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Archive for February 2012

The poo blog: whale poo could save us

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Nietzsche supposedly remarked that as long as we retain an alimentary tract and need to defecate, we, humanity, will never mistake ourselves for gods.

Thank you mister Nietzsche; I suppose I needed that reminder.

Turns out Nietzsche has got it backwards, though.  If there is life on Earth, at least as we know it, it is because of our ability to defecate.  No shit. If there’s a god somewhere, he or she has a sense of humour.

marine snow in the Gulf of Mexico

It gets even more bizarre when you learn that the solution to most of our problems – global warming, ocean acidification, you name it – lies in making sure there’s enough poo around; whale poo, to be specific.

I’m not making this up.  Follow me, it’s an interesting ride.

About half a billion years ago, there we no animals or land plants because planet Earth, all of it, was covered by a giant ice sheet.  (This really has little to do with the story, but it’s a cool factoid.)

Then the ice melted (blame volcanoes) and the oceans filled up with microscopic algae.  And algae live like all plants do: they grow by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.  A good thing, obviously, since we all breathe oxygen, and pass out if there’s too much carbon dioxide in the air.  And, of course, the planet starts cooking if there’s a lot of carbon dioxide in the air.

The problem is, all these algae end up dying, and whatever carbon they had accumulated in their bodies turns back into carbon dioxide.  And in doing so, they use up all the oxygen they had previously released.  So if algae is the only thing around, there’s no chance for oxygen to accumulate to levels that we need.  This is where shit comes in.

If anything eats the algae, and is larger than, say, bacteria, it poops.  That’s a law of nature. And – here’s the key point – since we’re in the ocean, the poop falls to the bottom of it.  And stays there.  Little happens to it, it doesn’t turn back into carbon dioxide, it doesn’t use up oxygen.  It just accumulates.  And so does the oxygen left behind: it also accumulates, and we now have enough of it to breathe.  All thanks to little critters’ shit.  (Use the words “faecal pellets” when explaining this, and you’ll sound very scholarly.)   In the words of Nick Lane (from his 2002 book Oxygen):

In a clever paper published in Nature in 1995, Graham Logan and his colleagues contradicted Nietzsche, arguing, in effect, that we owe our most god-like qualities, indeed our very existence, to the primal need for defecation.  Faecal pellets from the first large animals, they say, cleansed the oceans, paving the way for the Cambrian explosion.  Few theories of environmental change in the terminal Precambrian are quite so down to earth (or at least, seafloor).

This phenomenon continues to this day, and has been given the poetic name of “marine snow”.  (Maybe as in “yellow snow”, the kind your mom told you not to eat.)  What happens to it is more complicated than I let on; for instance, it is the main source of food for the strange creatures that live in the very deep ocean.  But the principle of a carbon sink, in the form of a marine snow of faecal pellets, is now well established.  It was even possible to measure how much of it there is, and how fast it sinks, after the Chernobyl explosion; scientists were able to track the progress of the radioactive poop that sank. (That’s what happens when fish eat radioactive food – few develop three eyes, a la The Simpsons; most just poop the radioactivity out.  And, yes, that’s what ocean scientists love to do: follow the trail of radioactive poop.)

If you’ve followed so far, you may be wondering where the whales fit in all this, and why their poo, in particular, matters with all that “marine snow”.  Well, in part, whale poo matters because it’s very liquid, like bad human diarrhoea.  Sorry for the graphic details, but it’s important: whale poo is very dilute, and it floats.  No marine snow from these giants.

It matters because whales get their food from the depths, where there are a lot of micronutrients, like iron.  And this iron can then fertilize the algae via whale poop – because whales poop near the surface.  These micronutrients are precisely what algae need to grow, and they are rare at the surface, where algae live.  Think of pooping whales as fertilizer pumps.

What happens next, you know: the algae get eaten by pooping critters, marine snow is produced, and lots of carbon drop to the bottom of the ocean for good.

sperm whale posing for diver

And the amounts are huge (a shitload orf carbon, if I may).  Just for the sperm whales of southern ocean, Trish Lavery and her co-workers estimate that twenty thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide are removed per year.  To put this in perspective, this is equivalent to the greenhouse gases produced by about 150,000 cars – all gone thanks to little old poop!  Imagine the results if there were many more whales, no longer in danger.  Similar findings apply to humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine.

