The Unusual Suspects

So what are we talking about? Who or what are the “Unusual Suspects”? We certainly have an idea of where the term, “Usual Suspects”, originated. The phrase, “Usual Suspects” was first used in popular culture in thcaptaine classic film, “Casablanca” (Warner Brothers, 1942). As the story goes, during World War II in French Morocco after the fall of France, people wanting escape Nazi-occupied Europe would make their way to Casablanca in the hopes of getting transit visas to free or neutral countries like Portugal. Captain Renault holds sway over Casablanca and when a murder occurs, he instructs his officers to “Round up the usual suspects.” spaceyThis phrase inspired the movie, “The Usual Suspects” (Bad Hat Harry Productions Blue Parrott, 1995) wherein Verbal Kint, played by Kevin Spacey, chronicles the tale of the evil master villain, Keyser Söze, and Kint’s mortal fear of Söze given that authorities are asking Kint to agrees to testify against Söze.

Both humans and other species are currently being plagued by a mysterious malaise that is perhaps being surreptitiously conveyed throughout our natural and man-made water systems. So who are the Usual Suspects in this case? Someone who knows Captain Renault? Maybe it could be the seemingly omniscient Keyser Söze? The grim reality is that these suspects are unusual everyday ones and there are approximately 7 billion of them. The Unusual Suspects are Homo sapiens and they have been at it for quite some time. So what is the “it” that they have been “at” that is making them and fellow planetary inhabitants ill?

One of the lesser known aspects of the result of human societal activity is the production, dispersion, and proliferation of numerous compounds that have detrimental impacts on both humans and other life forms. These compounds are collectively often referred to as “persistent organic pollutants” or POPs. Just like Keyser Söze, POPs can act in insidious and devious ways. The reason for this statement is that many of these compounds work subtly to interfere and alter the biochemical functionality for humans and numerous other species. After being manufactured and consumed by people, most of these products are not converted in the human body to innocuous substances. Consequently, the vast majority of these materials merely “pass- through” the human body and are discharged into domestic wastewater collection systems or other disposal systems. When these materials arrive at wastewater treatment facilities, the current technology is not capable of destroying the preponderance of POPs and they are then widely dispersed into the environment.organics

One class of POPs are called endocrine disruptor compounds or EDCs. These compounds can interfere with the functioning or human and animal endocrine systems. The endocrine system is comprised of glands in the body. These glands produce hormones which act as chemical messengers. These chemicals control a number of important biological functions, including reproduction, growth, development, and food processing. Insulin, estrogen, and testosterone are examples of hormones. Alarmingly, these substances have found their way into the environment at levels which can inflict adverse health effects, even death, to organisms including humans. EDCs are one class of anthropogenic organics that can be particularly insidious.. They are usually in health care products and the like and usually found in consumer products.

A case in point for EDCs is DDT. The alarming impacts of DDT were brought to public attention by Dr. Rachel Carson in her groundbreaking book, “Silent Spring”. As a result of Dr. Carson’s book, investigative efforts determined that DDT had effects on wildlife and other data were obtained that showed that DDT represented a potential risk to human health. DDT is classified as a probable human carcinogen by both U.S. and international experts. Data from studies using animals showed that animals exposed to DDT developed liver tumors. Since DDT biodegrades slowly, it is very persistent in the environment.egg

Although society ultimately dealt with DDT, there are numerous other POP compounds currently being manufactured, consumed, and widely dispersed into the environment. The Unusual Suspects are increasingly dispersing these compounds into the environment. This proliferation is facilitated by the society’s water and wastewater treatment systems which are unable to cope with these substances resulting in the dispersion of POPs into the environment. Persistent organics is an issue that will require our attention as an “other inconvenient truth” particularly as economies and populations grow and water is “recycled” more frequently in society.

Rozich, A. F., Other Inconvenient Truths Beyond Global Warming, Virtual, College Station, Texas, 2013.

Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring, Houghton-Mifflin, New York, 2002.

