Monday, November 17, 2014

Major Class of Fracking Chemicals No More Toxic Than Common Household Substances, analysis finds

Date: November 12, 2014
Source: University of Colorado at Boulder

Summary: The 'surfactant' chemicals found in samples of fracking fluid collected in five states were no more toxic than substances commonly found in homes, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis.

Fracking fluid is largely composed of water and sand, but oil and gas companies also add a variety of other chemicals, including anti-bacterial agents, corrosion inhibitors and surfactants. Surfactants reduce the surface tension between water and oil, allowing for more oil to be extracted from porous rock underground.

In a new study published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, the research team identified the surfactants found in fracking fluid samples from Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Texas. The results showed that the chemicals found in the fluid samples were also commonly found in everyday products, from toothpaste to laxatives to detergent to ice cream.

"This is the first published paper that identifies some of the organic fracking chemicals going down the well that companies use," said Michael Thurman, lead author of the paper and a co-founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Mass Spectrometry in CU-Boulder's College of Engineering and Applied Science. "We found chemicals in the samples we were running that most of us are putting down our drains at home."

Imma Ferrer, chief scientist at the mass spectrometry laboratory and co-author of the paper said, "Our unique instrumentation with accurate mass and intimate knowledge of ion chemistry was used to identify these chemicals." The mass spectrometry laboratory is sponsored by Agilent Technologies, Inc., which provides state-of-the art instrumentation and support.

The fluid samples analyzed for the study were provided through partnerships with Colorado State University and colleagues at CU-Boulder.

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is a technique used to increase the amount of oil and gas that can be extracted from the ground by forcing fluid down the well. Fracking has allowed for an explosion of oil and gas operations across the country. In the U.S. the number of natural gas wells has increased by 200,000 in the last two decades, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Among the concerns raised by the fracking boom is that the chemicals used in the fracking fluid might contaminate ground and surface water supplies. But determining the risk of contamination--or proving that any contamination has occurred in the past--has been difficult because oil and gas companies have been reluctant to share exactly what's in their proprietary fluid mixtures, citing stiff competition within the industry.

Recent state and federal regulations require companies to disclose what is being used in their fracking fluids, but the resulting lists typically use broad chemical categories to describe the actual ingredients.

The results of the new study are important not only because they give a picture of the possible toxicity of the fluid but because a detailed list of the ingredients can be used as a "fingerprint" to trace whether suspected contamination of water supplies actually originated from a fracking operation.

The authors caution that their results may not be applicable to all wells. Individual well operators use unique fracking fluid mixtures that may be modified depending on the underlying geology. Ferrer and Thurman are now working to analyze more water samples collected from other wells as part of a larger study at CU-Boulder exploring the impacts of natural gas development.

Thurman notes that there are other concerns about fracking--including air pollution, the antimicrobial biocides used in fracking fluids, wastewater disposal triggering earthquakes and the large amount of water used--that are important to investigate and ameliorate. But water pollution from surfactants in fracking fluid may not be as big a concern as previously thought.

"What we have learned in this piece of work is that the really toxic surfactants aren't being used in the wells we have tested," he said.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Nutrients That Feed Red Tide 'Under the Microscope' in Major Study

Date: November 6, 2014
Source: Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

The 'food' sources that support Florida red tides are more diverse and complex than previously realized, according to five years' worth of research on red tide and nutrients. The microbiology, physiology, ecology and physical oceanography factors affecting red tides were documented in new detail and suggestions for resource managers addressing red tide in the coastal waters of southwest Florida were offered.

The rosette of Niskin bottles is submerged to collect water samples.

The multi-partner project was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's ECOHAB program and included 14 research papers from seven institutions.

The research team studied four red tide blooms caused by the harmful algae species Karenia brevis in 2001, '07, '08 and '09, plus the non-bloom year 2010. Their goal was to understand which nutrients supported these red tides and the extent to which coastal pollution might contribute, helping reveal what drives red tide in southwest Florida.

Study partners documented 12 sources of nutrients in southwest Florida waters -- including some never before associated with K. brevis. Results supported the consensus that blooms start 10-40 miles offshore, away from the direct influence of land-based nutrient pollution, but once moved inshore blooms can use both human-contributed and natural nutrients for growth.

The project documented the microbiology, physiology, ecology and physical oceanography factors affecting red tides in new detail, provided a synthesis of results and offered suggestions for resource managers addressing red tide in the coastal waters of southwest Florida.

