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The American West at Risk chronicles the road our nation has taken to its current catastrophic environmental state. The authors tour the U.S. to discuss challenges our nation faces & examine viable solutions. Responding to requests for more information the environmental team has launched this Blog.


July 22, 2015

If you think you can build a home or business facility in rural Sonoma County and trust that the safety of the chosen site received a thorough and orderly review before the project proponent or subdivision developer received a permit to build, you need to reconsider. It is true that applicants for building permits in known hazard areas of California are required to obtain a geological report signed by a licensed geologist, to reasonably assure that projects will be safe from potential geologic hazards such as landslides and active faults when built. Each county is required to review those reports before issuing permits, to determine whether they are complete and adequate. In Sonoma County, however, these reports tend to be deficient in quality, and reviews perfunctory. No matter how close to an active fault, no matter how high the landslide potential, most projects can count on receiving building permits from Sonoma County.

Landslide-prone hills are a prominent component of coastal California’s landscape and active faults are numerous. Building safely requires high quality geotechnical studies on sites in known hazard zones.1 Earthquakes and exceptional rainfall events can and have generated landslides in previously stable terrain. Existing landslides may be reactivated by heavy rainfall, and also can be triggered by earthquake shaking.

In the early 1950s, heavy rains hit southern California’s sprawling post-World War II housing developments, revealing the pitfalls of poorly regulated development on unstable hillsides. The results of severe property damage and loss of life from landsliding spurred some county permitting authorities to independently require site approval reports and set qualifications for geologists who would do the reports. They also set requirements for the contents of the reports. The standards adopted by an array of local authorities were inconsistent with one another, however, burdening applicants and everyone in the permitting system.

Both civil authorities and geoscientists soon recognized that statewide standards were needed for licensing the geologists who inspect properties, and for the contents of their reports. This recognition led to a state statute and the 1968 creation of a State Board of Registration for Geologists to interpret and administer it.2 All previous and projected local certification boards and regulations were eliminated by 1970.

The Board of Registration for Geologists was later expanded to include Geophysicists and renamed the Board for Geologists and Geophysicists (BGG). The duties and authority of the Board are encompassed by what is currently called the Geologist and Geophysicist Act, embodied in California Business and Professions Code §§ 7800-7887, as amended January 1, 2014.

The BGG’s mission was clear at the start:

Protection of the public shall be the highest priority for the board in exercising its licensing, regulatory, and disciplinary functions. Whenever the protection of the public is inconsistent with other interests sought to be promoted, the protection of the public shall be paramount.”

Fulfillment of this mission has proved elusive, however. Real estate lobbyists, and some geologists who resisted allowing a government agency to look over their shoulders, vigorously opposed the BGG’s creation. Some engineers opposed integrating their authority with that of geologists, and lobbied against the BGG. These kinds of tangled interests likely hindered the Board’s operations at first.

Most information about the BGG’s performance in its first decades is deeply buried or unavailable, but accounts of inaction and lack of commitment to the Boards’ purpose appear in the record.3 In the 1990s, however, the BGG took on a strong public protection role for policing the unlicensed practice of geology and penalizing malpractice by licensed geologists.

By 2000 the BGG was more successfully protecting the public from deficient geotechnical reports, which drew fire from many special interests. But in 2009, during a budget-reduction campaign, it was abolished by legislative fiat and its duties under the Geologist and Geophysicist Act were transferred to the Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (BPELS). Incorporation of the BGG functions into BPELS did not include transfer of BGG professional staff. This action had no fiscal justification because the BGG was entirely financed by fees and penalties.

Since the BGG to BPELS (later the BPELSG) transition, weaknesses in the legal provisions (statutes) have deflected and compromised the new Board’s oversight of the practice of geology. The statutes are lists of prohibited practices, essentially stating commonly accepted ethical business standards.4 But geology is not solely a business or a profession; it is a science. Oversight of geologists’ practices requires scientifically-established standards of practice, which should be either mandatory or actively promoted by the Board. Also needed is a requirement for rigorous, independent, substantive peer reviews of all geotechnical reports, based on scientifically-established standards of practice, before they can be approved by county or local permitting authorities.

