sea surface and on the sea floor in the vicinity of discharges from the Macondo 1 well. [7] Short-term effects of dispersant chemicals on marine environments are only partly known, and long-term effects are often unknown.

There have been controversies over the use of dispersants in ocean oil disasters ever since their first major application, following the 1967 Torrey Canyon disaster off the southwest coast of England. Studies suggest long-term hazards, leaving treated coastal environments more disturbed than environments where no cleanup was attempted. [8] The EPA has had decades to evaluate dispersants, but its research has been meager, leaving the agency unprepared in emergencies to respond on the basis of thorough scientific knowledge. In an apparent attempt to mitigate hazards of dispersants being used for the Macondo 1 well blowout, EPA issued supplementary instructions to BP on May 20, 2010. [9] A simultaneous press release said that EPA intended to require use of "less toxic" chemicals. [10]

EPA maintains short-term acute toxicity information for dispersants. [11] Two marine species are used to rate "50 percent lethal concentration" (LC50) in parts per million for approved dispersants: the inland silverside (Menidia beryllina), an estuary fish, after 96 hours exposure, and the oppossum shrimp (Mysidopsis bahia), also an estuary dweller, after 48 hours exposure. In addition, there are "effectiveness" ratings for two crude oils, "Prudhoe Bay Crude" and "South Louisiana Crude." EPA has published testing procedures for the ratings. [12]

As of mid-May, 2010, the EPA-maintained National Contingency Plan Product Schedule included fifteen dispersant products, three of them under multiple trade names. [13] They are listed here in the order of least toxic to most toxic, by 96-hour exposure LC50 ratings in parts per million for Menidia beryllina:

DispersantToxicity LC50, ppmToxicity LC50, ppmEffectiveness
  ProductMenidia beryllinaMysidopsis bahiaSo. La. Crude
MARE CLEAN 2001996    96-hr938    48-hr84.1%
JD-2000407.00 96-hr90.50 48-hr77.8%
NEOS AB300091.1   96-hr33.0   48-hr89.8%
NOKOMIS 3-AA34.22 96-hr20.16 48-hr65.7%
ZI-40031.76 96-hr20.96 48-hr89.8%
SEA BRAT #430.00 96-hr14.00 48-hr60.6%
NOKOMIS 3-F429.80 96-hr32.20 48-hr64.9%
SAF-RON GOLD29.43 96-hr63.00 48-hr53.8%
COREXIT EC9500A25.20 96-hr32.23 48-hr54.7%
SPILLCLEAN24.30 96-hr10.00 48-hrN/A
COREXIT EC9527A14.57 96-hr24.14 48-hr63.4%
BIODISPERS13.46 96-hr78.90 48-hr63.0%
FINASOL OSR 5211.66 96-hr9.37 48-hr71.6%
DISPERSIT SPC 10003.5   96-hr16.6 48-hr105   %
JD-1091.90 96-hr1.18 48-hr91   %

In the May 20, 2010, EPA instructions to BP the key sentence reads, "...BP shall identify...dispersant products from the National Contingency Plan Product Schedule that...have a toxicity value less than or equal to 23.00 ppm LC50 toxicity value for Menidia or 18.00 ppm LC50 for Mysidopsis...." News reports indicated BP was following EPA instructions literally, [14] saying BP had been using Corexit EC9500A, rated at 96-hour LC50 of 25.2 parts per million for Menidia beryllina, but after the May 20 EPA instructions was ordering Dispersit SPC 1000, rated at 96-hour LC50 of 3.5 parts per million for Menidia beryllina.

EPA has provided no rationale for the specific criteria in its May 20 instructions. Their obvious effect is to allow use of the dispersant products Finasol OSR 52, Dispersit SPC 100 and JD-109. It is not clear whether Spillclean would qualify; it has LC50 for Mysidopsis less than 18 but LC50 for Menidia greater than 23, and it lacks an "effectiveness" rating. It is also not clear whether Corexit EC9527A or Biodispers would qualify; they have LC50 for Menidia less than 23 but LC50 for Mysidopsis greater than 18. The instructions say "or" as to LC50 ratings but have ambiguous grammar.

