Category Archives: water resources

Geopolitical Quintet: Legal Status of Caspian Sea

Caspian Sea…is the world’s largest body of inland water—or what some would call a rather salty lake. The confusion has fuelled disputes over its legal status for nearly 30 years, as lakes and seas fall under different international legal regimes.

The Caspian sits at a strategic spot between Europe and Asia, and contains lucrative stores of oil, gas and fish, including the caviar-producing sturgeon. The Soviet Union and Iran had a clearly defined maritime border but, after the Soviet collapse, the appearance of independent Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan muddied the waters.

On August 12th the five littoral countries at last signed an agreement the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. The Caspian, says a Russian official, is to be treated as neither sea nor lake, but instead subject to a “special legal status”. While leaving some of the thorniest issues unresolved, the pact clarifies the maritime borders, enabling new oil, gas and pipeline projects to go ahead.

All five countries are to have 15 mile-wide territorial waters extending from their shores and another ten miles of exclusive fishing rights. The rest of the surface water will be common territory, but non-signatory states (e.g., the United States) may not deploy armed forces there. For Russia, this helps preserve its military dominance by retaining freedom of movement for its warships. (Russia has used the Caspian to launch missiles into Syria.)

The seabed and its resources, meanwhile, will be divided separately between the signatories. Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan already have agreements that split up the northern Caspian. Carving up the rest of the seabed will require further negotiations. The agreement also allows pipelines to be constructed with the consent only of the countries whose sectors they pass through. That might unblock a much-discussed Trans-Caspian Pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan which Russia has long opposed.

Exceprts from Big Lake Small Sea: Russia’s Neighborhood, Economist, Aug. 18, 2018, at 44

How Rivers Die

Kapuas river: Indonesia

Kapuas, Indonesia’s longest river support somes 3m people…One reason that the water is so murky is deforestation. Since the 1970s logging has enriched locals while stripping away the vegetation that held the soil in place. The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that between 1973 and 2010 over 100,000 square kilometres of forest was lost on Kalimantan, or a third of the original coverage. A national moratorium that began in 2011 has done little to still the axes. As a result, torrential tropical rains wash lots of loose earth into the Kapuas.

Illegal gold-mining compounds the problem. Locals tear up the riverbed with diggers or blast the banks with high-pressure hoses, then sieve the mud for gold. Mercury, which the miners use to separate gold from sediment, but which is poisonous to humans and fish alike, leaks into the river.

The riverbank is punctuated with corrugated-iron towers, which emit birdsong from loudspeakers. These are designed to lure swiftlets, who make their nests with saliva. The nests of swiftlets  are considered a delicacy and aphrodisiac by many Chinese.* Deane, a shop owner, built his tower last December after seeing others do the same. He sells the nests to a wholesaler for about 15m rupiah ($1,025) a kilogram…

In Kapuas Hulu, an upstream district, half the population rely on the river for drinking water. A quarter have no toilet. Even where bathrooms do exist along the river, they are often floating cubicles with a hole in the floorboards. Cows and goats, living in wooden riverside cages, also defecate straight into the Kapuas

The Kapuas passes through seven districts. Midstream ones, such as Sintang and Sanggau, earn hefty tax revenues by encouraging palm-oil plantations. But downstream districts suffer from the resulting silt, traffic and run-off without receiving any of the benefits. The same problem occurs at a village level. Mr Hadi says that fishing by sprinkling poisonous leaves on the water (the stricken fish float to the surface) is forbidden but other village heads do not enforce the rules…

A study by CIFOR on the income of villagers living near the Kapuas river found that the best-paid palm-plantation workers earned 50% more than the most successful fishermen. (Gold miners made three times as much—and spent more on education.)…But the environmental damage is plain to see. The river here is brown, clouded by silt. A study published in 2016 found that levels of phosphates in the water, from fertilisers and villagers washing themselves with soap, are highest near urban areas and palm plantations.

Down in Pontianak, the river water is darker still, occasionally brightened by oil slicks. Water bottles and instant-noodle packets cling together to form plastic islands.