Abolition of the BGG was widely condemned by professional geological and geophysical organizations and individuals in California. The BPELS held two town hall meetings to assess reaction to the regulatory change, and these meetings revealed widespread concern about the BPELS’s lack of professional geological staff to oversee the practice of geology, and of geologic representation on the Board. In 2010, the BPELS was able to add a single licensed geologist, and was renamed the Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors and Geologists (BPELSG).5

After filing a Complaint for Declaratory Relief, the California Association of Professional Geologists proposed a settlement agreement that would have reestablished the BGG as a separately controlled entity within the BPELSG, in full charge of administering the Geologist and Geophysicist Act.6 This proposal was temporarily fulfilled by creation of the Geologist and Geophysicist Program, with its own staff (two administrative staff transferred from the BGG) within the BPELSG. But in October 2014, reorganization of the Enforcement Unit of BPELSG compromised this agreement by allowing any Enforcement Analyst (EA) on staff to manage issues involving geologists and geophysicists, although the qualifications for the EAs’ positions bear no relation to scientific disciplines. 7

Administration of the Geologist and Geophysicist Act

Prior to the 2014 changes, BPELSG performed all principal functions required by the G&G Act with only two full time staff, neither of them educated or trained in geology, and only one licensed geologist Board member.8 In contrast, under the BGG those jobs had been performed by an 8-member Board and staff of nine. As of April 2015, the BPELSG Enforcement Unit staff still has no geologist or geophysicist, licensed or not.

Since Board decisions, including disciplinary actions, are decided by majority vote, its lack of geologic experience and expertise puts geologists and geophysicists who come under review at a distinct disadvantage, and fails the public, which they are enjoined to serve.

BPELSG’s Enforcement Function for Geologists and Geophysicists. The BPELSG may initiate disciplinary actions, but most originate as complaints against either an unlicensed person practicing geology, or a licensed geologist for malpractice. The disciplinary process (Figure 1) is loosely performed by the Board, and details of recent cases show that it is not strictly adhered to in important ways.

Information on how the process actually is implemented at any given stage, which personnel are responsible for implementation, and what their qualifications are to perform the various prescribed tasks, is difficult to find. The following is a brief summary of one BPELSG explanation of the process. It reveals a significant lack of transparency for a public agency, and exposes the hazards confronting professional geologists in a system dominated by engineers.

Figure 1. Complaint investigation protocols Figure 1. Complaint investigation protocols

BPELSG description of the process for investigating malpractice complaints. The following statements are excerpts from an informal explanation of the complaint process, presented to the Board by Executive Officer Richard Moore PLS in 2012 .9

When a complaint is received, an analyst is assigned to the case to investigate whether or not violations occurred. The analyst is then in contact with multiple individuals, such as the complainant and the subject, as needed. Analysts consult with the Board’s various senior registrars10 during the investigation, as well as sending it to an independent expert. These are some examples of who the staff will contact. The analyst will interact with these various parties as necessary. Not all parties will be involved in all cases. It is dependent on the specifics of the complaint. [O]nce the analyst has compiled, documented, and made determinations necessary for the investigation, they then work with an independent expert to prepare a draft recommendation to submit to the enforcement manager for review and make the final recommendations which usually results in one of three scenarios: close with no action, refer for citation (informal enforcement action), or refer for formal disciplinary action. Mr. Duke [Board Legal Counsel] expanded by saying the legal effect of the citation that is paid is that it is not an admission of guilt or violation. It is considered an enforcement action not a disciplinary action; however, there are consequences as it is public record.

