Archive for the ‘Other topics’ Category

The twilight of California oil

26 April 2021

Last week the governor ordered a state agency to stop issuing fracking permits to oil drillers, starting as of 2024. This is less of a big deal than it seems. Hydraulic fracturing is rarely used in California because the permitting process was tightened in 2014 and because our earthquake-shaken rocks are already well fractured, and only three oil districts do it at all, accounting for about two percent of the state’s production. One place they still do it is in the Lost Hills area, which is fun to drive through if you like taking pictures like this:

This change won’t affect the California oil industry much, but it sounds great and is worth doing.

The governer also ordered another agency to start plans to shut down all oil production in California as of 2045. This is a big deal. Oil is as much a part of California as gold, Shasta and the redwoods. But our oil production has dropped by half since 1985, and now’s the right time to set a deadline. According to a pair of fresh studies, it won’t even start to hurt business for another decade.

Time to start saying goodbye to our old friend.

Natural seeps of oil and asphalt occur all over the state. The one at McKittrick is famous among geologists.

The tar glaciers at Carpenteria State Beach, near Santa Barbara, are a real spectacle.

These materials were used by the native tribes for things like sealing baskets, waterproofing boats and medicine. I’ll bet they made torches with them too.

Americans mined the deposits at first and distilled kerosene from them. That was a dirty business. Starting in 1860, enterprising men tried drilling wells like the first successful ones in western Pennsylvania. The first California oil well to make a profit was drilled in 1876 near Newhall, and we were off to the races.

Petroleum, oil from the ground, was a huge advance. It meant we could stop leveling forests for firewood. It meant we could stop the deadly, wasteful business of hunting whales to make liquid fuels or roasting coal to make gas. No one knew it at the time, but we could invent plastic. The petroleum-based energy and chemical system was eagerly adopted, popular and universal. But today we know how to do even better without it.

As always with this blog, there’s an Oakland angle. The Bay area is oil country.

There are oil seeps in Wildcat Canyon, and the first oil well in the Bay area was drilled nearby, east of San Pablo, in 1862. A short-lived oil field in Orinda, at the Minor ranch on Lauterwasser Creek, pumped greenish crude in the late 1890s. Oakland boosters like H. A. Aldritch, in 1897, were sanguine: “For many years oil has been oozing out of the shale and sandstone formations, and in every instance this oil has been strongly impregnated with gas. That the near future will produce this most promising industry, affording cheaper fuel for manufacturing purposes, is a settled fact. My prediction is that within the next few years Oakland and other cities and towns of this county will be in the full enjoyment of this, one of nature’s greatest blessings.” He was right, but the profitable wells were in the Central Valley.

A large portion of California’s oil originates in the Monterey Formation, a body of ribbon chert found up and down the coast. Oakland has a thick stripe of its close sibling, the Claremont Shale, running through the high hills.

Wherever you see it, it’s generally bleached-looking like this, but underground it’s black with organic matter, from the diatoms whose microscopic silica shells are what make up chert. Diatoms manufacture and store drops of oil inside their shells to help them float, and that oil is what becomes crude oil after cooking underground for geological periods of time.

When the Caldecott Tunnel bores were being dug, oil and gas wafted off this chert and caught fire more than once. During excavation of the fourth bore a few years ago, nothing that could spark was allowed inside. So let it be known: Oakland’s hills are full of oil. I have yet to find an oil or gas seep here, but it’s on my list. I have a theory that one may have had something to do with the great fire of 1991, which burst out in an area where the Claremont Shale is deeply exposed.

Here or wherever, petroleum will always be something to reckon with in California. But we have to start leaving it in the ground at all costs and return it to being a geological curiosity.

Geology’s problem heritage

15 March 2021

Part of being a passionate student of geology is coming to terms with its history. The easy part for me is imagining those good old days, when pioneering curiosity-driven people looked around with fresh ideas and fresh eyes, rock hammers in their belts, and made lasting names for themselves. What a pleasure it would have been in centuries past to hang with Hutton in the Scottish countryside, to dig fossils in the Paris Basin with Cuvier or minerals in Italy with Dolomieu, to tramp the Alps with Agassiz or the Andes with Humboldt, or to join in the learned debates of the 19th-century British scientific societies.

Then there’s another part of geology’s history that it shares with so much else in science: the dominance of white men and their self-serving causes. I’m old enough, and have seen and read enough, to have gotten a sense of American geology’s good old days and how their influences linger. I’m free to imagine myself being with those great men of geology as a fellow educated white guy, born in the club.