Excerpts from  Indonesia’s Longest River,  Economist, Aug. 25, 2018

*According to Wikipedia: Authentic bird’s-nest soup is made from nests of some species of swiftlet.  Instead of twigs, feathers and straw, these swiftlets make their nest only from strands of their gummy saliva, which hardens when exposed to air. Once the nests are harvested, they are cleaned and sold to restaurants. Eating swiftlet nest material is believed to help maintain skin tone, balance qi (“life energy”) and reinforce the immune system… (Dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The History of Chinese Medicine and the Nutrition Table).

An Epiphany Moment: useful waste-water

image from http://www.solarismidstream.com/midstream-solutions

Fledgling companies, many backed by private equity, are rushing to help shale drillers deal with one of their trickiest problems: what to do with the vast volumes of wastewater that are a byproduct of fracking wells.

When producers blast a mix of water, sand and chemicals to release oil and gas from rock formations miles underground, they not only unlock oil and gas, but also massive quantities of briny water long buried beneath the surface. Drillers in the Permian Basin in New Mexico and Texas currently generate more than 1,000 Olympic-size swimming pools full of this murky, salty water every day. Handling it amounts to up to 25% of a well’s lease operating expense, according to analysts.

Investors have expressed interest in this corner of the U.S. shale industry as oil production in the Permian soars to record levels. Analysts said the region could produce more than five million barrels of oil a day by 2023, more than the current daily production of Iran.

Sensing a chance for a big return, private-equity firms have invested more than $500 million into wastewater-disposal companies such as Solaris Water Midstream LLC, WaterBridge Resources LLC, Goodnight Midstream LLC and Oilfield Water Logistics LLC. There are roughly a dozen of these water-focused companies that analysts said could each be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

These companies are building pipelines to transport the wastewater and dispose of it deep underground, hoping to displace the trucks that currently do the job. Some companies have a longer-term plan: recycling the wastewater to sell it back to drillers to reuse. Most of the companies are currently private;….

Apache Corp. , one of the largest producers in the Permian, wants to reuse more water to reduce the millions of barrels it must dispose of and limit the freshwater it purchases for fracking, according to a company presentation earlier this year. Apache recycled more than 22 million barrels of water from 2013 to 2016 in just one subsection of the Permian.

Excerpts from The Next Big Bet in Fracking: Water, WSJ, Aug. 12, 2018

How Many Uranium Mines Do We Need?

Retired well heads used for ISL at Uranium One's operations in Johnson County., Wyoming

At the height of activity in 1980, U.S. companies produced nearly 44 million pounds of uranium concentrate and provided most of the supplies purchased by nuclear power plants. In 2017, American miners produced 2.4 million pounds and supplied just 7 percent of the uranium bought by domestic plants.  The industry, which once supported nearly 22,000 jobs, now employs just a few hundred people each year…

In July 2018, the U.S. Commerce Department opened an investigation to determine whether the nation’s growing dependence on foreign uranium supplies poses a risk to national security….The two miners that petitioned Commerce to conduct the review, Energy Fuels and UR-Energy, want the United States to take steps to ensure U.S. producers control 25 percent of the market. They say they can’t compete with subsidized supplies from places like Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

To be sure, nearly half of the uranium used in the United States comes from allies like Canada and Australia. From the moment they lost trade protections, U.S. miners had trouble competing with these foreign supplies.
“It’s been government-sponsored, government-subsidized just since the beginning. Trying to sort that out and find where there’s a free market in uranium — I find that very questionable.”-Luke Danielson, Sustainable Development Strategies Group president

The U.S. uranium mining industry is relatively young. It went through a brief golden age between about 1955 and 1980, beginning when the United States offered generous incentives to shore up its stockpiles of the nuclear weapons fuel during the Cold War….By the 1960s, the program had packed U.S. storehouses so full of uranium stockpiles that the government stopped paying the incentives. However, it left in place rules barring the use of foreign uranium until 1975, when it began to allow a growing percentage of overseas supplies into the market.  That opened the door to high-quality, low-cost supplies from Canada and Australia. By 1987, the United States was importing nearly 15 million pounds of uranium, and domestic output fell by about a third to roughly 13 million pounds.