A document titled Filing a Complaint against an Engineer, Land Surveyor, Geologist or an Unlicensed Person11 emphasizes the importance of the first step in filing and assessing a complaint:

In order to investigate your complaint, you need to provide the Board with all of the information you have about the problem …. The Board needs all the facts you can provide in order to process your complaint. The Board does not have the staff to investigate inquiries based only upon suspicion or speculation. Be sure to provide copies of all documents about your complaint, including plans, drawings, calculations, maps, reports, plan check comments, letters, contracts, and invoices.” [emphasis in original].

These statements indicate that a BPELSG Enforcement Analyst, with no basic training in geology under current staffing, may be confronted with the task of interpreting geologic reports, maps, charts, and other specialized technical data to evaluate the relevance, accuracy, and sufficiency of documentation supporting a complaint. Thereafter the analyst is charged with “compiling, documenting, and making determinations necessary for the investigation, and only then working with an independent expert to prepare a draft recommendation to be used by the enforcement manager for finalizing recommendations to the Board.”

Although the two BGG staff transferred to the Geologist and Geophysicist Program regard themselves as “experts in regards to requirements, statement details and supporting documentation that are necessary to pursue a complaint,12 these are heavy burdens to place on an analyst with no geology training, as will be evident in the examples described below and in Part Two.

Upon issuance of a formal Citation, the person charged is entitled to request an Informal Conference by a BPELSG panel, including an independent Expert Consultant (formerly called Technical Expert). For any Citation affirmed by the Informal Conference panel, the person charged is entitled to request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.

BPELSG Enforcement Processes and Procedures–Examples

Reversal of well-considered BGG Citation: Among the earliest BPELSG actions involving geologists was the February 2010 reversal of a Citation that had been issued by BGG in 2009, just before its incorporation into the BPELS. This Citation had resulted from a citizen’s complaint against a licensed geologist’s geotechnical report for a proposed subdivision near Healdsburg, California.13 The BGG investigation of the complaint began in 2007 (Case No. 2007-52) and ended with a review by an independent Expert Consultant who found a number of inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the report that “constitute negligence and/or incompetence” on the part of its author, specifically as it relates to presentation of basic geologic data, geologic interpretations, public safety and geologic hazards associated with slope stability…”. The formal Citation was released by BGG in March 2009, prior to the BGG’s abolishment.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported this action, including the Accused’s statement that: “…the state board [BGG] misunderstood the purpose of his preliminary feasibility study, which was for planning purposes, not site-specific analyses.” This statement does not conform to the Geologist and Geophysicist Act, which does not make exceptions to the standards for inaccuracies and misrepresentations of geologic information in feasibility studies or reports intended for planning, or any other purpose. To the contrary, the Act affirms the basic duty of the Board to protect the public from geologic misinformation in all reports.

The citation apparently was appealed, but its status at the time of BGG incorporation into the BPELS (October 2009) is not known. Charges of negligence and/or incompetence are not unknown to the BPELSG, whose website lists numerous examples of revocation of engineers’ and occasionally of land surveyors’ licenses on just those charges. Nevertheless, in February 2010, the BPELS’ Expert Consultant, acting through a Board and staff that had not one member with knowledge or training in geology, overturned the findings of the BGG board and staff’s licensed geologists and its independent expert.

Cases filed with BGG, decided by BPELSG. In its final year, the BGG had received three additional complaints against professional geologists employed by consulting firms, one lodged against the same consultant cited in the above matter, but had reached no decisions before it was abolished. The BPELSG reviewed these complaints, and in each case stated “as part of our investigation, we had an independent technical expert [Expert Consultant] review all of the information we received.” All these complaints were dismissed, citing only the Expert Consultants’ conclusions, without any additional Board investigation (see Figure 1).