The good old days were an intimate part of the Westward Expansion, which began for geologists with the 1825 gold rush in North Carolina and ended with the Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s. The eastern states funded the first “geological surveys” in the 1830s, state-supported projects to help develop the state’s natural resources. The object was to suss out the territory: to find and map promising mineral deposits so the state could license or sell them to help bring about new wealth. The federal government did the same in the western territories.

This high-minded purpose existed within a political setting of colonialism and imperialism. It relied on official and unofficial theft of Indian lands and genocidal policies against the tribes, carried out with American efficiency and enthusiasm. It relied on the support of the slave states seeking fresh land for their cruel system and the free states, opposed yet conflicted. It relied on the railroads and the power they exerted on behalf of the markets they served. It relied on taking land from other nations as war prizes. The benefits accrued to the white men in command.

The heirs of these men, raised on generations of selective history, may have forgotten their forebears’ cruelty and aren’t inclined to admit its aftereffects, but you see them if you just look around.

In classrooms and textbooks, the saga of science that threads those times is scrubbed of this context. John Wesley Powell is the hero who traversed the Grand Canyon and mapped its rocks, not the ethnographer who disparaged the people along the way that he studied like beetles. Clarence King is the hero “of good English stock planted on New England soil” who mapped the high Sierra and launched the U.S. Geological Survey, not the twisted soul who deceived his common-law wife, a Black woman named Ada Copeland, until confessing on his deathbed.

Last week I found something that helped me cut through more of the unthinking nostalgia that veils our scientific history in a golden haze. It’s a set of PowerPoint slides called GeoContext, easy to drop into a presentation, that treat a few selected topics in the history of geology. Powell and his generation are there, in the deck on “Landscape and Scientific Racism.” The object is to add context to the standard history to make it plain that, among other things, American geology arose as the servant of an expansionist, racist society. And that history, the site’s creators argue in an interview, is an underlying reason why people of color and women keep having to fight headwinds in their geoscience education and careers.

We have examples of the checkered past in Oakland, like Joseph Le Conte, the scientific racist who taught geology at UC Berkeley. More generally, Oakland was founded on the crime of land theft from a family who was granted the land as a reward for kidnapping the Indians who lived on it. Everything stems from that. But to illustrate the tenor of old times I think of Oakland’s rock quarries.

This is Dracena Park. On this site, in the early 1850s, Walter Blair established a quarry that supplied much of the needs of the growing city for crushed rock. He hired Chinese workers, who being at the bottom of the social ladder were the cheapest labor around. But growing anti-Chinese sentiment and outright legal bans drove them into crowded “Chinatowns” or out of the state entirely. Blair gave up the headache (he had lots of other business interests) and sold the pit. The successors worked it for a few more years and then abandoned it, leaving a “swimming hole” in which several children drowned over the next few decades. It took a hundred years before the site was turned into a park. Blair owned this land and felt free to leave a mess behind. That’s the kind of capitalism California is built on.

Competing rock quarries stayed alive with white laborers. The two largest, Oakland Paving Company and Alameda Macadamizing Company, hired Italian and Irish immigrants, respectively. In the late 1800s they split the city between them in a well-known duopoly — in its part of town, one would underbid the other by half a cent per yard — that kept their workers low-paid and kept rivals from growing. Both firms left behind large pits that festered for decades before being repurposed, one as a shopping center and the other as a tennis stadium.

Like the song goes, don’t look away, look around. Our history doesn’t make us bad people, but it does bring us up against things we’re responsible for fixing.

A pause in the disaster

1 March 2021

Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, it occurred to me that the nationwide disease outbreak was exactly like what most of us call “natural disasters” — floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, landslides, earthquakes of course, and the like. And in the literature, and on Twitter, I started to pay more attention to the specialists. Not so much the specialists in the phenomena, although those are crucial people, but the specialists who call themselves part of the disaster community: social scientists rather than natural scientists.

Those are the people who hate the term “natural disaster.” They’ll tell you “there are no natural disasters.” By that they mean an insight that galvanized me when I first read it a generation ago: “Human beings, not nature, are the cause of disaster losses. The choices that are made about where and how human development will proceed actually determine the losses that will be suffered in future disasters.”

It underlies what I do in this blog. It was in this book.

Disasters by Design came out in 1999, the outcome of a conference of disaster-related specialists sponsored by the National Science Foundation and several federal agencies. It laid out an ambitious vision of how society can deal with the disasters that happen when we get in nature’s way.

