Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tar Sands - More Than Just a Sticky Issue

Tar sands are composed of sands (ranging from loose to nearly-rock) mixed with clay and saturated with bitumen. Bitumen, or colloquially, tar, is a very dense, viscuous form of petroleum. People and bitumen go way back – all the way back. Since homo sapiens arrived on the global scene, bitumen was used for building construction, waterproofing boats, and more. Even before that, Neanderthals seemed to have used it as a component in their stone tools. Several ancient civilizations used bitumen as a gluing and waterproofing agent for various applications. This should also give you some sense of what a schlep it is to turn this mucky, sticky stuff into smooth liquid fuel.

But before we discuss how we get the oil out of the sand, how did it get there in the first place?

That’s a long story – billions of years long, in fact – but the short version is that when the Pacific Plate crushed up over the North American Plate, forming the Canadian Rockies, the sedimentary rocks composing a great deal of the Alberta plains were buried below. The increased pressure from the overlying mountains and the increased heat from (relative) proximity to the earth’s mantle transformed some of the organic material (specifically the kerogen) in those rocks into light oil and natural gas. The configuration of the regional geology was such that the oil and gas was seeped out and up toward the northeast, and as it reached shallower depths, it was discovered by microrganisms with strange appetites, who we can imagine had a great time as they ate it up and sent it back out as the sticky, icky bitumen we know today, in a process properly described as microbial biodegradation.

Tar sands can be found in several countries around the globe, but there are especially large reserves in Canada, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Of particular significance to the United States are the Alberta tar sands, which lie in the Canadian Boreal forest and contain about two trillion barrels of oil. The Athabasca oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta are the largest deposit in Canada. It conveniently reaches right up to the surface north of Fort McMurray, but the rest is buried about a thousand feet below ground. Thus only twenty percent of the recoverable oil in that deposit can be recovered by surface mining, which. The rest requires in-situ mining techniques, most commonly Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) in which two horizontal wells are drilled into the sands, one atop the other, and then the top one continuously is pumped full of steam, which “melts” the sands enough that they ooze into the lower well and can be pumped out.

As one can imagine, quite a lot of natural gas and water is needed to keep pumping the steam in and the tar out. In fact, every barrel of oil produced uses two to five barrels of water. Furthermore, the process of creating oil from tar sands is “carbon-intensive,” resulting in three times as much greenhouse gas emissions as conventionally produced oil. The land has to be cleared before mining can commence, and though naturally “steps are being taken” to mitigate against the negative effects on local plant and animal life, one has to wonder how much can really be done when taking huge swaths of land tearing away everything above ground and all the topsoil below. Furthermore, the Alberta tar sands are located on a delta used by hundreds of species of birds as a breeding ground.  Not only is the landscape annihilated for mining operations, but tailings ponds (pools of waste) sit on the surface throughout the area, threatening disaster in the event of failure and leakage. Even when all is well, tailings ponds are dangerous to the wildlife who mistake the toxic ponds for normal, safe water features.

Of course, as with anything there are costs and benefits. Although dangerous, deriving oil from the tar sands of course has its positives, too. These are almost entirely economic. For example, the oil industry has hugely improved the Albertan economy, providing jobs and future prospects for expanded production. The United States and Canada each benefit from having this near and fairly secure sources of the oil we still very much need, and of each also has the pleasure and convenience of doing business with its neighbor.

Finally, since Alberta is landlocked, getting the oil from the source to the distributor means building pipelines, which comes with its own additional demands on the environment as well. It’s easy to see why the extension of the Keystone XL pipeline has become an issue as sticky as bitumen.

-Amanda Hudson, Legal Intern

Elevation Zero, Florida’s Rising Sea Level

As a state that prides itself on its pristine shorelines and valuable waterways, Florida has more to lose from a rising sea level than any other state in the United States.  According to the United States Geological Survey, the average elevation in the state of Florida is 100 feet with nearly half of the state close to or at sea level.  Currently, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is reporting the sea level is increasing at about 1.25 inches per decade.  As you can probably tell, this poses a huge problem for Florida if there is any sort of increase in sea level.  A rapid sea level rise could even eliminate some barrier islands that have had a critical place in protecting inland habitats.  The rising sea level would force many of Florida’s species to depart into entirely new ecosystems all across the state and into neighboring regions.