The BPELSG denied requests for copies of the independent Expert Consultants’ reviews in two of these cases under the Public Records Act, on the basis of a questionable claim of exemption.14

Complaints filed with BPELSG. On June 16, 2011 three separate complaints, each having the same date, were made against an independent licensed geologist for his work at three different sites over a period of 10 years. Two complaints were based on the Licensee’s (hereafter the Accused) review of project reports that had been prepared by other licensed geologists.15 The Accused had performed those reviews for groups of citizens opposed to the projects. The third complaint was based on geotechnical work done on the Accused’s own property, prior to construction of his private home. Despite the highly unusual simultaneous filing of three complaints spanning 10 years, all were reported through by an Enforcement Analyst (EA) for investigation, ostensibly following the protocols in Figure 1.

One of these complaints [CG 2010-06] was dismissed without issuance of a Citation on the conclusion by an Expert Consultant (Step 4 Figure 1 or later) that “…there is no instance where you [Accused] departed from the standard of practice, and you were not incompetent and/or negligent in regards to your letter report.” Pursuant to a second complaint [CG 2010-20], a Citation and proposed monetary penalty were issued, but were vacated by the Informal Conference panel, after exposure of the following process violations:

  • a Citation allegation held the Accused responsible for “deficiencies” in a geotechnical report that had been prepared and signed by a different licensed geologist, not the Accused;
  • new charges were alleged in the Citation without giving the Accused an opportunity to respond

During investigation of the three initial complaints, a fourth complaint was filed on November 6, 2012 against the same licensed geologist for malpractice (CG 2012-06) in still another winery issue. It advanced to a Citation and penalty, but was vacated by the Informal Conference panel, after exposure of the following process violations:

  • the BPELSG failed in its duty to investigate complaints with due diligence by erroneously charging the accused with presenting a map he created but did not sign to a state agency at a public meeting, thereby making it a public document. The map, a working document, had not been presented at a public meeting but had been provided to agency staff during a private meeting, at staff request for internal use. Those facts could easily have been verified through contacts with the agency staff.
  • a charge of conflict of interest was unsupported by any evidence, in violation of California Code of Regulations Title 16, Division 29 § 3063(c). The assumptions behind the charge could easily have been verified by contacting the parties involved
  • no opportunity was provided the Accused to respond to these charges prior to issuance of notice of Citation, contrary to the BPELSG’s stated procedures.

The third of the three initial complaints is reviewed in Part Two because it was the only complaint not dismissed by Informal Conference review and went the full route of adjudication by an Administrative Law Judge. The performance of the BPELSG and recommendations for its reform are discussed in Part Three.

The complaint allegations and Accused’s responses in all of these cases are provided at

References and Notes

1Before a City or County can apply for federal assistance following a natural disaster, FEMA requires them to have created Hazard Mitigation Plans, including maps of geologic hazard zones, and to implement permitting requirements that reduce the level of hazard

2The Board comprised eight members: two licensed geologists, one licensed geophysicist and five public members. To obtain a license requires applicants to show specified educational achievements and experience, and also pass examinations prescribed by the Board. To make sure Subjects adhere to specified standards of practice, the Board was accorded enforcement authority for penalizing violators with formal reprimands, fines, license forfeiture, and, in extreme cases, with recommending criminal prosecution

3The BGG became more active after a 1990 newspaper investigation showed it had taken no disciplinary actions against registered geologists over its 20-year history (Guy McCarthy, State’s Top Geology Cop Focuses Inland, San Bernardino County Sun, 13 April, 2005)

4The guts of statutory performance requirements are mainly that unlicensed persons may not practice geology, licensed practitioners may not misrepresent themselves, provide negligent or incompetent advice in their reports, and may not have conflicts of interest. These are stated in California Business and Professions Code §§7800-7887, particularly §7860 and Title 16, California Code of Regulations §§3000-3067, particularly §3065. None of these regulations provides standards of acceptable performance except in the negative

5The BPELSG currently has 13 members comprising four engineers, one land surveyor, two geologists, and six public members. Positions for one engineer and two public members are unfilled. Each member has an equal voice in BPELSG decisions, including disciplinary actions (Business and Professions Code Article 5, § 7860(b)), which are decided on majority vote