Well known to environmental workers, "a lower LC50 means the substance is more toxic," such as effects of metal ions in fish ponds. [15] Whoever wrote and whoever approved the May 20 EPA instructions apparently did not know that lower LC50 means higher toxicity. Whoever generated specific criteria for dispersants seems to have been choosing products to endorse rather than applying environmental knowledge. Superior products in EPA listings, on the basis of their LC50 toxicity ratings, include Mare Clean 200 and JD-2000. However, those products would not satisfy the misguided EPA criteria.

Adverse consequences in this situation were avoided. BP cancelled its order for Dispersit SPC 100 and responded to EPA that it could not find a qualifying dispersant "in sufficiently large quantities to be useful at the time of the spill." EPA rescinded the erroneous instructions, saying it would issue new ones. [16] It is likely that someone at BP saw through the mistake and realized its potential to make an energy extraction disaster worse. Major news media never told and therefore most of the public never learned about gross incompetence shown by the government during this incident.

[1] Jerry Markon, David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy, Mine company faulted on safety issues, Washington Post, April 8, 2010, available at

[2] H. B. Humphrey, Historical summary of coal mine explosions in the United States, Bulletin 586, U.S. Bureau of Mines, U.S. Government Printing Office (1960). United States Mine Rescue Association, Historical data on mine disasters in the United States, available at U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, Coal fatalities, 1900-2009, available at

[3] Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, The Effects of Subsidence Resulting from Underground Bituminous Coal Mining on Surface Structures and Features and Water Resources (2005), 25 files, available at Robert R. Seal II, Environmental processes that affect mineral deposits in the eastern United States, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior (1999), available at Evironment: The price of strip mining, Time 97(12), March 22, 1971, available at,9171,904921,00.html. Davie Rennie, How China's scramble for 'black gold' is causing a green disaster, London Telegraph, February 1, 2002, available at

[4] Janet McConnaughey and Holbrook Mohr, Associated Press, Oil rig reported explosion 3 hours before fire, WFMJ, Youngstown, OH, April 22, 2010, available at "James," Deepwater Horizon: A firsthand account, Mark Levin Show, WABC, New York City, April 30, 2010, transcription available at

[5] Campbell Robertson, Search continues after oil rig blast, New York Times, April 22, 2010, available at Russell Gold, Safety device questioned in 2004, Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2010, available at Les Blumenthal, McClatchy, Blowout preventers often fail, report says, Tacoma, WA, News Tribune, May 1, 2010, available at Michael Kunzelman and Richard T. Pienciak, Associated Press, Feds let BP avoid filing blowout plan for Gulf rig, WTOP, May 6, 2010, available at Susan Saulny, Finger-pointing, but few answers at hearings on drilling, New York Times, May 12, 2010, available at Scott Pelley, interviewer, Blowout: The Deepwater Horizon disaster, 60 Minutes, CBS News, May 16, 2010, available at

[6] Energy Resources Co., Ixtoc oil spill assessment, final report, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior (1982), available at

[7] Jason Dearen and Ray Henry, Associated Press, Chemicals used to fight Gulf of Mexico oil spill a trade-off, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 5, 2010, available at Ted Jackovics, Air Force C-130s spray chemical to help break up oil spill, Tampa Tribune, May 10, 2010, available at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Dispersant monitoring and assessment directive for subsurface dispersant application, May 10, 2010, available at

[8] Committee on Effectiveness of Oil Spill Dispersants, Marine Board, National Research Council, Using Oil Spill Dispersants on the Sea, National Academies Press (1989), Appendix B, Torrey Canyon, pp. 317-318, available at Robert J. Fiocco and Alun Lewis, Oil spill dispersants, in Pure and Applied Chemistry 71(1), 1999, special issue on oil spill countermeasures, pp. 27-42, available at

[9] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Dispersant monitoring and assessment directive, Addendum 2, May 20, 2010, available at

[10] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA: BP must use less toxic dispersant, May 20, 2010, available at!OpenDocument.