Photo credits:
The Inimitable Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in a Scene from the Timeless Classic, CasablancaCourtesy Wikimedia Commons

Kevin Spacey, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Eggshells Deformed by DDT, Courtesy, Wikispaces and Anthony Li.

Why Oil Industry Estimates for Energy Reserves Can Be an X-File

“Mulder…not everybody is plotting to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate.” So says Dana 1Scully (in the “Teliko” episode from Season 4 of The X-Files originally aired in 1996), the intrepid FBI agent and partner to the sometime over-zealous Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) on The X-Files. The story revolves around Agents Mulder and Scully  investigating “X-Files” which are essentially unsolved cases with paranormal features. Mulder believes in the paranormal while Scully, the skeptic, is tasked to use scientific methods to discredit Mulder’s work. The agents are gradually manipulated as part of a larger agenda and ultimately come to trust only each other.

The topic of fossil fuel energy reserves is one that is subject to fierce debate and discussion. Take for example the case for oil reserves and supply outlook. As one would expect for the energy space, oil and other energy reserves are hotly debated and frequently laced by some with mindless political rhetoric sans engineering, scientific, and economic reality. The result is the creation of a public perception that actual reserve numbers are subject to wildly different variations for “no apparent reason”. This situation is almost worthy of being designated an “X-File” requiring the investigative acumen of Agents Mulder and Scully.  The public perception is realistic, but the reason 2for the chasm in reserves estimate is more subtle and should be embarrassing for the fossil fuel lobby. Examining this chasm reveals the underlying reasons for this difference and there may those who attempt to “deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate” or, at the very least, “spin” the reality for energy reserves.

The key is trying to assess the underlying reasons for the variation in estimates. For example, consider two sources for 2012 oil reserve estimates which both use the same data from the US Energy Information Agency (EIA):

•    CIA (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency): 22 billion barrels

•    Wintery Night: 2,303 billion barrels (view link).

It should be noted that the EIA 2012 oil reserves data are provided in four categories: 1) proved reserves, 2) technically recoverable, 3) oil shale, and 4) undiscovered resources. The data are based on a report from the Rand Corporation. A preliminary reaction would be something like, “If that’s the case, then why isn’t the U.S. the world leader in oil exports?” or as the Wintery Night articles implies, “Is Obama telling the truth about US oil reserves?” This confusion could have the public asking, “Why does the CIA say we have 22 billion in reserves while Wintery Night says 2,303 billion barrels?”

The answer is simple and comes down to two words. One word is “proved” and the other is “economical”. “Proved” oil reserves are those that are well-defined and can be extracted and processed using existing technologies with known economies. Furthermore, proved oil reserves are the only ones that the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) allows energy companies or others to put on their balance sheets as assets. The SEC’s rationale is that there is a high enough confidence level that the reserves exist and can be processed to be a net energy resource. This means Obama was following SEC guidelines in reporting to the American public while Wintery Night noted that “undiscovered reserves” are available to meet national energy demands. One of these parties, and probably not the President, must have been wearing a virtual reality helmet while crafting their commentary.

Wintery Night is not the only that entity that creatively portrays EIA reserves data. The group, Energy Tomorrow ( takes a similar tact with the EIA data. Their approach is more subtle. In their pyramid portrayal (view link), they refer to all oil deposits as “ultimately recoverable”.  They also nimbly articulate the difference between “reserves”, “resources”, “undiscovered technically recoverable resources”, and “discovered and undiscovered sub-economic resources”. Energy Tomorrow also states that, “The distinction between ‘reserves’ and ‘resources’ is important to note because it can inform policy decisions. If you believe the amount of oil is small, then energy development strategies will differ than if you know it is large.” OK, so if there is no direct evidence that something exists, simply note that it “may exist” and that it may be “very large”. This sounds like a creative way to influence policy and scarily reminiscent of the “WMD” argument for the second Iraq war.