Florida red tide blooms -- which occur naturally in the Gulf of Mexico and most frequently off southwest Florida -- are higher-than-normal concentrations of the microscopic algae species K. brevis, a plant-like organism whose toxins can kill fish and other marine species, make shellfish toxic to eat and cause respiratory irritation in humans. These blooms occurred centuries before the mid-to-late twentieth century population boom along Florida's coast. Now, with large numbers of coastal residents and visitors in Florida, blooms can significantly affect public health and the economy.

Public information and short-term forecasts help mitigate red tide impacts, but ongoing research is critical to inform resource managers working to understand and potentially reduce nutrients available to blooms.

"Data go a long way toward increasing our understanding," said Dr. Cynthia Heil, Senior Research Scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine, who co-edited the special issue of Harmful Algae and was formerly with FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "This report, which includes data from four different red tides and numerous laboratory studies and modeling efforts by biological, chemical and physical oceanographers, shows the collaborative efforts needed to understand why Florida red tides are so frequent and harmful in this region."

Co-editor Dr. Judith O'Neil, Research Associate Professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, added, "We learned that K. brevis is an adaptable and flexible organism. We identified 12 different sources of nutrients that it can take up and use. One of the most interesting things that hadn't previously been taken into account is this organism's ability to not just use sunlight, like plants, but to also consume other single-celled organisms as a nutrient source. Additionally, its migratory behavior and directed swimming allows K. brevis access to nutrient sources everywhere it finds them -- at the surface, bottom and throughout the water column."

According to the study, K. brevis can get the nutrients nitrogen and/or phosphorus from the following sources (bold sources were newly linked to K. brevis blooms through the ECOHAB project):

  • Undersea sediments
  • Decaying fish
  • Water flowing out of estuaries
  • Deposits from the atmosphere
  • Nitrogen from the air transformed, or "fixed," into a more useable form by the naturally occurring bacteria Trichodesmium. (They are a type of cyanobacteria, which use energy from sun to make food, like plants. They can multiply and form blooms.)
  • Waste from zooplankton -- small aquatic animals visible to the naked eye
  • The "grazing" of smaller zooplankton, dubbed "microzooplankton" because they can only be seen under a microscope. (Grazing includes their "sloppy eating" of other tiny life forms, along with their waste.)
  • Picoplankton -- tiny life forms that K. brevis consumes
  • Bacteria transforming nitrogen in the water into more useful forms
  • Light creating available nutrients from natural, dissolved compounds like tannins in the water
  • Decay of Trichodesmium blooms (newly documented as a long-term nutrient source for K. brevis blooms)
  • Nitrogen from the air "fixed" by other cyanobacteria that are NOT Trichodesmium

The researchers concluded that many of these nutrient sources are individually more than enough to support observed blooms, but no single nutrient source is solely responsible.

Naturally occurring Trichodesmium (defined above) provided the most nitrogen, but not all, for K. brevis blooms developing offshore. Nearer to shore and within estuaries, major nitrogen sources believed to support blooms included estuary water carrying land-based nutrients to sea, underwater sediments and dead fish decomposing, in addition to other sources.

A few coastal sources -- estuary water, deposits from the atmosphere and underwater sediments -- are known to carry natural nutrients as well as some enhanced levels due to human activity. With other nutrient sources -- such as microscopic life forms -- connections with human activities are less direct, so it is harder to predict how they might be influencing red tides.

"Nature is messy, but this project has put several new pieces in place," said Dr. Kellie Dixon, Senior Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory and Co-Principal Investigator for the ECOHAB project. "Until now we had not looked at this many of the 12 sources and their specific quantities simultaneously. Some of the sources, like nutrients released from the sediments, had never been measured in southwest Florida's coastal waters until we studied them for ECOHAB."

The project blended nutrient studies with physical oceanography, shedding new light on how blooms are brought to shore.

"Until now, effective management of harmful algal blooms caused by K. brevis was complicated because we didn't know enough about how different nutrient sources and forms taken up by K. brevis interacted with the physical environment," said Matt Garrett of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, who managed the ECOHAB project. "This project provides data that can help inform management recommendations on how to control nutrient sources and possibly improve forecasting models."

