A scientist's story: Dan Tormey

“The responsibility of scientists is to communicate — not to advocate, but to present facts,” said Dan Tormey, a geologist who is the president of Santa Monica-based environmental consulting firm Catalyst Environmental Solutions.

That spirit has always guided Tormey’s work. It applies whether he’s analyzing ash from a volcano or water quality for oil engineers, or presenting information to the public. “I try to make facts understandable not just to other scientists but to the general population,” he said.

A hydraulic fracturing project in Inglewood, Calif., is a case in point. The Inglewood oil field is the largest urban oil field in the nation, Tormey noted. “Before hydraulic fracturing was allowed there, studies were needed.”

Tormey, who received doctorates in geology and geochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after studying civil engineering and geology at Stanford University, was the principal investigator for those studies.

His teams measured 15 different resources near the Inglewood site for two years (before, during and after two wells were fractured), addressing areas such as water and air quality, vibration and even local traffic.

Possibly Tormey’s biggest California contribution has been his work on the California Council on Science and Technology’s (CCST) independent report reviewing the safety of wide-scale well stimulation techniques like hydraulic fracturing. The CCST’s peer-reviewed study was submitted to the Governor and California State Legislature last summer. It was commissioned by the California Natural Resources Agency as a result of 2013’s Senate Bill 4. The law required an independent review of well stimulation techniques in order to verify their safety. Some of the report’s main recommendations included disclosure of all chemicals used in well stimulation, and careful recycling or disposal of fluids collected during well stimulation treatments. Tormey was on the steering committee for the report, where his oil-field review experience came in handy. “When we looked at the direct effects of hydraulic fracturing, we concluded that those effects were small and manageable.”

Misperceptions

Dan Tormey worked on an in-depth study of oil- and gas-production techniques like hydraulic fracturing in California. What he found may surprise you.With hydraulic fracturing, he said, citizens typically ask about water pollution. But those risks are much lower than people assume. In Inglewood, the closest groundwater for drinking is tapped more than a mile and a half away from the field, and the field is geologically isolated from that aquifer.

“To address Inglewood residents’ questions, we analyzed the water source for the surrounding area quarterly for two years. There was no change.”

Another incorrect idea he runs into is that oil and gas production is unregulated. But that’s not true: “When you start looking at it, it’s a very heavily regulated industry,” Tormey said. “And that’s healthy: You do want to take a regular look to see if the state of the industry has changed such that the regulations might need to change. At a cocktail party, you’ll hear, ‘Oh those guys, they just do whatever they want.’ Well, no. California actually imposes some of the most stringent environmental regulations on oil and natural gas production in the world.”

A lasting image that is just wrong about the oil and gas industry comes from a film: “The iconic scene of the movie ‘Gasland’ is a guy setting water from his tap on fire. In fact, in that particular scene, the methane had occurred naturally in the water. Even if there’d been no oil and gas development, that gentleman would have been able to set his tap on fire. A place where there’s a lot of oil and natural gas in the ground often has methane in the water.”

Life as a consultant

Dan Tormey worked on an in-depth study of oil- and gas-production techniques like hydraulic fracturing in California. What he found may surprise you.Typically, Tormey’s day might start out in the field and end behind a podium lecturing for the Society of Petroleum Engineers. “It’s a good way to share knowledge,” he said, “and you learn a tremendous amount as a lecturer.”

In between are his ongoing projects advising clients on environmental impacts. “Right now, for example, I’m working with a federal agency to determine the environmental, economic and social impacts of either keeping or removing a coal-fired energy generation plant in the Navajo nation,” he said.

Rivers to volcanoes

“I’ve always enjoyed fieldwork,” Tormey said. That’s where he spends up to a quarter of his time. “I undertake expeditions all over the world to measure environmental effects and provide advice.”

His work in the Andes, for example, often sends him into active volcanic craters to analyze how a volcanic eruption could impact the surrounding communities. Because of that expertise, Tormey was appointed to an advisory committee for Unesco World Heritage site selection, reviewing natural sites (including ones with volcanic features, like Hawaii’s Kilauea) to identify areas worthy of becoming World Heritage sites and to help contenders for that designation develop their applications. “I love doing that. It’s really important, and I’m lucky to be a part of it,” Tormey said. He also spent time on the Science Advisory Board for California’s Giant Sequoia National Monument, an appointment based on his two decades of Kern River sediment research.

“It’s nice to use years of scientific research to provide data-driven advice,” he said.

Alternative energy has costs as well as benefits

Wind energy offers a good example of the challenges for renewables. Manufacturing wind turbines relies on rare earth elements mined predominantly in China…

As one of the world’s largest economies, California has vast and growing needs for ample, affordable and reliable energy. We must meet those needs in the most sustainable way possible, while ensuring a strong and growing economy is fueled to support jobs and quality of life.