There are two major causes of global sea-level rise: thermal expansion caused by the warming of the oceans, and the loss of land-based ice, such as glaciers and polar ice caps, through increased melting.  The effect of the increase in sea level not only poses a threat to our precious beaches and shorelines, but it also potentially has an enormous effect on the state’s economy.  In 2011, Florida had over 87 million visitors, mostly here to enjoy the white sandy beaches Florida has to offer.  If sea level continues to rise at an exponentially alarming rate, it could devastate what makes Florida famous and what makes Floridians flourish.  According to the US Census, in 2008, 75.7 percent of Florida’s population was living in coastal counties.  Not only do Floridians value the coastline for our tourism industry, but it also plays an essential role for our residents.  Even a small rise in sea level will have side effects far beyond disappearing shorelines, including: flooding during rainstorms, storm surges from hurricanes, and saltwater intrusion into aquifers.  Whether the increase in climate is due to human activity or a natural cycle, a global sea-level rise will not only affect Florida’s natural magnificent beaches, but the communities we have grown to treasure.

-Adam Gruszcynski, Legal Intern

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

We're Running Out of Sand?!

While some beach erosion is caused by natural forces, most erosion is attributed to human contribution caused by construction and repairing of navigation inlets.  Although these inlets provide a high economic value for Florida’s economy, the damage from new construction causes sand to pile up on one side of the jetty but not the other.  This constant maintenance and construction is taking its toll on Florida’s pristine beaches. 

One way to preserve eroded beaches is through beach nourishment.  Beach renourishment projects have become more widespread throughout the country and have become a very important goal for the state of Florida.  According to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, out of Florida’s 825 miles of beaches, roughly 485 miles, or approximately 59% of Florida’s beaches, are experiencing erosion.  In a typical beach nourishment project, sand is collected from an offshore location by a dredge.  A mixture of sand and water is then piped onto the beach. Once the water drains away, bulldozers smooth and adjust the new sand until the beach matches the design profile.

Florida’s beach fill program typically costs around $100 million per year, with the federal government picking up at least half, Florida spending $30 million, and local governments contributing the rest.  But as time passes, money is not the only issue of concern.  Believe it or not, the lack of sand is what is becoming the main problem.  Because of damning rivers and building harbors, less sediment is being replenished offshore.  Miami-Dade County has already felt the effects of disappearing sand by having to borrow from northern Florida counties.  It is reported that Miami-Dade County is officially out of off shore sand.  It is only a matter of time before the nourishment projects cease to exist due to a lack of sand attributed to factors such as rising sea level and constant slamming of strong storms and hurricanes each year.  With future decisions regarding sand and shoreline replacement up in the air, combined with the continuing advances in expanding sea harbors, damning and severe weather, the future of Florida’s immaculate and perfect beaches remain in question for future decades.  

-Adam Gruszcynski, Legal Intern

50 Years of the "Red List"

Who decides what species are endangered, threatened, extinct, prominent, or otherwise? While a number of different organizations are involved in making such determinations for different purposes, there is a gold standard: the Red List. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (“IUCN”) Red List of Threatened Species provides information about the taxonomy, distribution, and conservation information of plants, animals, and fungi with the purpose of determining the relative risk of extinction. The list encompasses three categories: vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered. This year marks its 50th anniversary. This month, over eight hundred species were added to the Red List. So, apart from requiring edits to those species’ Wikipedia pages, what does this mean?

In terms of scientific knowledge, what species of flora and fauna are added to the list in a given year can be telling about what is going on in a given area, and can help further other scientific endeavors. For example, most of the mammals added to the list this month were lemurs, and currently 94% of the lemur population is at risk of extinction according to IUCN criteria. That figure clearly indicates that current activities in Madagascar, the only place where lemurs are found, are destructive to that endemic primate group. Furthermore, the IUCN requires substantial quantities of reliable scientific data about a species for its status to be assessed. The wealth data used in IUCN species assessments is also helpful for other applications, and the Red Lists are frequently cited to in scholarly publications.