[11] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, FSOC dispersant pre-approval guidelines and checklist (1995), Table 1, LC50 toxicities and toxicity indices of crude oils for marine organisms, p. A-10.

[12] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Methods for measuring the acute toxicity of effluents and receiving waters to freshwater and marine organisms, at U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Swirling flask dispersant effectiveness test, 40 CFR 300, Appendix C (1997), pp. 224-246, available at

[13] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Contingency Plan Product Schedule, for Category select Dispersant, at

[14] Campbell Robertson and Elisabeth Rosenthal, Agency orders use of a less toxic chemical in Gulf, New York Times, May 21, 2010, available at

[15] Tim Gilbert, Copper in fish ponds, Koi Fish Ponds, Denver, Colorado, at

[16] Paul Purpura, BP can continue using controversial dispersant, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 24, 2010, available at

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Nuclear fallout

Among the biggest nuclear power hazards in the United States have been financial ones. Of 259 orders for nuclear power reactors from 1955 through 2005, 124 were cancelled and 3 terminated for other causes. Making it through to an operating license were 132 reactor orders [1], a success rate of 51 percent. Nuclear fallout continued with early shutdowns of the licensed reactors. Through 2005, 28 had been shut down, leaving 104 in operation. Operating lives of the reactors shut down ranged from less than 1 year to 35 years, all less than the expected 40 years, with an average operating life of 14.1 years [2]. Survival rate to mature operation was 40 percent.

Of the 124 reactor orders cancelled, 15 were under construction. All those abandoned reactors occurred between 1982 and 1988 for construction that started between 1972 and 1977 [3]. Financial losses totalled $22.3 billion at times of abandonment, or $60 billion adjusted to the start of 2010. Following is a list of the abandoned United States nuclear power reactors (reactor name, location, start year, stop year, adjusted loss):

WNP-1Hanford, WA19751982$2.0 billion
WNP-4Hanford, WA19751982$1.4 billion
WNP-5Satsop, WA19771982$1.6 billion
Zimmer 1Moscow, OH19721983$5.5 billion
Cherokee 1Gaffney, SC19761983$1.7 billion
WNP-3Satsop, WA19771983$1.6 billion
Midland 1Midland, MI19731984$4.4 billion
Midland 2Midland, MI19731984$7.6 billion
Marble Hill 1New Washington, IN19771984$4.7 billion
Marble Hill 2New Washington, IN19771984$2.4 billion
Perry 2North Perry, OH19741985$2.7 billion
Bellefonte 1Hollywood, AL19741988$9.3 billion
Bellefonte 2Hollywood, AL19741988$6.2 billion
Seabrook 2Portsmouth, NH19761988$4.9 billion
Watts Bar 2Spring City, TN19771988$4.1 billion

This discussion and the list of abandoned reactors do not count military or research programs, including the Clinch River Breeder Reactor at Oak Ridge, TN, abandoned in 1983 after spending about $1.6 billion in then-current dollars. Nor do they count losses from the 109 power reactors cancelled before construction, which have rarely been reported and never summarized. Those losses may have totalled $100 billion or more in 2010 dollars, based on a Missouri rate increase approved, but never implemented, for an unbuilt reactor [4]. The last reactor order cancellation occurred in 1994, ending a long run of heavy losses for electric utilities.

The period from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s was a wild ride for the nuclear power industry. For a few years around the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 orders surged. Then the industry found new demands for electricity well short of projections. At the same time, federal regulations rapidly tightened safety requirements, a trend that strengthened after the disaster at Three Mile Island 2 in 1979, greatly increasing construction costs. Hyperinflation of the late 1970s further increased costs, as interest rates on construction loans spiraled. When planned in 1971, the Vogtle plant in Georgia was estimated to cost $0.66 billion for four reactors, but when completed in 1989 it actually cost $8.87 billion for two reactors, including financing [5]. Cost escalation per reactor was about a factor of 9, adjusted for inflation.

