Use of Plastics Is Making Us and Planet Sick

By Brad Waite

The use of plastics has created increasingly harmful effects across the globe.

A previous Earth Matters post (see “Plastics: A Two-Edged Sword“), pointed out plastic takes, on average, about 400 years to degrade.  As plastic degrades, it continually emits greenhouse gases, especially methane, the primary cause of climate change.  Such damage to our environment is cause enough for us, as a society, to radically reduce, if not out-right eliminate, our use of plastic.  It is especially critical to eliminate single-use plastics such as water bottles, take-out food containers, product containers and wrapping, disposable flatware, straws, etc.

Single-use and other plastics adversely affect the health of humans and other living creatures.

Microplastics Are Everywhere

As plastic degrades over time, through its exposure to sunlight, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually those pieces become so small they become microplastic particles.  Eventually these micro plastics become too small for humans to see with the naked eye. Those pieces end up almost everywhere, including in our water, our air and our soil.

Health Effects on Humans
Discarded plastic bottles degrading in water

For example, I read an article recently reporting the results of studies of plastic in tap water. It reported 84 percent (84%) of tap water, worldwide, tested positive for containing plastic. In the United States, 93 percent (93%) of the samples tested positively, primarily because the United States uses far more plastic than almost anyone else in the world. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the vast majority of Americans tested positive for plastic in their feces. This is a significant health issue because the chemicals those plastics are made from leech into our bodies, causing a wide range of health issues such as hormone disruption, asthma, cancer, obesity and insulin resistance, among others.

Plastics in the Food Chain

But humans aren’t the only ones whose health is impacted. These microplastic pieces are mistaken as food by a variety of wildlife, especially fish. This not only impacts the health of the fish, but also our own health when we eat the fish. I suspect these days almost everything we eat has some amount of plastic in it, either from plastic used in the production process, to the plastic container and wrapping it comes in, to the plastic plates frequently used to serve it on. And world-wide, we humans do a poor job of recycling our plastic, which is why vast amounts end up in our rivers and oceans. The most recent issue of Central Contra Costa Sanitary District’s newsletter, Pipeline, contains this statement: “If plastic production isn’t curbed, plastic pollution will outweigh fish pound for pound by 2050.”

Take Action – There’s No Time Like the Present

I ended my prior column on this topic by saying, “I realize how we all became addicted to using plastics. Most of them make our lives a bit better in some way, from plastic bags at the grocery store, plastic beverage bottles, even the plastics used to make our synthetic clothing. They’ve become so ubiquitous in our lives that we don’t stop to realize the price that we as humans are paying to use them. I suggest we each start by taking an inventory of all the plastics in our lives. Then decide which we can limit our use of or stop using altogether. We must start now.”

Legislative Action – International and Local

Recently the European Parliament voted to ban the 10 most common single use plastic items, including beverage bottles, plates, cutlery, straws and drink stirrers, as well as to require a significant reduction in other items.

Fortunately, concerted actions have also started locally.  The Walnut Creek City Council began deliberating a ban on plastic straws.  Several Rossmoor residents addressed the City Council at its meeting, encouraging the City to broaden its scope to include most single-use plastic. Please consider writing or calling the City to add your support to the efforts on this ban.

Personal Action

What else can you do?  Here are some of the actions I’m taking that you could consider.  I’ve drastically reduced the times I use the store-supplied plastic produce bags unless they are bio-degradable.  I choose to bring my own washable mesh bags.  I now include the amount and type of packaging in my purchase decisions whenever I buy anything.

When I do end up with a plastic container, I reuse it as many times as I can.  Then recycle it when I no longer can use it.  I’ve stopped using plastic plates, cutlery and glasses.  When I do need disposable items such as those, I buy ones that are compostable, not plastic.  I spend a little extra money when I buy clothing and get items made completely of natural fibers.  What else can you think of that you can and will do to help us all?

Courtesy of Rossmoor News, December 12, 2018. Email Brad Waite at

Groundwater Adds to Flooding Risks in Bay Area

by Judith Schumacher-Jennings

As sea levels rise, the water beneath our feet will be rising too.  Rising oceans will punish shorelines hit by increasingly powerful storms.  Salt water will inundate rivers further upstream. The rising seas will also push groundwater closer to the surface, exacerbating flooding throughout coastal regions, like the Bay Area.