While competition weighed on U.S. uranium production, the excitement around nuclear energy in the 1970s kept mines busy. However, the American love affair with atomic power proved short-lived. The 1979 meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania sparked fierce backlash against nuclear energy. Seven years later, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster turned a Ukrainian city into a ghost town…

By the early 2000s, U.S. uranium production was at its lowest in a half century.  Around that time, the former Soviet state Kazakhstan was ramping up uranium mining. In just a few short years, it would become the world’s top uranium producer and the second biggest supplier to the United States.
The Central Asian nation accomplished that feat in large part by exploiting a process called “in situ leaching” (ISL) or in situ recovery  (ISR)*** increasingly being used to extract uranium.  Along with countries like Niger, Mali and Mongolia, Kazakhstan has an advantage: lax regulations that allow it to process uranium cheaply from in situ leaching, which involves pumping chemicals into uranium reserves and carries serious risks to the environment if it’s not carried out responsibly…

And then in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan created a backlash unlike anything seen since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In the aftermath, Japan shut down all of its nuclear reactors, and Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2022.  The U.S. nuclear renaissance has also fizzled as flagship projects have turned into costly boondoggles. The venerable Westinghouse Electric Company filed for bankruptcy last year under the weight of billions of dollars in losses tied to its troubled nuclear power plant projects in Georgia and South Carolina. “There’s such a glut of inventory in the market that it’s just not profitable for some of the mines to produce, so the price has just really plummeted as a result of that,” said Sean Davis, a research analyst at IHS Markit who tracks the chemicals used in uranium mining.

Since their peak in 2007, uranium prices have crashed from nearly $140 per pound to $20-$25.

Excerpts from Nuclear wasteland: The explosive boom and long, painful bust of American uranium mining, CNBC, Aug. 4, 2018

***”No remediation of an ISR operation in the United States has successfully returned the aquifer to baseline conditions.”

A Gasfield and the Cows Next to it

Protests against fracking Western Australia

High levels of a radioactive material and other contaminants have been found in water from a West Australian fracking site* but operators say it could be diluted and fed to beef cattle.  The revelations illustrate the potential risks associated with the contentious gas extraction process known as fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, as the Turnbull government pressures states to ease restrictions on the industry and develop their gas reserves.

The findings were contained in a report by oil and gas company Buru Energy that has not been made public. It shows the company also plans to reinject wastewater underground – a practice that has brought on seismic events when used in the United States.

Buru Energy has been exploring the potentially vast “tight gas” resources of the Kimberly region’s Canning Basin. The work was suspended when the WA government last year introduced a fracking moratorium, subject to the findings of a scientific inquiry.

In a submission to the inquiry obtained by the Lock the Gate Alliance, Buru Energy said a “relatively high concentration” of Radium-228…The samples exceeded drinking water guidelines for radionuclides. However Buru Energy said samples collected from retention ponds were below guideline levels and the water posed “no risk to humans or animals”.  Water monitoring also detected elevated levels of the chemical elements barium, boron and chloride….Buru Energy said while the water was not suitable for human consumption, the “reuse of flowback water for beef cattle may also be considered”.  The water did not meet stockwater guidelines but this could be addressed “through dilution with bore water”.

The company’s development in the Yulleroo area of the basin could lead to 80 wells operating over 20 years….The company insists its fracking fluids are non-toxic and to illustrate its safety, executive chairman Eric Streitberg drank the fluid at the company’s 2016 annual general meeting.