But whales have to protected.  To recap: no whales, no whale poo.  No whale poo, no fertilizer, no algae.  No algae, no food for small critter, no faecal pellets, no marine snow, no carbon buried at depth. No carbon burial leaves more in the atmosphere, causing climate change.  Just like that, we could lose one of nature’s way to control the climate.

In Star Trek IV, planet Earth is in mortal danger in the 23rd century because whales went extinct.  Trekkies were on to something.

So save the whales, I say, if only for their poo.  In whale poo is salvation (I think that’s a catchy slogan – you?).


Written by enviropaul

February 22, 2012 at 6:12 pm

James Hansen and the three sigmas at the AAAS conference.

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Jim Hansen (of NASA, not of muppets) was in Vancouver last weekend – and, man, this guy can stir a crowd.

The AAAS conference (that’s the American Association for the Advancement of Science, aka the Big Ass) was in Vancouver – almost unannounced.  I found out by accident, looked up the program (Jim Hansen’s there!); there’s no way I couldn’t go.  Sure enough, I was in for a treat.

Jim Hansen

For the non-science folks, and the non-geek crowd, I need to explain.  Jim is a personal hero of many of us environmentalists.  He was the first one to testify before congress about the dangers of climate change, the first one to call it a catastrophe before a scientific audience (in science, thou shall not use loaded words), and finally the first respected scientist to be arrested at a demonstration (against the Keystone pipeline) – all the while producing ground-breaking, impeccable science.

Hansen’s presence loomed large at the meeting.  Every session I went to, or nearly, presenters kept repeating things like “as Jim said yesterday”, or “as we heard Jim say…”  So what did he say?  He said lots of things, of course, many of them before the conference, but a few were new to me.

In particular, he said that some specific weather events can now be described as being caused by climate change.  The standard line that most climate scientists keep to is that “well, we can’t blame this specific drought on climate change; the weather is too variable to tell, but in the balance of probabilities blablablah…”.  You’ve heard all that before, and it always makes science sound wishy-washy.

Not from Hansen.  He pointed at the amazing heat wave, drought, and forest fires that beset Russia in 2010.  He also fingered the unprecedented drought in Texas last summer.  “These were caused by climate change, no doubt about that”, he said.  His test is what he calls the three sigmas.  Both events were three standard deviations (or “sigmas”) from the norm of the twentieth century.  Hansen could be wrong, of course, and the back-to-back droughts could be just sheer bad luck – random events, not a result of climate change.  But his odds of being wrong are one in one thousand.  That’s what the three sigmas mean.  That’s pretty strong odds, if you ask me.

The other thing that Hansen mentioned is the high probability of the oceans rising by a meter in a mere twenty years.  That got people’s attention.  Mind you, he expects that to happen in the last two decades of the twenty-first century, not overnight.  It was interesting to see some of the other climate scientists clearly rattled.  But the problem (despite what you might read in the popular press) is that Hansen has never had to swallow his words.  He has been right, ahead of his colleagues, every time.  So scientists listen, and so should everybody.

There were many fabulous, stimulating sessions at the Big Ass, and I’ll post about some of them in the future.  But I want to keep this post short, and mostly I want to share a link to the plenary session, Science Is Not Enough, here.  Jim Hansen is one of the featured speakers, and a very human, vulnerable, likeable person he can be seen to be (I must confess I was dreading a hectoring, bitter individual – he is nothing like that).  The whole session is well worth watching.  It is entertaining and, despite the potential for being gloomy, is actually very funny.  A lot of the humour comes from Hans Rosling, a veteran of TED talks.  But all of the presentation, serious as the topic may be, is engaging and wonderful, even at 90 minutes.  Be patient, it’s rewarding, like any good show.

The rest of the program and a summary of the key sessions is found here.

Written by enviropaul

February 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm

Energy plan? No, it’s a fire sale.

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Electricity prices in Canada are bound to go up.  At least, that’s the conclusion of a Conference Board report that looks at our infrastructure, from transmission lines to aging power plants.  $347 billion is the estimate (a trifle).

It’s going to be worse in BC, where electricity demand is going to skyrocket, because of industrial projects.  First in line are the projects to export liquefied natural gas; cooling the gas would use about a quarter of all the electricity that we currently generate.  Add to that the electricity planned for some large mining projects, and the outlook becomes ominous.