With all the dire warnings about rising sea levels, it’s probably easy to envision how rising seas will overtop existing shorelines.  Watching television coverage of Hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018, it’s also easy to understand how more powerful storms increase storm surges and create devastation farther and farther inland.

Those are the obvious impacts of rising oceans.

Scientists are also observing increased urban riverine flooding due to extreme precipitation events, such as an atmospheric river or in years of El Nino. Forecasting models show both phenomena will occur more frequently in the future.

New Research on Groundwater

Compounding these issues, scientists now report the amount of water underground will contribute to flooding.  New research shows the groundwater table must be considered to create a more accurate understanding of the potential for flooding.

Ellen Plane and Abby Mohan presented the new research at the 2018 Bay Delta Science Conference in Sacramento. The Nov. 8, 2018 edition of Maven’s Notebook, a website devoted to California water issues, had extensive coverage of the presentations. Ellen Plane is from the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley and Abby Mohan is a marine geographer and Geographic Information System (GIS) analyst at Silvestrum Climate Associates. Link to Maven’s Notebook:

Groundwater Levels Are Up and Down

Shallow groundwater depth varies with large rainfall events, periods of drought and tidal influences near shorelines. In addition, groundwater levels vary seasonally with the water table at its highest during the rainy season and falling during the drier months.

A saturated water table heightens flooding risks

As sea levels rise, the saltier bay water along the coastline will push the fresher groundwater layer up creating a rise in the groundwater table. The groundwater will likely rise to the surface and pond, creating emergent flooding. This will particularly occur during wet years. Saturated ground will create emergent ponds in areas that extend well beyond the areas where sea level rise is likely to flood.

In New Orleans and in the Delta with similar soil to the Bay Area, pumping has had little success in mitigating flooding because it causes subsidence (land to sink), which could be even more pronounced in areas of fill.

Emergent Groundwater Flooding

Groundwater will displace impervious surfaces, pushing the surface up, cracking and breaking it apart as the water finds its way out. If the groundwater table were well below a concrete parking lot there would be no issue. But if the groundwater table lies immediately underneath the concrete, water would find a way to get into the cracks and cause infrastructure instability and flooding.

Additionally, rising groundwater will cause inflow and infiltration into wastewater pipes, causing backups. Underground systems need redesign to be more waterproof and more resilient, not only to sea level rise, but to rising groundwater.

Effective Planning Must Consider Groundwater

New building regulations to address the potential of rising groundwater could result in a requirement for additional FEMA flood insurance, adding to the cost of housing. As sea levels rise and intrude farther inland, the interface between the salt water and fresh water will rise and push the fresh water lens upward, especially in a shallow unconfined coastal aquifer areas. This rise will potentially cause emergence and inundation in unexpected areas, not directly connected to salt water.

The East Oakland area is not directly connected to the bay. Yet the area could experience ponding from groundwater emergence alone. In the East Palo Alto area there is a lot of high-value development, such as the Google campus. Adaptation planning is already taking place, but its focus must not be limited to preventing direct inundation.  Such a singular focus would not address the ponding from groundwater behind the levee. It could become a cost-prohibitive and ineffective project if the additional threat from groundwater is not taken into account.

The Bay Area Is Very Vulnerable
San Francisco Bay Infill Development         Photo by Paul Moderacki

A lot of development around the Bay Area is built on artificial unconsolidated fill. Marin County, especially around San Rafael, has high groundwater and direct inundation threats from sea level rise. As a result there would be a higher liquefaction risk during a seismic event.

There is a housing crisis around the Bay Area, especially in Silicon Valley. When locating new developments, planning must consider emergent groundwater. The combination of direct inundation and groundwater emergence on coastal development will mean increased flooding.

There is a lot of contamination in the soil around the Bay Area. As sea levels rise, those contaminants are going to become mobilized and cause public health threats around the Bay.

Therefore we need to start shifting how we think about sea level rise planning to include this additional threat of rising groundwater. Adaptation and resilience measures must consider all three flooding components.

