Cow-tastrophe in the Making – Environmental Impacts of the Cattle Industry.

Years ago I remember reading reports on the connection between the cattle industry and global warming.  The articles spoke about how cow flatulence (cow farts) produced excessive amounts of methane, one of the worst gases contributing to global warming.  I dismissed the stories mainly because the reporters’ irreverent slants on cow farts impacting our atmosphere seemed laughable.  Now I’m not so sure.

Recently I watched the document “Cowspiracy” by Kip Andersen and was shocked by some of the information revealed. I’ve watched many, many documentaries and have been involved in the environmental movement for decades, but Andersen’s movie left me with an immediate visceral impact. If true, the cattle industry is one of the leading causes of not only climate change but habitat destruction, water pollution and other impending ecological crises.

How could I have missed this HUGE ominous impact to our global ecosystem? Was I living under a rock? I had to know more.

I set to work researching peer-reviewed scientific information on the environmental impacts of this industry. I wish I could report Andersen’s movie was off-base but I can’t. In fact, the information I found was personally devastating. It immediately made me question some of my own behaviors which may be having a bigger impact on the environment than I could ever imagine.  After years and years of conserving, recycling and being an environmental advocate, it seems my good intentions have been short sighted.

Recently, my blogs have been focusing on water use and contamination issues from hydraulic fracking.  I know the fracking industry uses a huge amount of water – 100 billion gallons of water every year in the US – but I was shocked by Andersen’s disclosure that animal agriculture uses 34 TRILLION gallons of water annually in the US – 340 times that of fracking! WOW!

He points out that our personal (domestic use) of water in the US accounts for only 5% of the total water use but agriculture uses 55% of all the water in the economy. Yet all the conservation efforts proposed by the EPA and other groups are focused on getting us to reduce our personal consumption of water. Clearly the focus needs to be elsewhere.

Recent attention has been given to the concept of “embedded water” which is the hidden water needed to create a product. A National Geographic website page called “The Hidden Water We Use” reveals that 1,799 gallons of water are used to produce one pound of beef. This figure includes 6.6 pounds of grain for feed plus irrigation water, 36.2 pounds of roughage or grasses for feed plus irrigation water and 18.6 gallons of water for drinking and processing per pound of beef.

According to the Home Water Works Organization website, the average American shower uses 17.2 gallons and lasts 8.2 minutes.  If we assume a quarter pound burger uses 450 gallons of water, then just one burger is equivalent to almost one month of daily showers. What an eye-opener!

Consider the larger impact on our globe. McDonalds sells 6,480,000 burgers per day world-wide. If we assume they are all quarter pound patties, then 2.9 billion gallons of water have been used to produce this daily allotment. Now multiply that by all the other burger chains and restaurants selling hamburgers. Now add the steakhouses… Get the picture?  It’s the domino effect on our water supplies.

Clearly our conservation focus should also be on our food consumption habits and not just our home. I’m not saying don’t conserve water at home. Let’s face it, wasting water is wasting water. There’s no need for it. However, if we can make a greater impact on protecting our water resources by changing our diet, isn’t it worth it? Especially when almost all nutritionists purport that a plant based diet is better for our health and is also environmentally sustainable, unlike cattle production.

Of course the water resource issue of the cattle industry is just one small piece of the bigger environmental puzzle. I encourage you to watch Kip Andersen’s “Cowspiracy” documentary for some startling conclusions to this controversy. You can stream it on Netflix or purchase it online.

Also, consider downloading the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options” (2006). This information is too important not to know.

What if by changing our diet we could nip climate change in the bud? Would you do it?

Aquifer Exemptions – the Legal Way to Pollute Groundwater

There is a little known provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA) called an “Aquifer Exemption” that allows oil, gas and mining industries to legally impact groundwater – including some aquifers set aside for drinking water.  While these industries have purported to install wells and perform activities with no leakage and permanent protection, in truth, nothing is ever permanent. Seals and casings can and will fail over time and begin impacting some of the more pristine aquifers the wells may already penetrate. How did this risky loophole get placed into the SDWA?? A quick look at history may be our guide.