Excerpt from  Nicole Hasham Radioactive water reignites concerns over fracking for gas, Sydney Morning Herald, June 24, 2018

*Fracking, which involves injecting water mixed with chemicals and sand deep underground in order to fracture rock and release oil and gas, generates large amounts of wastewater. … In some cases, improper handling of this waste water has resulted in the release of radioactive fracking waste that has contaminated streams and rivers, Science Magazine, Apr 9, 2015

For Voices against Fracking in WA, Dont Frack WA

A Glimmer of Hope: protected areas

Niassa Reserve in Mozambique. Image from wikipedia

Globally, one-third of protected land is under intense pressure from road building, grazing, urbanization, and other human activities, according to a new study in the 18 May 2018 issue of Science…Nations around the world have committed to preserving biodiversity under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), through protected status designations ranging from nature reserves with strict controls on human impact to regions where people can extract natural resources in a sustainable way. This study suggests that many of these nations are failing to meet their conservation goals.

James Watson, a researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Society and an author of the study, noted that 111 nations currently claim they have meet their obligations under the CBD based on the extent of their protected areas. “But if you only counted the land in protected areas that are not degraded, which play a role in conserving biodiversity, 77 of these nations don’t meet the bar. And it’s a low bar.”

Watson and a team of researchers decided to take advantage of a recently released human footprint map to look at the degradation of protected areas. “The results are quite staggering,” said Watson. “We found that 2.3 million square miles — twice the size of Alaska — was impacted by road building, grazing, logging, roads and urbanization. That is 32.8% of all protected land — the land set aside by nations for the purpose of biodiversity conservation — that] is highly degraded.”  Regions that were found to be particularly burdened by human activity include western Europe and southern Asia.

In terms of protected land that is free of any measurable human pressure, 42% could be classified as such; however, many of these areas are within remote regions of high-latitude nations, such as Russia and Canada.

Some conservation efforts have been fruitful, though. “We did see glimmers of hope,” said Watson…. (e.g., the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia, and Niassa Reserve in Mozambique)

Protected areas designated after 1993 have a lower level of intense human pressure within their borders than those previously designated, the authors found. They suggest this may indicate that more recently designated areas were targeted as protected spaces because they were recognized as being under low human pressure.

Exceprts from Michelle Hampson, One-Third of World’s Protected Areas under Intense Human Pressure, American Association for the Advancement of Scicence,  May 16, 2018

An Unforgettable Type of Pollution

May 2018: The environmental damage around the site of two Royal Dutch Shell oil spills in Nigeria a decade ago has worsened significantly after years of delay to cleanup efforts, according to a report that the oil giant has been accused of trying to shield from public view.  The spills from a ruptured Shell pipeline spewed thousands of barrels of oil over parts of the Bodo fishing community in the crude-rich Niger Delta. Although the company in 2015 reached an out-of-court settlement with the local community, admitting to liability and agreeing to pay £55 million, or around $80 million at the time, in compensation, controversy around the case has remained.

A United Nations body, in a 2011 report, found extensive environmental damage around Bodo. Four years later, an assessment to prepare the cleanup found soil contamination had worsened while cleanup efforts languished and illegal refining and oil theft added to pollution in the area, according to an academic paper published last month. That has left the community facing potentially toxic pollution and “catastrophic” damage to the environment, the paper said.  The 2015 analysis was commissioned by the Bodo Mediation Initiative, a consortium established to oversee the cleanup in the area. Shell is a member of the group along with local stakeholders.

At least one of the authors urged the findings to be widely distributed because they pointed to significant health risks to the local community. Kay Holtzmann, the cleanup project’s former director, said in a letter reviewed by the Journal that Shell had denied him permission to publish the study’s results in a scientific journal.

But the academic paper* said the site survey contained new facts. The average surface soil contamination in Bodo had tripled since the original U.N. probe,the paper said. Out of 32 samples taken from the top two inches of soil in the area around Bodo, only one was within Nigeria’s legally acceptable limit for oil contamination, the paper added.

Excerpts from Pollution Worsens Around Shell Oil Spills in Nigeria, Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2018.

*Sediment Hydrocarbons in Former Mangrove Areas, Southern Ogoniland, Eastern Niger Delta, Nigeria, Apr. 2018