Watch a nine minute time lapse of the 2018 Atlantic Hurricane season:

Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, November 28, 2018. Email Judith Schumacher-Jennings at


March film: EDGE OF THE WILD

WHEN: Wed, March 13, 7:00-8:30   WHERE: Peacock Hall

Over eight years in the making, this inspiring local environmental drama follows a fight by citizens to uphold the Endangered Species Act. The objective is to reverse a national policy that would allow a local landowner to destroy the endangered Mission Blue butterflies’ habitat on San Bruno Mountain. This is an area of remarkably intact wilderness that is just one mile south of San Francisco, and it’s completely surrounded by urbanization.

We travel the mountain’s native canyons and hillsides and meet Michele Salmon. She is a lifelong resident of the small town of Brisbane, located on the mountain. In the 1960s, Michelle‘s family played a major role in thwarting a real estate developers’ plans to scrape off the top of the mountain for a new city. The film follows her as she continues her parent’s legacy.

Endangered Butterfly — San Bruno Mtn.

Eventually, in return for a permit, the landowners agree to pursue specific management protections for endangered and threatened species. This amendment to the Endangered Species Act is especially crafted for Mount San Bruno Mountain and is called a habitat conservation plan (HCP). Since then, HCP‘s have been used in over a thousand areas in almost every state, affecting wilderness preservation across the country. In time, the County of San Mateo purchased 80% of the mountain.

The film is 60 minutes. Captions are used.


Details about the three species of butterflies on the mountain that are protected by the Endangered Species Act:

Living Room Conversations for Sustainability

Engaging with friends and neighbors we may disagree with about complex sustainability topics like climate change was one of the highlight topics at the February 2019 Sustainable Rossmoor (SR) general meeting. Joan Blades described Living Room Conversations and facilitated small-group conversations.

The small-group conversations gave attendees insights to rebuild civil discourse across ideological, cultural and political party lines. The conversations help embrace shared values. Topics included climate change, recycling and composting, and reducing plastic waste.

These conversations increase understanding and reveal common ground. And sometimes even help us to discuss possible solutions.

SR Steering Committing will be looking into information and training related to constructive dialogue using Living Room Conversations.

Living Room Conversations is a national organization committed to encouraging conversations. Joan Blades is the co-founder of Living Room Conversations. She is the co-founder of several nonprofit organizations, such as, and

Blades is a co-author of “The Custom-Fit Work-place,” winner of a Nautilus book award in 2011. She authored “The Motherhood Manifesto.” “The Motherhood Manifesto” won the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize in 2007. She was a software entrepreneur and a co-founder of Berkeley Systems – best known for the flying toaster screen saver and the computer game “You Don’t Know Jack.” She is also an attorney.

Read the Rossmoor News article about the February meeting. See pages 5B and 16B. Rossmoor News January 30 article about Joan Blades (see page 5B and 16B,

Benefits of Wetlands

By Jennifer Mu

Politicians love to use “drain the swamp” as a campaign slogan. It’s beyond frustration when I hear on the news the repeated chanting of “drain the swamp” by politicians. Sadly, it perpetuates the popular misconception that swamps are wastelands and of little use. The truth is, swamps, wetlands and coastal estuaries are extremely beneficial. In fact, they are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth.

Wetlands with Great White Herons
Swamp and Wetland Benefits

Freshwater wetlands and swamps and coastal wetlands provide a multitude of benefits. Wetlands enhance the food chain and provide habitat for wildlife. Two-thirds (66.6%) of the fish and shellfish commercially harvested worldwide are linked with wetlands. Swamps also improve water quality. Wetlands filter chemicals and sediment out of nearby rivers and lakes before discharging the water into the ocean.

Swamps also serve as natural flood control barriers. When there is excess water swamps work like a sponge, absorbing much of the water before it reaches farms and urban developments. Saltwater swamps and tidal salt marshes help anchor coastal soil and sand. During hurricanes, coastal wetlands slow down storm surges, weakening the force of the water hitting the shores. Inland, freshwater wetlands soak up torrential rains, moderating the effects of flooding.

Before the enactment of environmental laws to protect wetlands in the 1970s, almost half (50%) of the wetlands in this country disappeared. Most were drained and/or filled in for development.