In terms of practical repercussions, getting onto the Red List often helps threatened species to find protection. Unlike when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists a species endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, being put on the Red List does not automatically trigger protections or regulations. Technically speaking, the list is really just a list, and does not oblige anyone to take any action. Nevertheless, having an IUCN conservation status is an important starting point for many species’ recovery. Getting listed sends a clear signal that actions needs to be taken; and, generally, the message is well-received, influencing policymakers and organizations worldwide. International organizations, countries, and local communities alike let the Red List guide their policies and decision-making.

One major flaw in the Rest List is that certain types of animals have been hugely favored over others. Mammals, birds, amphibians and reef-forming corals are the only “fully assessed” groups in which all known species have been evaluated at least once. Meanwhile, very few reptile and insect species and only one species of fungus have been evaluated even once. The favoritism of the cute and cuddly, while somewhat understandable, is unfortunate, and it means that the picture of biodiversity painted by Red List statistics is skewed. As such, the organizations relying on the Red List are relying on a skewed representation of global biodiversity. The IUCN is currently seeking to increase the number of species assessments in these underrepresented groups in the coming years.

-Amanda Hudson, Legal Intern

Biological Controls - Fair or Fowl?

A variety of approaches exist to deal with invasive species, and one of the most prominent methods has been to introduce biological controls, or biocontrol. Essentially, this method fights fire with fire by introducing another foreign species to take care of the foreign species that has invaded the local environment. Typically, for example, insects are introduced to control invasive plants. One of the major benefits of biocontrols is that, if effective, it can reduce or eliminate the need for chemical controls like pesticides or herbicides. Quarantine studies are conducted to see whether a potential biocontrol is suitable for the affected habitat, and to determine host specificity – that is, whether the biocontrol will affect only the invasive species and not become invasive itself. Host specificity can be one of the big benefits of biocontrol, in that organisms with specific diets can target invasive species more precisely than chemicals, which often affect an array of plants, animals and qualities within in an ecosystem. One of the major drawbacks to biocontrol, however, is that it is not very reversible. Whereas chemical applications can cease when environmental damage is detected, it’s difficult if not impossible to eradicate a biocontrol species once it has established itself as an invader. Furthermore, host specificity is not an absolute requirement of biocontrol species introduction, and many biocontrol proponents urge the introduction of non-host-specific agents. Serious problems may then arise when species switch hosts, start attacking native plants, or other biocontrol agents.

Biocontrol is widely used, but has had a mixed track record, in some instances proving safe and hugely effective, and in others becoming major boondoggles. An example of a great biocontrol success can be found in the handling of alligatorweed, which by the 1950s had become a huge problem here in Jacksonville, infesting local waterways and wetlands. After various studies, alligatatorweed flea beetles and two other insects were released into affected areas and it worked so well that within three years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completely stopped herbicide application to control the weed.

Sometimes biocontrol agents turn out to be thoroughly mediocre. For instance, the aquatic plant hydrilla remains problematic throughout Florida and no biocontrol efforts have yet proven very effective. Several host-specific insects were identified and introduced to control hydrilla, but each has its drawbacks and have not been up to the task of taking down the weed, which in ideal conditions can grow up to ten inches each day! Some places have been introducing grass carp fish to control hydrilla populations. The grass carp eat even faster than hydrilla can spread, so it has no problem eliminating outbreaks – however, these fish do not feed only on the weed and thus they are prime candidates for becoming invasive, nuisance species themselves! As such, grass carp stocking requires a permit in Florida and generally is only done in smaller lakes and ponds.

On the other side of the coin, the Bufo toad (or Cane toad) is a very good example - or rather, very bad - of biocontrol gone wrong in Florida. Native to Central America, this toad was intentionally introduced to Hawaii, Florida, Australia, and other tropical locations in order to control sugar cane beetles and other pesky insects interfering with sugar production. In Australia, the introduction was a major mistake as it was completely ineffective in combating their beetle problem, and merely became a problem itself. The Bufo has also become a major pest in South Florida, where it has become extremely well-established, since it breeds year-round, will eat almost anything, and thrives in the moist landscape. Unfortunately, the Bufo’s skin secretes a highly toxic fluid that has killed many native animals and domestic pets that attempt to eat the toad, and can also cause skin and eye irritation in humans. Today, the Bufo is well-known and thoroughly hated by South Floridians, and can serve as a hard lesson of the importance of caution in introducing biocontrol agents.

-Amanda Hudson, Legal Intern