6January 2010, Proposed Settlement Agreement

7The October 2014 reorganization of BPELSG’s Enforcement Unit eliminated a separate unit for the Geologist and Geophysicist Program, thus making any of the eleven Enforcement Analysts available to manage enforcement actions involving geologists and geophysicists. EAs, according to the Enforcement Unit Manager, all hold California civil service classifications of Associate Governmental Program Analyst, with qualifications described at

These include: education and/or equivalent to graduation from college (whether 2-year or 4-year is not specified). Substitutions allowed include performing duties in the ”closely related areas [of] budgeting, management analysis, personnel, program evaluation, or policy analysis.” Limited substitution is permitted for graduate training in “… business administration, management, industrial relations, psychology, law, political science, or a related field.” There is nothing in these qualifications that remotely qualifies a person to judge the intricacies of scientific disciplines.

8A second professional geologist was added to the BPELSG in early 2015

9Minutes of the Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists, August 30, 2012, p. 5-6, VIII. Enforcement, B. Presentation on the Complaint Investigation Process. This is a transcribed oral presentation with a number of forgivable grammatical transgressions, but also some entirely vague elements.

10The BPELSG has four staff Subject positions, referred to as Registrars. According to the Enforcement Manager, the Registrars do not investigate the complaints, although they may provide assistance to the Enforcement Unit regarding issues relating to complaint investigations. The four positions are Civil Engineer, Electrical Engineer, Geologist, and Land Surveyor. The position for Geologist has never been filled

12Email response from the Geologist and Geophysicist Program Lead Enforcement Analyst, March 13, 2013

13Geologic and Geotechnical Investigation, Saggio Hills, Healdsburg, California, October 29, 2004

14The California Public Records Act licensing exemption (Government Code, § 6254(f), which exempts “any investigatory or security files compiled by any…state…agency for…licensing purposes” is modified by the BPELSG to state “…records of complaints and investigative files compiled by a state agency for licensing purposes are exempt from disclosure.” Although the licensing exemption does not mention complaints, the BPELSG conveniently defines the exemption to withhold as confidential all records containing the reasons behind any of the Board’s license actions. This clearly violates the Board’s mandate that “Protection of the public shall be the highest priority for the board in exercising its licensing, regulatory, and disciplinary functions” in those cases where public safety may be involved

15The complaints were the first in a more than 40-year career as a licensed geologist, otherwise unblemished. For nearly 12 years, he reviewed geotechnical reports for Los Angeles County, on projects ranging from placement of a gazebo to residential subdivisions as large as 2,000 individual lots (the Bramlea California subdivision in Diamond Bar, L.A. County)


PRACTICING GEOLOGY IN HAZARDOUS LANDS: COASTAL CALIFORNIA (Part Two–Administrative Court Hearing of Case CG 2010-13)

July 22, 2015

Of three initial complaints investigated by BPELSG, only one survived through the Informal Conference stage of the process [CG 2010-13] by the end of 2013. The Accused appealed this complaint in a formal hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, the last stage available for redress. The hearing took place June 3-4 and November 19-21, 2014. The contested work was the Accused’s review of reports prepared by licensed geologists for construction of a wine Tasting Room, evaluation of the water supply for the project, and the alleged absence of a geotechnical report on the project site.

Below I review aspects of this process in detail, because it reveals additional significant issues in current BPELSG implementation of the Geologist and Geophysicist Act, and the full scope of the process that a licensed geologist may face if required to defend his or her practice.

