Archive for June 7th, 2014

Harness Methane—5-2014

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

For years I had heard about a mysterious source of power here in La Plata County. This month I had the chance to see it for myself.
Perhaps you have heard the term “San Juan Basin”. It is not a river basin, but rather a geological formation that is rich in oil and gas. Durango sits close to the Basin’s north edge. Shaped like an irregular bowl, communities near its borders also include Cortez, Shiprock, Gallup, Cuba and Pagosa Springs. The edges of the Basin are close to the surface, but it is thousands of feet deep in the middle.
Much of our county’s wealth is thanks to the gas that is found in coal seams in this formation. Fortunately the coal here gives up its natural gas (primarily methane) easily. In other areas and other strata the rock has to be fractured (“fracked”) to produce enough gas to be profitable. That is another, concerning story, but this is a happy one.
The coal seams come to the surface at the edge of the Basin; this is called an “outcrop”. In some places this is pretty obvious—even to me who knows almost nothing about geology. Unfortunately, where the coal daylights there are often appreciable emissions of methane. You cannot smell it, but where it is emitted under water you can see bubbles. If methane collects in a confined space, such as a home built on the outcrop, it can cause an explosion.
Not only is this a fire hazard, but also methane is a greenhouse gas (GHG). Indeed, it has a much stronger effect than CO2, the GHG that gets the most attention. Depending how you measure methane’s effect—long term or short term, by mass or by volume—it is 20 to 70 times as destructive as CO2. The world’s best scientists acknowledge that the climate change that the world is experiencing is due to GHGs, especially CO2 and methane. We should do whatever we can do to decrease methane emissions.
Another problem with methane is that it inhibits the growth of plants where a large quantity escapes to the surface. Indeed, aerial surveys are used to spot methane seeps because you can spot where trees are stressed or dead due to the gas. Often the soil is bare in those areas.
What can be done to limit the escape of methane from the coal bed, and can this gas be put to good use? An experiment was started right here in La Plata County in the early 1990s. With funding from BP and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), land was bought where there was a high-output seep. The earth was dug up, perforated pipe laid and covered with sheet plastic, then this was covered with native soil. Pipes lead the gas to a shed where it is used to run a turbine that then turns a generator. The electricity is then fed into a power line. Our electrical coop buys this power, and says that it improves the quality of the service to the neighbors.
It is easy to see the areas where methane was being captured. Healthy green grass grew there, but it was obvious where the methane was not being collected. The ground was bare where the gas still bubbled through the soil.
This system is a win-win proposition: dodgy methane is captured and put to good use. Unfortunately it doesn’t pay for itself yet. It cost $350,000 to establish and it costs more to run than the value of the power it produces. Thanks to BP it is still operating, however.
I am pleased that BP and COGCC chose our county to build this experimental unit. It is the first to use this technology in the world! The unit is win-win-win: it keeps methane out of the atmosphere, it generates electricity and it improves the soil. Its only problem is that it is expensive to run.
Independently, the Southern Ute Tribe is experimenting with a different technology to attain similar goals. They use a series of shallow gas wells close together where a lot of methane is emerging from the outcrop. This has the advantage that the natural gas can be collected and sold along with gas from other wells.
We live in a beautiful, geologically exciting area. Our natural resources are usually blessings, but can also pose problems. Fortunately people with imagination and skill at times can turn liabilities into assets.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2014

Thank Heaven for Pope Francis—4-2014

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

Roman Catholic nuns and priests were a substantial proportion of the populace in past centuries. Their celibacy acted to slow population growth.
Starting in the 12th century priests and nuns had to take vows of chastity in order to be considered pure. For some, however, abstinence is a goal that is difficult to achieve.
Today there are far fewer nuns and priests. Many places have imported clergy from other countries, and some churches have shut their doors due to lack of a priest. This decrease in clergy has increased population growth, although probably only slightly. There is a more important factor.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his landmark encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (“Human Life”), which reemphasized the Church’s constant teaching that it is intrinsically wrong to use contraception to prevent new human beings from coming into existence. In many parts of the world this is largely ignored. Catholic women in the USA and most western European countries use artificial birth control about as often as Protestant women.
In poorer parts of the world, where most Catholics live, people are more obedient to Church doctrine; as a consequence their birth rate is much higher. Since Roman Catholicism is one of the most numerous world religions (numbering about 1.2 billion adherents), avoidance of the most effective family planning methods leads to many unwanted pregnancies and high growth rates.
The Philippines provides a good example. Women there bear an average of more than 3 children, while the average for all of Southeast Asia is just 2.4. The country boasts that it is the only Christian country in Asia, and over 80% Filipinos are Catholic. The Church has a strong hold on politics: abortion is essentially totally outlawed—but common, nonetheless. The Church opposes the Filipino Reproductive Health Law because it would increase the availability of contraception, even though it stands to prevent hundreds of pregnancy-related deaths. Fortunately the Filipino Supreme Court just approved the Law earlier this month despite strong pressure from the Church. Although currently fewer than 40% of Filipino women use a reliable, modern method of contraception, the Law will make birth control available to all.
The following appeared last month in the British “Catholic Herald”: ‘Responding to the question of whether the Church should revisit the issue of birth control, Pope Francis replied: “It all depends on how the text of Humanae Vitae is interpreted. Paul VI himself, towards the end, recommended that confessors show great kindness and attention to specific situations.
“His genius proved prophetic: he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a ‘brake’ on the culture, to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism. The question is not that of changing doctrine, but to go into the depths, and ensuring that pastoral [efforts] take into account people’s situations, and that, which it is possible for people to do.”’
(I do not agree with the comment about neo-Malthusianism, but will not debate that here.)
Francis did something that no other Pope has done before—survey his flock. The Global Survey of Roman Catholics asked 12,000 people in 12 countries throughout the world a variety of questions. It is not surprising that his ratings were extremely high—Catholics and non-Catholics alike appreciate him.
There is discontent among his flock, however. Quoting the first point under the heading “Findings” in the executive summary:
“An Alarming Trend for the Vatican
The majority of Catholics worldwide disagree with Catholic doctrine on divorce, abortion, and contraceptives. Additionally, the majority of Catholics in Europe, Latin America and the United States disagree with established doctrine on the marriage of priests as well as on women entering the priesthood. Taken together, these findings suggest an extraordinary disconnect between the church’s basic teachings on the fundamental issues of family and pastoral responsibilities and the viewpoints currently held by many of the world’s more than 1 Billion Catholics. Perhaps more alarming, are the generational divides found in the analysis of the data which show that younger Catholics are even more likely to hold views contrary to church teachings than Catholics as a whole.”
Pope Francis’ openness, modesty and integrity are a breath of fresh air. He is following in the footsteps of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi—the patron saint of ecology. Let us hope that Francis will recognize that the press of the growing human population not only harms humans but also damages Creation, and that Pope Francis will allow more of his flock to use effective contraception.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2014

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.