New Orleans – After Katrina
Katrina’s Lesson

Remember Katrina? The 2005 hurricane destroyed the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida. Katrina claimed 1,800 lives and caused close to $100 billion in damages. New Orleans sustained the worst damage. The scale of the disaster was later attributed to the destruction and disappearance of much of the region’s wetlands.

In New Orleans’ case, the loss of swamps and marshes was largely due to the infamous Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) canal.  This 76-mile canal was an artificial shipping channel built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-20th century.  Its construction destroyed lush, fresh-water cypress swamps, including the 30,000-acre Central Wetlands, which is only 15 minutes away from the city’s French Quarter. Between 1982 and 1992, about 1.6 million acres of wetlands on nonfederal lands were lost; 57 percent (%) of these wetlands were converted into land for development and 20 percent (%) were converted into agriculture land. See more about the MRGO:–Gulf_Outlet_Canal

Coastal wetlands help protect people and buildings
Wetland Restoration

After Katrina, wetland restoration received a renewed focus. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website lists five major coastal wetland protection/restoration programs – Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed and the National Estuary Program.  The EPA is also partnering with broad coalitions of federal, state and municipal and private nonprofit agencies to implement these programs. See about the EPA’s wetlands initiatives:

Sandy’s Lesson

Hurricane Sandy, despite its widespread destruction, demonstrated the benefits of wetland conservation. In 2017, a study found coastal wetlands saved $625 million worth of property damage during 2012 Hurricane. Thus, wetlands reduced the cost of damages by 22 percent (22%) in more than half the zip codes along the East Coast in Sandy’s wake. In sum, wetlands spared hundreds of homes and thousands of miles of roads from more damage.

Trump’s Wetland Policy-Reversal-In-Progress

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has consistently cut funding for these programs since taking office. Trump’s 2019 fiscal year budget would stop funding programs to restore water quality in the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound and other large water bodies. Funding for the Chesapeake Bay program would see a 90 percent (90%) reduction, from $72 million to $7 million. A similar 90-percent (90%) cut in the Great Lakes Program  would decrease funding from $300 million to $30 million.

Obviously, such policies run counter to destructive weather events of the past two decades. Hurricanes are more frequent and much more powerful. Additionally, 100-year floods are now the norm. It is vital our government continues to fund the work to protect and restore wetlands.

Courtesy of Rossmoor News, November 14, 2018.  Email Jenifer Mu at

Facts about Recycling, Part 2

By Dale J. Harrington

This is the second of my articles on the importance of recycling. In the first article, I identified some of the many products created from recycled materials. This post identifies some additional ones. Examples include: food containers, tote bags, small cork coasters, paper towels, paper plates, napkins, envelopes, coffee filters, paper condos for cats, notebooks, egg cartons and trash bags.

As mentioned in my August 24th blog post, there are products you might be surprised to learn are made of recycled material. In this post, I will include some products made using recycled material. It is possible some of the following will be new information to you.

The website links in this post are intended for the reader’s convenience only.  No endorsement or promotion by Sustainable Rossmoor is expressed or implied.

Dakine men’s surf pack

One need only look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to realize a lot of the plastic we use ends up in the ocean. So it’s cool this wet/dry surf bag is made with 100 percent recycled PET fabric from plastic bottles. The bag also includes a waterproof wetsuit pocket. Furthermore, Dakine offers other packs, duffle bags, totes, iPad bags and carry-ons made for both men and women. The company also doesn’t use PVC coating—an environmental toxin—on its products, so they’re ultra-Earth friendly. To go to Dakine:

Record bowls

Vinylux finds new use for old vinyl phonograph records by turning them into functional bowls. Most of the records the company recycles are “scratched, warped or otherwise played-out.” As a result, there’s no need to feel bad. The bowls are molded into shape over custom-made forms, the label is laminated and the spindle hole is sealed with clear tape. Additionally, the company also makes clocks, ornaments, sketchbooks, bookends and mirrors. No part of the record is wasted; the paper is collected and recycled and the vinyl scraps are sent to a plant in Nashville, where they’re recycled and turned into brand new records. To see more:

Baseball bat bottle openers

Sure, they’re a tad on the expensive side. But these bottle openers are made from bats swung by the Major Leaguers. Considering the cost game tickets, they’re cheaper too, when you factor in stadium prices for a hot dog and beer.  Each opener also includes a number, which can be plugged into a database to find out which game the bat was played in. Check it out at:

Too much waste!
Pi kitchen towels

Pi kitchen towels are made from cotton flour sacks and eco-friendly ink.