By the way, “undiscovered sub-economic resources”? These are not “reserves”, they are “resources” and they are “sub-economic”. What a deal for the American public! Not only do they not exist, they aren’t economical. I think I’ll buy two. Should the American taxpayer have to have energy security future based on a cacophony of lawyered, verbiage that could have been better written by Saul (“Better Call Saul!”) Goodman. (Goodman is the ethically-challenged attorney on the “Breaking Bad” television series. Here is his website should you need his services: Mulder’s evidence for little green men was far more concrete than those for large energy reserves which are really “resources” that don’t exist and that are not economical. Are we good now?

Interestingly, the Institute for Energy Research (IER, 2012) has noted that “the U.S. technically recoverable oil resources at 1.442 trillion barrels, 57 times more than EIA’s current proven reserve number for oil, and over 200 years worth of oil at current consumption rates”. That may sound great, but realistically 200 years is not a long time. It should be stressed that the 200 year supply for oil reserves uses the very optimistic and rather high-end reserve estimates shown in the pyramid diagram that was previously referenced.

3It is obvious that long term planning for a vital energy resource should use conservative reserve estimates and not depend on estimates based on “irrational exuberance”. Also, this thinking must consider the population and economic expansion trends that are in play which will have a huge impact on energy and all resource availability and costs as noted by the McKinsey Group. It also does not consider that assuming that “current consumption rates” will hold is wishful, if not reckless, thinking.  Unfortunately, when considering the U.S. and the world’s energy future, one has to be very careful. Hopefully, we won’t have to deal constantly with misinformation like Mulder and Scully had to when jousting with their malevolent arch-nemesis, the Cigarette Smoking Man. However, be prepared to do some digging to get at the facts.

The truth is out there!

Photo credits:
Gillian Anderson (Dana Scully) and David Duchovny (Fox Mulder) of the X-Files, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Gage Skidmore
X-Files Logo, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) of the X-Files, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons and   B D Engler

Why Bill Gates’ 2035 Prediction of World Poverty Elimination is Unwarranted Based on Other Inconvenient Truths

January 28, 2014

In a recent article published by Quartz titled, “Bill Gates predicts there will be almost no poor countries by 2035” Microsoft philanthropists, Bill and Melinda Gates, conjecture in an annuaBill Gatesl letter to their foundation that worldwide poverty will be largely eradicated by 2035. They list three myths about poverty that can be overcome but do not address a stark reality that, unless confronted, makes efforts to deal with these myths ultimately fruitless in the long term. The Gates’ have good intentions. However, their efforts and goals will be largely impeded and blighted if they do not account for the impending resource crises and its implications in their thinking.

In addition to the “Inconvenient Truth” of global warming, there are a number of “Other Inconvenient Truths” that comprise an “Inconvenient Triad”, or super nexus. The super nexus consists of societal needs for economic and environmental sustainability, economic and population expansion, and simultaneous resources needs. These trends will begin to act collectively in a negatively synergistic manner to the detriment of human civilization if left unchecked. One consequence is skyrocketing resource costs which threaten the very fabric of societal functionality.

Societies which are cataloged as impoverished are likely to function at relatively low levels of technological sophistication. So what are the implications of this statement? It means that when a society is raised out of poverty, its level of technological functionality is also likely raised. It has been shown that societies which operate at increased technological levels also have increased resource demands per capita which are required to maintain societal functionality. For example, in the early 1970s, Cook indicated (Scientific American, September, 1971) that a society transitioning from primitive agricultural to industrial will require about 50,000 more Kcal per capita per day of energy to maintain societal functionality. Water demands will also rise as well as waste generation. Furthermore, because of potential resource interlinkages, other unforeseen conflicts may arise such as determining whether water is used for energy or food production. Thus, an unforeseen consequence of raising the level of societal functionality is exacerbating resource requirements and associated resource interlinkage issues.

Do potential resource challenges mean that we should attenuate philanthropic initiatives such as those of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? Absolutely not. It means that when initiatives are engaged to address poverty situations, a more comprehensive approach should be employed that also encompasses long term resource considerations. Without a solid resource foundation, the long-term worldwide amelioration of poverty will be difficult to realize.

-Dr. Alan RozichAlan Rozich IMG_9296




Photos credits: Wikimedia Commons (Bill Gates), BioConversion Solutions