Ominous?  If you’re an environmentalist, you would think that higher power prices are good, because that encourages energy conservation.

I agree with that – provided that there is a carrot to go with the stick of high prices.  But there is none.  No German style feebates, no (or little) subsidies for efficient appliances, nothing – just a big increase in sight.

This is bad news for BC’s environment.  The expected demand is used to justify the construction of the Site C dam on the Peace River, which will flood out productive farmland, and will probably be invoked to resurrect a bunch of recently canceled run-of-river projects.

The coast near the Kemano plant

And since the LNG projects are in the Rupert-Kitimat area, I expect to hear proposals to bring back Kemano II.  From an efficiency standpoint, it would make sense as the Kemano power plant is located near the proposed LNG plant.  And I also expect that Alcan may be sorely tempted to sell its electricity directly to the LNG plant instead of using it to make aluminum.  That would be a novelty, a mutant form of electrical Dutch Disease.

Add to this the fact that the price of natural gas and oil will increase.  Not just because energy price tend to follow one another, but because we are planning to export these hydrocarbons.  The rationale for building the various pipelines is that we currently can’t sell them to the highest bidder – China.  Of course, once the pipelines start flowing, the prices go up – that’s the law of the market, after all.  Economist Robyn Allen demonstrated that to be the case for the Northern Gateway pipeline, and the same logic applies to the LNG projects.

So let’s get this straight.  We are asked to accept the construction of pipelines across BC, despite their environmental costs.  We are told that risky frakking for natural gas is the way to go, as is building large, costly, and damaging dams.  We are also told that this will increase the price of energy for electricity, gas, and oil – too bad.

We should accept all this because it’s good for Canada, we are told.  Is it?  It is certainly good for the shareholders of the various companies involved.  It is also good for the governments that are addicted to oil and gas revenues – Alberta, to be sure, but also BC.

But it means that we are exporting all our energy resources, leaving the cupboard bare for the future.  We are blindly following the market, looking for the cheap buck.  Or rather, they are – leaving the rest of us to be fleeced and lose our manufacturing jobs in the process.

No wonder Council of Candians’ Ben Parfitt is calling for a national energy plan – and to go slow.  No wonder Emma Gilchrist calls Harper “PM by day, oil executive by night”.  Unfortunately, it’s not funny anymore.

Written by enviropaul

February 14, 2012 at 11:57 am

In praise of poo science

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My friend Diana suggested that I should call my blog “the poo blog”, especially given what my earlier book review (three and a half good books on poo ) was called.  I have to admit, it has a nice ring to it.

And she should know, she is a pro – well, she is a sewage engineer, to be specific.  It’s a surprisingly interesting profession, and it is remarkable that so few people know what actually happens once you flush a toilet – and that so few are interested.  For instance, if a stranger tries to pick her up, asking “and what do you do?” – the very mention of her profession tends to be a conversation stopper.  Then again, saying “oh, I’m into shit” can be effective against unwanted attention.  Hans Selye used to munch on raw garlic when he didn’t feel like answering any more questions.  Whatever works.

The lack of interest is a shame, though, because it is preventing us from seeing the obvious: how we manage our poo can make all the difference between polluting our lakes and oceans, and recycling a resource that provides fertilizers, energy, carbon sequestration, organic matter, you name it.

And there is a fount of trivia about manure, sewage, call it what you want.  Diana recently sent me couple of links worth mentioning.

Toto`s poobike

The energy content of human waste is illustrated by its ability to power things.  Toto, the Japanese toilet maker, has invented a mobile toilet mounted on a motorcycle that is powered by, well, deposits to a toilet.  The article doesn’t rate the performance of the motorcycle in terms of kilometers per bowel movement, unfortunately.  But the intrinsic potential for offering relief during traffic jam is certainly clear.  All joking aside, this neat little contraption is an example of the wasted energy value of what we flush.

The second set of links that Diana sent me (here and here) is somewhat more intriguing and more whimsical.