The formal CG 2010-13 Citation listed six violations of the Geologist and Geophysicist Act and Title 16 of the California Code of Regulations, relating to the Accused’s qualifications and representations. The Accused’s responses to these charges are in the Table Allegations and Responses, under Case CG 2010-13 in

Hearing Before Administrative Law Judge Kirk Miller1

Charge-1 “[The Accused] conducted a review of the Fort Ross Vineyard Tasting Room…and prepared a report… submitted to Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department (County) on October 29, 2010. On October 29 [the Accused] reviewed the relevant County files and acknowledged there was a geotechnical report in the County files that he had not reviewed regarding the subject site. [The Accused] violated the G&G Act (B&P Code section 7850(b)(2)) and Title 16, CCR 3065(c)(5) when he failed to withdraw and/or modify his… report. Portions of the report, as submitted, were a misrepresentation of the contents of the materials filed for the project and had no basis in fact (i.e., existence and relevance of the RGH geotechnical report and its contents).”

This charge is based on statements in the Accused’s report, stating that no geotechnical report on slope stability had been prepared for the project, leaving that important issue unassessed.

The absence of a geotechnical report in the project file during the public review period is amply demonstrated in the Accused’s response to the charge, corroborated by credible witnesses. In addition, no such document is listed in the Revised Mitigated Negative Declaration, dated September 10, 2010, which had been prepared for the project.2 The charge neglects to mention that the Accused submitted his report to the public record at the very end of the public review period. Following submittal of the report, he reviewed the file and found there a report by consultant RGH, with a title that contained the word “geotechnical.“3

Upon his discovery of the so-titled geotechnical report, the Accused immediately notified his client, and was instructed to write a letter about the finding for the client, but to do no additional work as the public review period was over and the client could not pay for additional work.

In his testimony, a Mr. Johnson, identified as the BPELSG’s Expert Consultant, asserted that whether the Accused had submitted his report before or after discovering the RGH report was “absolutely” irrelevant. Mr. Johnson said that the Accused had the duty to provide a factual report that would allow county reviewers to decide what weight to give his report. If his client does not authorize additional work, Mr. Johnson stated, the Accused “…has no other choice…than to withdraw the report.

In fact, however, once a report is date-stamped and submitted to the public record it cannot be withdrawn or modified. Under cross examination, Mr. Johnson revealed that he did not know the regulations regarding withdrawal of a dated report in a public file.

It thus appears that neither the BPELSG’s Expert Consultant Johnson nor the BPELSG’s Enforcement Section that prepared the Citation, had knowledge critical to the correct execution of their duties.

Charge-2 “[The accused] violated the G&G Act (B&P Code § 7860(b)(2)) and Title 16, CCR § 3065(c)(5) when he prepared a regional landslide setting map that shows large scale landslides that he drew across the subject property while the actual California Division of Mines and Geology Special Report 120 [CDMG SR-120] map does not show any potential landslides in the area.

This charge was an extra allegation, not present in Mr. Johnson’s Expert Consultant’s report to BPELSG leading to Citation, dated August 12, 20114. It is identical to an allegation in the written response from a different Expert Consultant, Mr. Chuck Kull, in response to a request from BPELSG, dated December 19, 2011. This additional report was admitted as hearsay evidence by the Court.

The charge is incorrect on a number of points, as enumerated below:

  • Kull’s statement that the SR-120 map does not show any potential landslides in the area is incorrect. This question was covered intensively at the October 4, 2012, Informal Conference, over which Mr. Kull presided. At that time, Mr. Kull agreed that SR-120 does indeed show many potential landslides in the area.
  • The charge was also in error for stating that the Accused’s report shows large-scale landslides that he drew across the property. The Accused’s report clearly stated that his map showed areas where inspection of several sets of air photos, more recent than SR-120, revealed features indicative of landsliding that needed further investigation. Both the Accused’s map and his words indicated that the mapped areas have landslide potential and would require further investigation, as is common geologic practice (see discussion in SR-120).

Charge-3. The Accused was in violation of the provisions cited in Charge-2 “when he claimed that he had performed a site reconnaissance even though he was never on the site.

This charge also is semantic, but it carried the implication that the Accused had never visited the project area. In his testimony, Mr. Johnson expressed his opinion that a “…’site reconnaissance ‘ has a particular meaning in the field of geology: That you actually physically set foot on the property” and walked it in order to make a report. The authoritative American Geological Institute Glossary of Geology, introduced by the Accused’s defense, does not agree that a reconnaissance even requires a site visit, however, depending on the information sought.