The special issue of Harmful Algae includes the following management recommendations:

  • Maximize efforts to reduce potentially controllable nutrient inputs and sources that contribute to K. brevis blooms.
  • Monitor for known physical conditions that favor/disfavor the initiation, transport and export of K. brevis blooms in the southwest Florida region.
  • Identify and provide necessary funding at state and federal levels to maintain the southwest Florida coastal observing system infrastructure on an operational basis.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

National Water-Use at Lowest Levels Since Before 1970

Released: 11/5/2014 9:16:23 AM

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communications and Publishing
12201 Sunrise Valley Dr, MS 119
Reston, VA 20192
Ethan Alpern
Phone: 703-648-4406

Water use across the country reached its lowest recorded level in nearly 45 years. According to a new USGS report, about 355 billion gallons of water per day (Bgal/d) were withdrawn for use in the entire United States during 2010.

This represents a 13 percent reduction of water use from 2005 when about 410 Bgal/d were withdrawn and the lowest level since before 1970.

“Reaching this 45-year low shows the positive trends in conservation that stem from improvements in water-use technologies and management,” said Mike Connor, deputy secretary of the Interior. “Even as the U.S. population continues to grow, people are learning to be more water conscious and do their part to help sustain the limited freshwater resources in the country.”

Total water withdrawals by State and barchart showing categories by State from west to east, 2010. (Larger image.)

In 2010, more than 50 percent of the total withdrawals in the United States were accounted for by 12 states in order of withdrawal amounts: California, Texas, Idaho, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Arkansas, Colorado, Michigan, New York, Alabama and Ohio.

California accounted for 11 percent of the total withdrawals for all categories and 10 percent of total freshwater withdrawals for all categories nationwide. Texas accounted for about 7 percent of total withdrawals for all categories, predominantly for thermoelectric power, irrigation and public supply.

Florida had the largest saline withdrawals, accounting for 18 percent of the total in the country, mostly saline surface-water withdrawals for thermoelectric power. Oklahoma and Texas accounted for about 70 percent of the total saline groundwater withdrawals in the United States, mostly for mining.

“Since 1950, the USGS has tracked the national water-use statistics,” said Suzette Kimball, acting USGS director. “By providing data down to the county level, we are able to ensure that water resource managers across the nation have the information necessary to make strong water-use and conservation decisions.”

Trends in total water withdrawals by water-use category, 1950–2010.
(Larger image.)

Water withdrawn for thermoelectric power was the largest use nationally, with the other leading uses being irrigation, public supply and self-supplied industrial water, respectively. Withdrawals declined in each of these categories. Collectively, all of these uses represented 94 percent of total withdrawals from 2005-2010.

  • Thermoelectric power declined 20 percent, the largest percent decline.
  • Irrigation withdrawals (all freshwater) declined 9 percent.
  • Public-supply withdrawals declined 5 percent.

Self-supplied industrial withdrawals declined 12 percent.

A number of factors can be attributed to the 20 percent decline in thermoelectric-power withdrawals, including an increase in the number of power plants built or converted since the 1970’s that use more efficient cooling-system technologies, declines in withdrawals to protect aquatic habitat and environments, power plant closures and a decline in the use of coal to fuel power plants.

"Irrigation withdrawals in the United States continued to decline since 2005, and more croplands were reported as using higher-efficiency irrigation systems in 2010,” said Molly Maupin, USGS hydrologist. “Shifts toward more sprinkler and micro-irrigation systems nationally and declining withdrawals in the West have contributed to a drop in the national average application rate from 2.32 acre-feet per acre in 2005 to 2.07 acre-feet per acre in 2010."

For the first time, withdrawals for public water supply declined between 2005 and 2010, despite a 4 percent increase in the nation’s total population. The number of people served by public-supply systems continued to increase and the public-supply per capita use declined to 89 gallons per day in 2010 from 100 gallons per day in 2005.

Declines in industrial withdrawals can be attributed to factors such as greater efficiencies in industrial processes, more emphasis on water reuse and recycling, and the 2008 U.S. recession, resulting in lower industrial production in major water-using industries.

In a separate report, USGS estimated thermoelectric-power withdrawals and consumptive use for 2010, based on linked heat- and water-budget models that integrated power plant characteristics, cooling system types and data on heat flows into and out of 1,290 power plants in the United States. These data include the first national estimates of consumptive use for thermoelectric power since 1995, and the models offer a new approach for nationally consistent estimates.

In August, USGS released the 2010 water-use estimates for California in advance of the national report. The estimates showed that in 2010, Californians withdrew an estimated total of 38 Bgal/day, compared with 46 Bgal/day in 2005. Surface water withdrawals in the state were down whereas groundwater withdrawals and freshwater withdrawals were up. Most freshwater withdrawals in California are for irrigation.

The USGS is the world’s largest provider of water data and the premier water research agency in the federal government.