First, it pointed out that our current practices of mitigation aren’t enough. Our warning systems, building codes, and other measures succeed only in saving lives. Consider the case of hurricanes: they no longer kill many people, but they still cause record-breaking economic losses every year. Even the small ones cost more these days. Hurricanes haven’t changed much at all, but we have. The Northridge earthquake of January 1994, not such a big one, killed only a few dozen people, yet it caused more than $20 billion in insured damages alone.

And our mitigation measures have bad side effects. For example, the hurricane warning system makes people feel safer, but now it’s harder to keep them from building on the beach, from paving the dunes, from moving sand from one coast to another for short-lived patches on degrading shorelines. And in earthquake country, new structures preserve people’s lives, but the growing population is still vulnerable, living too far from jobs and served by elaborate electrical and water systems. People die less and less, but they keep paying more and more. Surely we can do better.

Disasters by Design explores how to go beyond mitigation toward a more resilient way of life, one that rolls with nature’s punches and returns to normalcy quickly. This desirable goal, “sustainable hazard mitigation,” means living politically the way we live personally, in ways our descendants won’t end up paying for. And if it’s done right, the community gains benefits beyond the insurance that the new policies provide — the people and their institutions are stronger, and wealthier too. That great work needs the help of social scientists, whose research on the people side complements the expertise on the engineering and prediction side.

The reason this book was a best-seller for its publisher, used as a textbook for a generation of practitioners and launching a movement in and beyond the disaster community, was its author. Social scientist Dennis Mileti was a gifted communicator who could hold an audience without a PowerPoint deck, a teacher who always had time for a student, and a leader who knew how to energize and drive diverse committees and teams. He went to the same conferences I do, and I sought out his talks.

Mileti died of Covid-19 on 30 January, two days before he was scheduled to get the vaccine. Last year he told a writer for the Washington Post that America’s approach to the pandemic scared him: “We have people saying, ‘It will be over soon!’ and other people saying, ‘It could be months.’ That gives the public the ability to pick the answer they like, which is the No. 1 no-no in public messaging.”

I opened my copy of his book last week — and it’s his despite having dozens of contributors — and it does not read like it’s 21 years old. The vision is still strong and the insights are still valid. You might say that means we haven’t achieved sustainable hazard mitigation, and in truth that’s a very difficult project. It takes everyone’s involvement, under skilled and patient guidance, to change a community.

But for some reason being reminded of the vision is still inspiring. And over the years I’ve seen the vision infiltrating my own piece of the disaster community, the Earth hazards sector. Tsunami specialist Lori Dengler wrote an appreciation of Mileti just last fall, which reminded me that he was involved with the ShakeOut earthquake-drill program, and before that was an advisor for this pamphlet many of you may remember from after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Dennis Mileti worked here too, for us.

And that’s just the earthquake crowd. He was involved with the full range of disasters, bringing insight into how to communicate alarms and alerts, what motivates genuine change, what steps to take beyond reciting facts at people. And yet it was a funny thing: while Mileti died of Covid-19, Disasters by Design doesn’t address disease epidemics. But over the last year I’ve read a lot of pandemic coverage, and awareness is seeping in that disease outbreaks are just part of this planet, and that if we are creating situations where animal viruses can leap to our species — imperiling ourselves by getting in nature’s way — then Covid-19 is just as much a “natural disaster” as a levee break during a flood.

It may be time for a new book that adds pandemics to the rogues gallery of disasters. It would be fitting if we could tie together the lessons learned from the pandemic and the quest to bring about sustainable hazard mitigation. Sustainability is about not just growing wisdom, but also passing wisdom forward, and Dennis Mileti did both. Let us not forget his name.

Anza and the Fan

18 January 2021

After Pedro Fages came through the East Bay in 1770 and 1772, no one from New Spain appears to have visited the land on which Oakland sits until Juan Bautista de Anza led an exploring expedition here in the spring of 1776. Scholars seem to be quite sure of where the group went, but when I examine the record I find more and more room for interpretation and inference.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve examined the manuscripts or know 18th-century Spanish. I’ve accessed translations of those manuscripts and, well, here’s some of the questionable things and wiggle room I see in the record.