Coal Headware cottonwood beanie

Coal Headwear’s makes its cottonwood beanies from cotton yarn, repurposed from clippings and scraps made during manufacturing. Additionally, the color is already in the scraps, so the company uses fewer dyes and chemicals repurposing the materials into new yarn. For Coal Headware:

ReCycle Bikes

ReCycle Bikes are handmade in Portland, Ore., from recycled aluminum. The seats are made of renewable cork, and they use belts instead of chains because belts require less maintenance. Though it’s not quite there yet, the company hopes to one day have the bikes made of entirely recycled materials.

Green Toys

Green toys are super cute. They are also akin to retro toys and made out of recycled plastic milk jugs. Further, even their packaging is 100 percent recycled (and recyclable) – and, as a bonus, the retro toys don’t have any of twist ties that make regular kids’ toys such a pain to open. To check out Green Toys:

Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, October 31, 2018.  Email Dale J. Harrington at

Can We Talk About Overpopulation?

by Anne Foreman

These days, all the attention about saving the planet is focused on protecting the earth’s natural resources and stopping climate change. Why isn’t attention also focusing on the other side of the equation? For example, how many people can the earth sustain? Why has overpopulation disappeared as a concern? Moreover, it’s no longer a part of  our political conversations. How was this critical issue muzzled?

I heard a lot about overpopulation as a college student. I remember joining the organization ZPG–Zero Population Growth. Paul Ehrlich at Stanford wrote The Population Bomb, a seminal work that raised awareness of the dangers of overpopulation. Similarly, we saw documentaries that explained the phenomenon of exponential growth in our human population. For instance, the global population increased by billions in just the 20th century. The facts are staggering. For example, in 1900 the world’s population was 1.2 billion and, in 2018, it is 7.6 billion!

Xiamen slum dwellers street
Overpopulation – from Concern to a Blind Eye

What changed? Why don’t we hear about population issues now? Unfortunately, I believe the role of conservative religion played a part in suppressing this important issue. That is to say, the idea of controlling population through birth control measures got mixed up with the controversy over abortion–a very toxic subject. In the interests of transparency, I confess I believe in a woman’s right to have an abortion if she really doesn’t want the child. But putting the abortion issue aside for the moment, we should, at the very least, be addressing the challenge of overpopulation.  Contraceptives need to widely available–in the United States and abroad. Yet they aren’t. Why?

Here again, religion looms large. The dogma of the Catholic Church maintains birth control is a sin. Similarly, Islam teaches birth control is a sin. Moreover, many religious conservatives of all faiths share this belief. The U.S. government once provided contraceptives through its international aid programs, such as USAID. Unfortunately, the Bush administration reversed this initiative under the Global Gag Rule (see Population Action International below).

Even here, in the United States, access to modern birth control is now curtailed. For example, employers no longer have to provide contraceptives to women in their insurance coverage if they object to contraception for “moral” reasons. Furthermore, evangelical groups and organizations are trying to shut down Planned Parenthood clinics. Such is the power of the religious right.

Urban Slum, Favela, in Brazil
Overpopulation Statistics

The nonprofit organization Population Connection (formerly ZPG) reports:

• Worldwide, nearly half of all pregnancies are unintentional

• Not surprisingly, an estimated 214 million women want to avoid pregnancy, but lack access to modern contraception

• Every second of every day, our global population grows by 2.6 people

• At the current rate, the population of the least-developed countries will double in the next 30 years

In short, we ignore the danger of overpopulation at our peril. Controlling our population is one piece of the puzzle in our quest for a sustainable world. We need to separate the issues of contraception and abortion, push back on religious conservatives and reestablish the issue of overpopulation as a critical issue of our time.

In my college days, there was a slogan/bumper sticker that I thought said it all–“Every child a wanted child.” What a different world this would be, if only that were true.