The Accused’s witnesses disputed the implication that he had not visited the site. Both witnesses had independently visited the site and confirmed that the Accused could not have made the observations in his report without having visited the site. At the time of the Accused’s visit to the site it had been fenced and posted No Trespassing, so the Accused had confined his observations to what he could see from accessible areas beyond the property boundary, including the immediately adjacent roadside. The project building site was fully visible from the road.

Charge 4. The Accused was in violation of the provisions cited in Charge-2 “when he claimed there is no apparent rock outcrop in the vicinity of the proposed building; however, there are reports that document outcropping at the site.

This is another semantic charge. The Accused stated explicitly in his report that the project construction area was visible from the road and he saw no rock outcrops in that specific area. The BPELSG did not reference the supposed reports of rock outcroppings, and the words “vicinity” and “site” are not sufficiently restrictive to contradict the Accused’s statement. No geologist, other than Expert Consultant Johnson, who had not visited the site, disputed the presence of rock outcrops on the large property that includes the project site. In fact, one of the expert reports commissioned by the property owner states that there are no rock outcrops on the building site, which had been leveled off many years before.

Charge 5. The Accused was in violation of the provisions cited in Charge-2 “when he stated in his October 27, 2010 report that ‘it appears significant grading would be required for the project; however he states that he did not review the grading plan.’

This charge is another semantic exercise, dependent on the definition of “significant” earth grading. What, if anything, relevant to the question was contained in a grading plan was not revealed in the accusation or Citation. In fact no document representing a grading plan was even submitted to the Court. Lacking any supporting evidence for the Court, the charge was dropped by the complainant at the hearing.

Charge 6. “In an unrelated report entitled ‘Geologic Review of The Geoservices Group Geologic Report in support of the Delectus Wine Complex…’ [the Accused] stated…’My review report does not address the issue of water availability because that is not my area of expertise.’ On page 2 he further noted ‘A review of the water availability issues affecting the proposed project is not within the scope of my services…’ [The Accused] violated Title 16, CCR §§ 3065(b)(1) (c)(1) when he approximately 6 months later, with apparently no change in professional qualifications, reviewed and critically evaluated water availability reports…for the subject Fort Ross Vineyard Tasting Room.

This charge is based on the meaning of the term “water availability,” which the BPELSG and its Expert Consultant Johnson construed to be an area of investigation solely reserved to licensees certified as hydrogeologists. The term “water availability” is not formally defined in geology, so much of the dispute results from differing opinions rather than regulatory requirements.

The questions addressed in the hearing relate to the Accused’s qualifications to critique “water availability” findings in two consultants’ reports supporting the project.5 In testifying for the Board, Mr. Johnson stated: “What [water availability] means to me is that [if] you’re going to adequately opine on water availability, you have to have a specialty or special knowledge that goes beyond just basic geology, [and that]…actually, water availability is more a civil engineering and a hydrology, rather than a basic geology question.

The Boudreau report contained the only geologic characterization of the site, and a second report, by EBA engineering, bolstered the Boudreau report without performing any additional geologic investigations. The Accused had criticized Boudreau’s characterization of site geology, based on multiple unsubstantiated assumptions, including the hypothesized presence of a sandstone aquifer in a restricted area at the well site, aquifer dimensions based on a suspect driller’s log, inconsistency with adjacent road-cut exposures near the well site that do not expose sandstone bodies, and a speculative cross section that does not conform to standards.

The Accused’s report did not specifically criticize Boudreau’s water supply estimate, but addressed the geologic data, stating: “The evaluation of water availability appears to consist of an initial investigation by E.H. Boudreau and analysis of the Boudreau ‘data’ by EBA Engineering. The data appear incomplete and contradictory and the interpretations and conclusions derived from those data, therefore, appear questionable.