In 1974 America was going through an energy crisis. The OPEC oil nations sanctioned an oil embargo which stopped the US in her tracks. People “frequently faced around-the-block lines” at gas stations when filling-up.1 Gas guzzling V-8’s and V-6’s were the standard American-made cars.

During the same time period, the country was suffering from self-inflicted environmental degradation. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, published in 1962, brought the dangers of prolific pesticide use to light and initiated a grass roots movement to save the environment. By the early 1970’s, several legislative Acts focusing on protecting the environment were created. One of these was the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974.

The goal of the SDWA was to “ensure the purity of the water we consume.”2 However in light of the energy crisis, “Congress added language to the Act mandating the EPA not “interfere with or impede” oil and gas production unless it is “absolutely essential” in order to protect underground sources of drinking water.”3

To accommodate the Congressional mandate, the EPA developed a set of regulations for Underground Injection Control (UIC) in 1980. The UIC regulations included provisions for an “Aquifer Exemption” program which “allows water that would otherwise be defined as a source of drinking water to be exempted from the prohibition on injection.”4 Aquifer Exemptions were deemed necessary for the oil and gas industry to continue exploration.5 For every barrel of oil produced, 15 barrels of oil wastewater is generated and the easiest way to dispose of it is by underground injection.6

The original goal of the Aquifer Exemption program was to identify aquifers or portions of aquifers that are exempt from the definition of an Underground Source of Drinking Water (USDW); develop rules for EPA review and approval and describe delineation procedures for exempted aquifers.7 However, what has resulted over the last 36 years is a mish-mash of state Aquifer Exemption programs with limited Federal oversight allowing the oil and gas industry as well as the uranium mining industry to freely pollute drinking water aquifers.

A 2012 ProPublica investigation found “Federal officials have given energy and mining companies’ permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation’s drinking water.”8 Their investigation cited worrisome examples in Wyoming, California, Texas and Denver.

The travesty behind some of these examples is that Aquifer Exemptions are being allowed in areas where underground aquifers are at a premium. For example, some drought-stricken communities in Texas are so desperate for water they are looking to treat brackish water to make it potable and the cities of San Antonio and El Paso are considering building desalinization plants to supply drinking water. At the same time, environmental officials have “have granted more than 50 exemptions for waste disposal and uranium mining” in Texas.9 A similar situation has played out in California. Areas with the greatest need for groundwater are the same ones where underground injections of oil wastewater have been allowed.10

The misuse of the Aquifer Exemption program has been repeatedly brought to light in recent years.  The issue became so controversial that the General Accounting Office (GAO) was tasked to do a report for Congress. The GAO report found 1) EPA “safeguards do not address emerging underground injection risks, such as seismic activity and overly high pressure in geologic formations leading to surface outbreaks of fluids” and therefore may not “fully protect underground drinking water”11; 2) “EPA is not consistently conducting two key oversight and enforcement activities”12; 3) “EPA does not consistently conduct annual on-site state program evaluations”; 4) the data EPA collects is “not reliable”, meaning complete or comparable on a national basis13 and probably most frightening  5) the EPA has not incorporated state requirements and changes into federal regulations and “may not be able to enforce all state program requirements”14 In other words the EPA would have a hard time preventing individual states from doing what they are currently doing.

Even more telling are the sheer numbers of class II underground injection wells in some states. As of 2012, Texas had 52,977 class II wells, California had 49,783, Kansas had 16,965, Oklahoma had 11,134 and there are thousands in many other states. While only a small number of these wells have Aquifer Exemptions, the primary concern for any injection well over the long term is leakage and cross contamination of aquifers. In spite of what well-drillers might say, no well cap, casing or seal is permanent. Time always gets its way and when it does, we better be ready.