A bit of background is necessary.  What actually happens after a flush?  Well, at the end of a long pipe is a series of tanks that hold bacteria – many of them.  These bacteria specialize in eating sewage (as the rolling latrine above shows, there’s plenty of energy, aka calories, in sewage), releasing just water and relatively harmless carbon dioxide (yes, it’s a greenhouse gas, but nobody’s perfect – you do too).  The problem is that these bacteria leave behind a sludge (made up of dead bacterias – which is kinda sad when you think of it) and it’s that sludge, which is messy but is a decent fertilizer, that costs money to dispose of.

sewage treatment plant, aka home for happy bacteria

But a sewage treatment plant operator in Germany claims to have found a way to speed up the process – which saved him over 10,000 Euros last year.  His trick?  Play classical music to the bugs (Mozart, to be precise).  According to him, this makes the bugs more efficient, or something, and they produce less sludge.  Maybe they live longer?  Listening to classical music has always been considered healthy, and maybe the bugs have a couple of things to teach us.  And we know that playing classical music to cows makes the produce more milk, and calms down chimpanzees in the zoos.  So they say (they also say that playing rock and roll to the same chimpanzees makes them cranky and agitated, and in the sixties this was held as a proof that classical music was superior to rock.  But I digress).

Neither article attempts to explain how on earth classical music could affect bacteria, who, after all, do not have ears.  Maybe it`s new-agey thingy revealing the cosmic consciousness of all life, including bacteria.  But I would suggest that it may well have to do with the fact that the music is produced by special under water speakers (under sewage speakers, to be exact).  Researchers elsewhere have tested the effects of various sonic frequencies on sludge.  Basically, if you blast dead microbes at the right frequencies, their membranes rupture and their contents dissolve, which is another way to say that they are gone.  Maybe it`s just the speakers, and Def Leppard would be just as effective.  But hey, since this is Germany, let`s go with Mozart (they play the Magic Flute).  It`s so much more romantic and gives a human face to our bacteria.  At any rate, Roland Meinusch, the plant manager hopes to attract a PhD student to look at what`s under all this.

Now, don`t you wish you were a sewage engineer? Fascinating stuff!

Too bad for the poo blog idea, though.  The name is already taken, and by someone obsessed with his own bowel movements.  What a lack of imagination!   And to think that there are more poo trivia in heaven and earth than exist in your philosophy…

Written by enviropaul

February 9, 2012 at 10:08 pm

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On the pipeline front

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Pipeline ruptures and media leaks

Wow, pipeline news have been coming fast and furious in the last few weeks.  In case you’ve been out of the country, here’s the scoop:  there are plans to build a pipeline (Enbridge’s Northern Gateway) from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat.  This plan is encountering some opposition and a fair bit of media attention.  There are also plans to build a second pipeline (the Kinder Morgan project) from the same tar sands to Burrard Inlet in Vancouver.  This second project is garnering little attention.  Finally, there are also plans for several gas pipelines to bring Alberta and BC’s Peace area natural gas to the coast.  All of this requires, aside from the pipelines, new deep water harbour facilities and, in the case of the gas pipelines, works to cool and liquefy the natural gas.

The opposition to the pipelines for environmental grounds is simple, and repeats what has been said about the now-defunct Keystone pipeline through the US: the consequences of a spill are enormous, and a spill is bound to happen sooner or later (Enbridge has leaked 132,000 barrels in 610 separate spills to date; see here).  Also, building the pipelines further ties our economy to fossil fuel development, a sure way to worsen climate change.

But the recent avalanche of news has come mostly on the economic and social fronts, particularly regarding the Enbridge project.  Enbridge proponents would love to portray the debate as an environment v economy situation, where the economy is bound to prevail.  They couldn’t have expected economic commentators to come down on them as they did this week.

First, Emma Gilchrist comes swinging with a punchy op-ed piece outlining why shipping oil to Asia is not in Canada’s interest.  It’s worth repeating her five points: protecting BC’s coast means protecting BC’s coastal jobs (45,000 of them in fisheries and tourism related industry, against 560 created by Enbridge); the pipeline would worsen Canada’s Dutch disease; exporting raw bitumen is exporting Canadian jobs; it undermines Canadian energy security, since half of Canada (the eastern half) is reliant on imported oil; and it dissipates an asset that will only increase in value.

The Canadian jobs part of her argument comes from a position paper of the Alberta Federation of Labour, which represents 145,000 workers.  In their estimate the export of raw bitumen would be tantamount of exporting up to 50,000 high quality jobs overseas.  Their submission can be found here.   The Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union of Canada (130,000 workers) have also stated their opposition.