  • Apparently no one in the group, neither Anza nor the group’s diarist, Father Pedro Font, had been with Fages in the earlier visits, so they had only a slim written record to compare against the countryside they saw. We can’t rely on their interpretation, especially as it appears they took a different route than Fages.
  • We can’t rely on their directions. The East Bay from Berkeley south is persistently slanted 33 degrees west of north (thanks to the Hayward fault and the plate boundary of which it’s part) making it hard to eyeball true directions; magnetic north was apparently 12 degrees east of true north at the time (thanks, NOAA); and Font complained about the poor quality of his compass, so the explorers’ impressions are suspect. The men were not experienced sailors either, people I might trust, but army soldiers. Moreover, I wonder about the transcriptions. There seem to be too many instances of “northwest” (noroeste) and not enough of “northeast” (noreste) to fit the written route on modern maps. And the scholars, whom I trust on this topic, point out that very discrepancy between different copies of these documents, all of which were made by hand.
  • We can’t rely on their distances. No one had odometers. Font did his best, prefacing his notes with a discussion of the length of the Spanish league (approximately 2.6 miles, apparently), but even so the men were on horseback whereas Fages had been on foot. On the day they came through Oakland, Anza wrote down that they went “about ten leagues” while Font put it at “some fourteen leagues.” The day’s ride was long, from Hayward to Pinole, and the group was in a hurry, with their goal still ahead of them. (And just as Fages had complained in 1772, the Anza party was beset with mosquitoes all that day.)

Long story short, I think that whereas Fages mostly skirted the Fan as he sought (and failed to find) an easy level route through Oakland, Anza rode pretty straight through it.

Anza’s group set out from their camp on San Lorenzo Creek, in present-day Hayward, that morning at 7 and rode along the foot of the hills, with a jog upstream to get across the deep arroyo of San Leandro Creek, and then on to the edge of the Fan, the hill of Pleistocene gravel occupied by Evergreen Cemetery, in the lower right corner of this digital elevation model.

Where Fages turned left to stay on the flats, Anza headed the horses straight, toward a promising gap in the hills,

and into the Allendale flat. Almost fifty years later, Luís Maria Peralta’s family would put the first hacienda on their huge East Bay land grant there, just across Peralta Creek. “About two leagues” after crossing San Leandro Creek into Oakland territory, Font wrote that they “crossed a small arroyo without water and almost without trees,” which I think was Peralta Creek. “Then a little further on we ascended a hill which is on a straight line with the mainland and the plain which runs toward a very thick grove of oaks and live oaks on the banks of the estuary,” where he sketched the view toward the Golden Gate. That is this drawing, showing the Alameda peninsula flanked by San Leandro Bay on the left and the Estuary on the right:

In my interpretation, he would have been sitting on the ridge where Patten University sits today but higher up, maybe where Lincoln Avenue starts today. It also could have been down on Carrington hill; both ridges line up with the Alameda peninsula, which was a large encinal (live-oak grove) at the time.

“Then, descending the hill, we crossed another arroyo almost without trees and with some little pools of water which did not run. This appears to be the arroyo which Father Crespi called the Arroyo del Bosque and which empties into the extremity of one arm of the estuary.” He refers to Sausal Creek as described by the Fages party in 1772.

“We continued the journey over hills and plains, crossing two more arroyos with little water, deep beds, and a heavy growth of trees, the second one having more than the other, and both of them flowing into a bay which the arm of the estuary forms on this side.” These I interpret as Indian Gulch and Pleasant Valley Creeks, which clearly both drain into Lake Merritt, which was then a narrow inlet with wide mudflats. I don’t think the group went near the Lake but instead were higher up the valleys — they were on horseback, after all.

“Afterward we entered a plain in which we crossed two small arroyos without water.” Finally they had left the hills of the Fan and were back on the East Bay plain. That would make these two streams Temescal and Strawberry Creeks. “From this plain we clearly descried the mouth of the port, and when the point of the red cliff on the inside was in line with the outer point of the mouth, I observed the direction in which they ran, and saw that it was to the west with some declination to the south.” That matches the view of the Golden Gate as seen from Berkeley.

Oakland remained something of a distant place until the San Francisco and San Jose missions had captured or driven off the native people and established their own purposes on the territory: food and fodder cultivation in the Richmond area and cattle range in the flats from Fremont to East Oakland.

I want to note that Fages and Anza did not come as conquerors. Their assignment, at the dawn of Alta California, was to establish friendly relations with the natives. They exchanged gifts with every group they met: glass beads, generally; and a surprising number of native groups gave them duck decoys in addition to food. The situation did not last. The priests could not even perceive the fine-tuned ecosystem in which the Ohlone were the keystone species, only naked children of nature who must be trained in their own god’s image.