 

References:

  1. Myre, Greg. “Gas Lines Evoke Memories of Oil Crises In The 1970s”, NPR 10 November 2012, Web. 13 December 2016.
  2. Agee, James L. “Protecting America’s Drinking Water: Our Responsibilities Under the Safe Drinking Water Act”, EPA Journal, March 1975, EPA Archives. Web. 12 December 2016.
  3. Thorp, Lynn W. and Noël, John. “Aquifer Exemptions: Program Overview and Emerging Concerns”, Journal American Water Works Association, 107:9, September 2015, p. 53.
  4. Ibid, p. 53.
  5. “Aquifer Exemptions in the Underground Injection Control Program”, USEPA, No date. Web. 13 December 2016.
  6. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx Media. No date. Web. 14 November 2016.
  7. “Aquifer Exemptions in the Underground Injection Control Program”, USEPA, No date. Web. 13 December 2016.
  8. Lustgarten, Abrahm. “Poisoning the Well: How the Feds Let Industry Pollute the Nation’s Underground Water Supply”, ProPublica Inc. 12 December 2012. Web 12 December 2016.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. General Accounting Office. “Drinking Water – EPA Program to Protect Underground Sources from Injection of Fluids Associated With Oil and Gas Production Needs Improvement” GAO-14-555. July 2014.
  12. Ibid, GAO Highlights.
  13. Ibid, GAO Highlights.
  14. Ibid, GAO Highlights.

What to do with Fracking Wastewater?

Wastewater from hydraulic fracking has been in the news quite a bit lately and not for good reason.  Concerns over wastewater injections creating or inducing earthquakes and contamination from chemicals in fracking wastewater are a growing concern.

In mid-November, Uproxx.com released a story about wastewater from oil production being sold to drought-stricken California farmers in Kern County at a discount for use on food crops.1 The main concern is the chemicals in the wastewater are considered “proprietary.” Therefore no one really knows what chemicals are being applied to our foods and whether or not they are making their way into the food chain.  Since California grows 40% of our nation’s food should we be concerned?

Andrew Grinberg, Special Project Manager at Clean Water Action, considers the application of oil wastewater on Kern County crops a “chemical experiment on our food supply.”2 Adam Scow, California Director of Food and Water Watch, believes “it’s a bad idea to use water contaminated with chemicals, such as benzene, on crops and to recharge groundwater.”3 This practice has apparently been going on for 20 years.

This isn’t the first time the oil and gas industry has been under scrutiny in California.  In 2015, the California’s Department of Conservation, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources came under fire because they “inadvertently allowed oil companies to inject wastewater — from fracking and other production operations — with high levels of benzene, a carcinogen, into hundreds of wells in protected aquifers, a violation of federal law.”4 The EPA found this oversight of the Safe Drinking Water Act “shocking”.5

In Oklahoma and southern Kansas underground wastewater injections from hydraulic fracking processes have been linked to earthquakes.  A Forbes.com article noted “some areas in north-central Oklahoma and southern Kansas now have hazards from fracking-related induced earthquakes that are similar to parts of California where earthquakes are caused by natural tectonic forces like plate collisions and volcanism.”6

Residents of those two states have responded to the tremors by purchasing earthquake insurance. Insurance purchases in Oklahoma are “up 500% from just five years ago in 2011.”7 Unfortunately coverage of man-made earthquakes is a grey-area for many insurance companies. So it’s best to do some digging and confirm any policy or endorsement covers earthquakes resulting from fracking activities.8

The oil and gas industry is the Titan of the American economy. For every barrel of oil produced, 15 barrels of wastewater are created.9 Given the immense volumes of oil, gas and the resulting wastewater produced, it is imperative we find better solutions for disposal. We can’t continue to pretend that current techniques aren’t impacting the environment. Clearly they are and its time for a change.

 

References

  1. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016. Web. 6 December 2016.
  2. Uproxx Reports. “Oil Wastewater”- video. Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016. Web. 6 December 2016.
  3. Uproxx, Ibid.
  4. Cart, Julie. “Lawmakers grill state oil regulators on oversight failures.” Los Angeles Times. 10 March 2015. Web. 6 December 2016.
  5. Cart, Ibid.
  6. Conca, James. “Thanks To Fracking, Earthquake Hazards in Parts of Oklahoma Now Comparable To California.” Forbes Media LLC. 7 September 2016, Web. 6 December 2016
  7. Conca, Ibid.
  8. Hickman, Bobby. “Fracked! Are you covered for man-made earthquakes?” com. Quinnstreet Inc. 10 May 2012. Web. 6 December 2016
  9. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016.