Then came the paper submitted by economist Robyn Allan to the review panel (found here – follow the links).  Journalists Andrew Nikiforuk and Stephen Hume nicely summarized the key point (here and here): accessing the Asian markets enables the oil companies to sell their oil at a higher price.  While this is good for the companies, it would increase the cost of oil in Canada, creating inflation and putting the brakes on the economy.  This is hardly a desirable outcome for the country as a whole.

What is true for Enbridge is also true for Kinder Morgan.  Earlier this week, the Chevron refinery in Burnaby stated its concerns that it may have to cease operation if Kinder Morgan sells its oil at the premium price commanded in the Asian markets – markets that the twinning of the pipeline would enable Kinder Morgan to access.

This, of course, raises the question of energy security.  Why are we in such a rush to dissipate our energy resources? It’s not as if the markets risk disappearing tomorrow.  Even during the economic downturn of recent years, the price of oil has hardly dropped, and in fact is on an upward trend.  Writers as diverse as journalist Eric Reguly, economist Jeff Rubin, scientists James Murray and David King, and research director Thomas Homer-Dixon all point out that cheap oil is a thing of the past (see their articles here, here, here and here).  Which means that a prudent portfolio manager, just as much as an energy security consultant, would advise to keep much of the resource in the ground while it appreciates in value, and retain a strategic asset likely to be needed in the future.

In fact, several nations are already reconsidering the exports of fossil fuels.  Even tiny Myanmar announced this month that it was suspending its exports of natural gas to China – in order to keep and use the resource at home.  Shouldn’t Canada pay attention?  Terry Glavin penned a scathing criticism of our government’s push to sell everything in a hurry in two articles in the National Post, of all places.

Instead of being prudent, we are embarking on huge and costly export development projects such as the new BC energy plan announced this weekend.  Up to three LNG facilities are to be built to export our natural to Asia.  This is likely to increase the price of natural gas at home, but also, ironically, the price of electricity.  Liquefying natural gas requires a huge amount of electrical energy; accordingly, the energy plan no longer requires BC Hydro to be fully self-sufficient.  The irony is that we risk electricity shortages, or the purchase of dirty, coal-fired electricity, in order to export gas out of the country.  This hardly seems prudent in the long run.

And what about the damage to our social values?  Andrew Nikiforuk points out (here) that oil wealth is “fouling our character” and eroding our democracy.  Oil wealth must be distributed equally across society, and most of the times it isn’t.  Examples abound; I like these two (here and here) that show how oil brought nothing but misery to places as diverse as Uganda and the Hobbema reservation in Alberta.

Instead, natural resources minister Joe Oliver labels pipeline critics “enemies of Canada” – hardly a demonstration of democratic values – and threatens to overhaul the environmental review process to expedite approval.  The panel’s objectivity is put under question. More worrisome, the government bullies environmental and social NGOs and threatens to withdraw charitable organisation status to those who voice criticism, as witness by Andrew Frank in his affidavit.   (Andrew’s blog is well worth following for developments on the Enbridge story.)

Most notorious has been the relations of the pipeline companies with First Nations.  The mixture of arrogance, threats, and divisive monetary offers has had the unprecedented result to completely unite the affected First Nations against the Enbridge project.  Possibly worse, the nations affected by the Kinder Morgan project have complained about a complete lack of consultation.  The whole pipeline fiasco is souring the relations between the federal government and First Nations.

And, of course, what goes around comes around.  Absent social justice, groups that feel slighted take matters in their own hands.  From Nigeria to Palestine to Mexico, disenfranchised or oppressed groups use pipelines as handy targets for sabotage – with the inevitable environmental consequences.

protest march in Prince Rupert

But there are plenty of reasons for optimism.  Just yesterday over a thousand people marched in Prince Rupert, and similar protests and other activities are organised everywhere.  I’ll just mention three.

Andrew Frank has created a “causes” group, asking Canadians to join him in asking for the truth from our government.  The Wilderness Committee is organizing a letter-writing event against the Kinder Morgan project on Wednesday, February 8th, 2 to 8 pm at the Rhizome café (317 East Broadway Vancouver), with the support of Sierra Club and other groups.  And Kwantlen’s own SAFE (our environmental club) has invited MP Nathan Cullen to speak about the Enbridge pipeline on Tuesday, February 14, 4 pm, in room 1205C of the Cedar Building, Surrey Campus (12666 72nd Avenue) – nothing like getting all fired up before a Valentine date!

Written by enviropaul

February 5, 2012 at 10:01 am