For more information from Population Connection, click here:

See Population Action International for more information:

For information from Negative Population Growth, click here:

Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, October 17, 2018. Email Anne Foreman

Rossmoor’s Dumpster Diva

Kathleen Epperson, Rossmoor’s Dumpster Diva, was the featured presenter at the January 2019 Sustainable Rossmoor (SR) meeting. She gave a lively history and experience of her and her neighbors becoming expert recyclers.

Kathleen gave dozens of examples of what she’s found in dumpsters. She also gave tips for deciding what to put in the blue recycle, grey landfill and green composting containers.

Slide from Kathleen Epperson's presentation at January SR meeting.Slide from Kathleen Epperson's presentation at January SR meeting.





Have a “Trash Talk” party a your entry. Kathleen will help you plan it. Trash Talk parties provide discussion, questions and answers. Here are examples:

  • Question: Do you bag your clean, dry plastic bags inside a larger, see through plastic bag? Why Bag Bags?
  • Answer: Flimsy, loose bags fly off the truck… One reason plastic bags are on the side of the road! …or get stuck in the newspaper bundles Plastic contaminates the paper!

Tips from one of her slides: Found in RECYCLE but DOESN’T BELONG there!:

  • Salad dressing (bottle must be empty and without a cap )
  • Chicken bones in take-out container
  • Kleenex, cleaning wipes, paper towels
  • Fabric
  • Loose shredded paper (must be knotted in a bag)
  • Plants and dirt
  • Snack & candy wrappers

Slide from Kathleen Epperson's presentation at January SR meeting.Slide from Kathleen Epperson's presentation at January SR meeting.





Download her 38-slide PowerPoint presentation in pdf format by clicking on this link: Adventures of a Recycle Dumpster Diva.

The January 12, 2019 Rossmoor News had a first page article about Kathleen advocating for recycling. You can read “Dumpster Diva: Advocating for recyling is one woman’s mission.”

For more information see pages 18 through 22 of the 2019 Rossmoor phone book or go to
For help planning a “Trash Talk” party for your entry contact Kathleen.



WHEN: Wed, Feb 13, 7:00-8:30 pm

WHERE: Peacock Hall

DESCRIPTION: An Eco-Comedy collection of environmental short films that provoke thought . . . and chuckles!

A  special evening of light-hearted short films on a variety of environmental topics will be presented by Sustainable Rossmoor. Educating with humor can be a powerful . . . and fun. The club’s first Eco-Comedy production in 2017 was very popular; this is an all new collection.

A panel of Rossmoor judges previewed a large number of nominations submitted by residents as well as culled from national eco-comedy film festivals to create a delightful evening while taking a fresh look at a large variety of subjects. You might wonder, what could be amusing about global warming, climate change, solar energy, wind power, plastic, water pollution, air pollution, traffic, landfill, oil spills, concern for other species, food waste, overpopulation, or extreme weather. Come to the theater and find out; see if you agree that these environmental short films provoke thought . . . and chuckles!

Please make your suggestions for the club’s next collection of eco-comedy short films by using the “Contact us” link on this website.

For links to some of last year’s (2017) ECO-COMEDY SHORT FILMS selections, go to:

The full collection (73 minutes) of the Sustainable Rossmoor 2019 Eco-Comedy Short Films can be viewed at:
Individual segments are here:
Man’s Best Friend (2 min)
Environmental Pollution (3.5 min)
The Front Fell Off (2 min)
Community Garden (2 min)
A Jon Stewart Tirade (7 min)
A Grocery Store War (6 min) Stop-action animated
Wa’ar Tasting (1.5 min)
Self-Driving Bike (3 min)
Single-Use Plastic Rap Song (3 min)
Nuclear Meltdown (1 min)
Steeri (2.3 min)
Feeling Warm on the Inside (36 sec)
Elephants in the room (40 sec)
Green Police on Recycling (1 min)
Bottled Water Tasting (4 min)
BP Oil Spill (3 min)
Eco-Warrior Challenges (2.5 min)
Skip the Straw (4 min)
Climate Change Denial Disorder (1 min)
Same Way We Treat the Earth (1 min)
Overpopulation Solutions (3 min)
Get Acclimatized (1 min)
Best Electric Products (1 min)
Extreme Weather, Rising Tides (30 sec)
The Natural Label (4.5 min)
12 Days of Garbage (2.5 min)
The Threat of Wind Power (3 min)
Twizzlers instead of Straws (1 min)
Traveling in Groups (1.5 min)

Carbon Intensity

By Wayne Lanier, Ph.D.