Most of America’s energy comes from fossil fuels, and we’re increasingly adding renewable energy to the mix. Though the impacts of traditional energy are often discussed, those of alternative energy are less known. All energy makes some kind of imprint. It’s important to know the economic, social and environmental trade-offs of energy sources so we can make informed choices going forward. This same thinking has gone into the White House’s “All-of-the-Above” energy strategy, which supports the development of every source of American-made energy including renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and traditional energy sources such as oil, natural gas and nuclear. The federal and state governments heavily subsidize renewables while recognizing that domestic oil and natural gas production provides an essential foundation for America’s affordable, reliable energy for both transportation fuels and electricity generation. Additionally, as Governor Jerry Brown has noted, producing oil in California reduces the climate impacts of importing it by ship or rail from often unfriendly regimes with lax environmental regulations.

Understanding the challenges and costs facing alternative energy is especially important in California. Our state has the nation’s most ambitious alternative energy plan. By 2020, greenhouse gas emissions must be cut back to 1990 levels, despite California’s population growth. By 2030, half of California’s electricity must come from renewables. Renewables are an important complement to traditional energy sources and are beginning to play a bigger role in California’s portfolio. However, renewables are still unable to meet the majority of the state’s vast and growing energy demands.

If our goal is to improve air quality, we’ve been making good progress. As a nation, the United States reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent from last year. In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as natural gas production increased by 35 percent from 2005 to 2013 and replaced coal as the leading source of electricity generation, air emissions decreased and air quality improved.

“During the same period, electricity generation from natural gas prevented more than one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted from the nation’s power plants. By comparison, renewable energy sources – including wind and solar – prevented just over 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted.”

While renewable energy sources improve and ramp up, traditional sources such as natural gas will continue to play a major role in providing reliable energy to meet our state’s energy needs while keeping us on track to reduce emissions.

Wind energy offers a good example of the challenges for renewables. You already know the upside: reduced emissions. However, manufacturing wind turbines relies on rare earth elements mined predominantly in China. Mining one metric ton of these elements – roughly enough to produce two large-capacity turbines – generates over 9,600 cubic meters of waste gas (including sulfur dioxide and hydrofluoric acid), 75 metric tons of acidic mine wastewater and approximately one metric ton of radioactive wastewater, according to the Institute for Energy Research. There are over 13,000 wind turbines in California, so this means that nearly 500,000 tons of acidic mine drainage was generated in obtaining only one component of California’s wind turbines.

The turbines also cause bird fatalities. At the Altamont Pass wind farm in Northern California, for instance, estimates of annual bird and bat deaths range from 4,500 to 10,000. To operate in the first place, wind farms have had to get a federal exemption to avoid prosecution they would otherwise face for killing eagles. And, one other thing – when there is no wind, the turbines generate no electricity.

Other energy sources have challenges, too. The production of biofuels requires a lot of water compared to other methods of energy production. Increased use of corn-based ethanol, specifically, has sparked concerns about a worldwide increase in food costs.

The Ivanpah solar electric project in California’s Mojave Desert, opened in 2013, offers another example: It requires natural gas as a secondary fuel to keep electricity production going on cloudy days and at night. The system’s natural gas requirements have turned out to be higher than expected – so much that the plant is considered a greenhouse gas emitter and is required to buy carbon allowances in California’s cap-and-trade greenhouse gas emissions reduction program. In addition, the Ivanpah plant’s use of over 4,000 acres of public lands and the large number of migratory bird fatalities from the intense reflection of the plant’s mirrors has raised serious concerns among environmentalists.

Costs

Renewable energy still costs more than energy from existing hydroelectric, natural gas or coal-fired facilities. And because many forms of renewable energy are heavily subsidized by our tax dollars, sometimes the true costs are hidden.

When the use of more expensive energy sources is mandated, energy bills go up for everyone. This is happening currently in Los Angeles, where the Department of Water and Power recently raised rates in part to finance an increase in the use of renewables. The hardest hit by these rising bills are those with the tightest budgets: mandates that require utilities to buy high-cost renewables act as a regressive tax on the poorest among us.

According to a report by the Manhattan Institute, 1 million California households live in energy poverty, which is defined as a household where residents spend 10% or more of their income on household energy costs (even excluding transportation fuels).

Moving forward


Transforming the electrical grid to accommodate renewables takes detailed planning to minimize unexpected consequences. Germany offers a precautionary example. During 2005-14, residential electricity rates in Germany, which has the most aggressive renewable subsidies, increased by 13 cents, to 40 cents per kilowatt hour – an increase larger than the average cost of residential electricity in the U.S. (12.5 cents). Since 2011, the German government has subsidized renewable energy such as wind and solar at the expense of existing traditional power plants, with consumers paying surcharges on their bills. In mid-2014, German legislators cut subsidies for wind and solar energy by 29%, citing the high cost of electricity as a key reason. Traditional plants are needed to keep the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. But Germany’s alternative energy subsidies had eroded the base of traditional plants that are still a vital part of the system, putting the country at risk of brownouts and blackouts.

The point of taking a clear-eyed look at the costs of renewables isn’t to thwart their introduction into the energy mix. Rather, the goal for all of us should be to implement these forms of energy wisely and in a way that maximizes their contributions to America’s energy plan while minimizing the downsides.

Amazing technologies like vapor recovery, smart pigs and rigs on rails are making it easier for us to create energy every day.
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