The U.S. began a second half-century of nuclear power with promises of "third generation" reactors that would be safer, more reliable and more predictable to build and operate. The new reactor designs are supposed to be certified for operation before starting construction, unlike the earlier generations that were certified only on licensing to operate. There are more than twenty orders pending for those reactors. However, risks of failure remain high. As of early 2010 the construction cost for 1,200 MW of nuclear power capacity was estimated at around $7.9 billion [6], while the construction cost for the same coal-fired capacity was estimated at around $4.2 billion [7]. As of 2010, no proposed reactor could be built without a loan guarantee from the federal government. Protracted negotiations were needed to set loan guarantee fees. There also remain liability caps for major disasters (the Price-Anderson Act of 1957) underwritten by the federal government.

Dr. Paul Joskow, an MIT economist, estimated the cost of bulk power from "third generation" commercial nuclear reactors at 6.7 cents per kWh in 2006, based on $2.4 billion in construction costs for 1,200 MW of capacity [8]. In comparison, he estimated costs from 3.8 to 5.2 cents per kWh for power from coal-fired and gas-fired units. Dr. Joskow based his estimates on so-called "overnight" costs of construction, without interest or inflation, but of course reactors cannot be built overnight, so his models include some allowances for cost growth.

In view of the nuclear power industry's history, radically underestimating construction costs and cost growth, it would be prudent to substitute current, fully loaded cost estimates in place of the "overnight" costs, hoping that actual cost escalation will not break the budget of allowances in economic models. At $7.9 billion for 1,200 MW of capacity, the cost for nuclear power in Dr. Joskow's estimates would grow to 17.7 cents per kWh [9].

Recently Dr. John Parsons, an MIT Sloan School economist, showed that published costs for "third generation" nuclear plants use different approaches [10]. Some bundle in transmission upgrades; some include interest; some allow for cost escalation. The variations produce large discrepancies. Dr. Parsons' estimate of the "overnight" cost in 2007 for the power plant in reference [6] works out to $5.7 billion for 1,200 MW of capacity.

Probably more significant than specifics of estimates is a pattern of cost growth. The works of both Dr. Joskow and Dr. Parsons indicate that they trusted a 2002 "base case" of $2.00 a watt for the "overnight" cost of a "third generation" nuclear power plant. As of 2007, Dr. Parsons' estimate became $3.95 a watt, for an average of 5 plants with 10 reactors [10]. Cost estimates from these economists nearly doubled in only 5 years.

Only radical increases in costs of fossil-fuel plants and prices of fossil fuels could compensate for such huge differences between costs of power from nuclear and competing new sources. For the forseeable future, nuclear power looks like a high-risk, high-cost option for the United States, and for that reason it is unlikely to grow rapidly, even with strong support from the federal government.

[1] U.S. Energy Information Agency, History of energy in the United States: Nuclear Energy (2002), available at

[2] U.S. Energy Information Agency, Nuclear generating units 1955-2008 (2009), available at U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Commercial nuclear power reactors formerly licensed to operate (2005), available at

[3] Compiled from public records, Cancelled nuclear units ordered in the United States (2005), available at

[4] U.S. PIRG, A history of action in the public interest, 1980s (2002), available at

[5] U.S. Energy Information Administration, Vogtle nuclear power plant, Georgia (2009), available at

[6] Rob Pavey, Feds back two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, Augusta Chronicle, February 16, 2010, available at (two 1,100 MW units).

[7] Stacey Roberts, Utility's rate-rise request tapered, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 15, 2009, available at (one 600 MW unit).

[8] Paul L. Joskow, Prospects for nuclear power, a U.S. perspective (2006), available at See Comparative Base Load Costs, page 23.

[9] See Craig A. Severance, Business risks and costs of new nuclear power, Electricity Journal 22(4):112-120 (2009), draft version available at Extended analysis in this study predicts bulk cost for nuclear power from "third generation" nuclear reactors of 25-30 cents per kWh.

[10] John E. Parsons, Financing new nuclear generation (2009, updating Future of nuclear power, 2003), available at See Table 4.