Your average five-year-old in the West Texas oil fields knows the “geology of oil.”  His family is probably in the business, so he knows about oil.  He knows the history of West Texas about as well as a college geology major. Most of us don’t, so I will put this story in context.

In 1968, I returned to the United States after four years living and working in London. To get around, I bought a VW “Thing.” Its design is based on the German command car of WWII. It did not sell well, so was very cheap. I decided to visit my uncle, who lived in Midland, Texas. He was retired and living off his oil wells. I had not seen him in some years.

During the visit we talked of Carlsbad Cavern, a nearby attraction in New Mexico.  I decided to drive over to Carlsbad and tour the cavern, which I had not seen since childhood.

An Unexpected “Norther”

When I came out of the cavern darkness had fallen and so had snow from a “Norther.” A “Norther” is a blizzard in the 6,000-feet high flat land of the Llano.  Llano runs north from New Mexico and Texas all the way to Canada. I found the two local motels full, with beds even in the hallways. No room at the Inn.

So, in the darkness, I filled the gas tank and started the 160-mile drive back to Midland. The “Thing” had a canvass top, and a separate gasoline heater instead of drawing heat from the air-cooled engine.

Even with the heater on, it was dreadfully cold. The snow continued to fall. It was hard to see the road. Hours passed and the gas gauge continued to fall. You don’t stop in a Norther; if you do they dig your body out of the snow when it’s all over. Suddenly I topped a rise and saw hundreds of flares to my right. I had come to the big oil field outside Midland. I was safe. Even if I ran out of gas, I could hike over and sleep under the warmth of a flare.

The Permian Basin

Well, this is where the geology comes in. We have to think first about how oil comes to be. The oil in that field was in a rock formation called the Permian Basin. The Earth’s geological history is divided into periods. The Permian Period began about 350-million years ago and came to a close about 250-million years ago, thus comprising about 100-million years.

Gas Flaring

At that time continental drift had pushed the earlier continents together into one single continent now called Pangea. Pangea encircled a shallow sea, called the Tethys Sea. As continental drift continued, Pangea was pulled apart. One part, consisting of some upland above the sea basin drifted to a position where Russia is today and came to be recognized as a distinctive rock formation, named after the town of Perm – The Permian Formation.

Another part, including both upland and part of the shallow sea, drifted around the world to the present location of west Texas – the Permian Basin. The rim was pushed farther up by this process to become the present 3,000-foot upland where Midland is now located. The sea was covered by other continental material in a series of continental collisions and now lies from several hundred to several thousand feet below the plain.

During the latter part of the Permian’s 100-million years, the sea life in the shallow Tethys Sea lived and died.  Fish and vegetation remains settled in the mud to be covered by increasing layers of mud, then rock at greater and greater pressures. This vast amount of accumulating biological material became the west Texas oil field over the millions of years.

Pumping Oil, but Flaring Gas

Oil deep in the earth is under enormous pressure.  Its gas component stays dissolved in the oil, even when the oil rises to the surface. At the surface, the gas boils off the oil. It can be captured and piped to homes, but out in West Texas, as in most oil fields around the world, there aren’t many homes nearby.  Piping the gas would  cost more than its market value. So it is burned off in a flare. This is true for oil fields all over the world.

The scientific journal Science featured a “Policy Forum” article on such flares in August. The article’s authors examined data from 8,966 on-stream oil fields around the world (about 96% of world production). The total atmospheric carbon production from these burning flares amounts to 1.7-gigatonnes, a figure that will increase as oil fields age, to 23 percent of the total atmospheric carbon production in the next decades. Most of this production is too far away from population centers to support the cost of collecting and shipping this gas, either by pipeline or tankers. As long as we produce oil, this increase in atmospheric carbon will continue.

Courtesy of Rossmoor News, October 10, 2018 edition.  Email Wayne Lanier at