The defense lawyer asked Expert Consultant Johnson: “Doesn’t it appear to you … that [the Accused] is limiting himself to looking at the geologic data?” His answer included the following statements: “… I think on the surface I would agree with that. But the problem … is that going from a collection of various types of data to coming to an answer requires an expert to make decisions on every aspect of the data that goes into the input to the final calculation [of water availability].” Johnson further identified Boudreau, the proponent’s consultant, as an “expert,” who had observed the area and collected data from a well drilling log and a pump test, and proposed a geologic model for the site. He used that information, and general ranges of hydrologic values to “roughly” estimate the water supply for the proposed project.

Johnson concluded, “In fact, [the Accused] may have been discussing geologic principles, but he can’t pull that whole thing apart and render it useless without being an expert in that particular topic [meaning hydrology].” Thus, Mr. Johnson seems to represent the BPELSG as holding that data are inseparable from interpretation, and that data on which a conclusion is based can only be evaluated by the “expert” reaching the conclusion. Were this an acceptable scientific doctrine, there would be no such thing as peer review.

Contrary to Johnson’s testimony, the BPELSG requires candidates for certification as hydrogeologists to first be licensed as Professional Geologists (PG), which attests to the fundamental role of geology for defining hydrologic characteristics. In addition, courses recommended for those preparing to take the PG licensing examinations include basic hydrologic topics.

Thus the Accused’s critique of Boudreau’s geologic interpretations followed generally accepted scientific practice, and did not require that the Accused have any knowledge, experience, or licensure exceeding that implied by the licensure and experience that he does have.

Proposed Decision

The Administrative Court Judge found for the Accused on all charges in the Citation, as follows:

Issue 1. Cause to issue a Citation due to respondent’s failure to withdraw or modify the October 27, 2010 report was not established

Issue 2. Cause to issue the Citation for filing a misleading map was not established

Issue 3. Cause to issue a Citation based on respondent’s use of the term “site reconnaissance” was not established

Issue 4. Cause to issue a Citation for respondent’s description of outcroppings was not established

Issue 5. Complainant acknowledged at the conclusion of the hearing that this portion of the Citation was not proven

Issue 6. Cause to issue the Citation for misrepresentation of professional qualifications was not established

Summary Decision

Citation Order CG 2010-13 against respondent [the Accused] is dismissed.

Signed by Administrative Law Judge Kirk E. Miller, December 30, 2014

What Happens Next

It is important to note that this is a Proposed Decision to the agency, the Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists, which is the complainant in the case. The Board then has the following options under the Administrative Procedures Act, Government Code, §§ 11500-11529, available at ; they are in summary:

1) adopt the proposed decision;

2) adopt part of the proposed decision and discard other parts;

3) reject the proposed decision and either refer it to another administrative law judge for more inquiry; or

4) reject it and decide the case “upon the record,” probably requiring the Accused party to pay to provide a transcript of the proceedings.

These rules are astonishingly one-sided. Even if the agency has to back down on the charges, it can keep the Accused in a state of extended double jeopardy for many months (for starters, the agency has 100 days to decide on its option). Under item 3) the agency has the option to start the whole procedure again under the jurisdiction of the same or a different Administrative Law Judge, and item 4 allows the agency to discard the proposed decision and re-decide the case on the basis of the record. A requirement under item 4 allows the “parties opportunity to present oral or written argument before the agency” all over again — essentially an opportunity to repeat everything he or she has said in response to the initial complaint, to the citation, in the Informal Conference, and at trial.

An accused person might not expect this repetition to have any effect on the agency, if the testimony had had none up to that point. If the agency were to miraculously find in favor of an accused licensee, it has another 100 days before having to notify the licensee of that fact.

Agency Decision

In the case of CG 2010-13, the miracle did occur. The Accused received the following message:

The attached Corrected Proposed Decision of the Administrative Law Judge is hereby adopted by the Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists in the above entitled matter [Case No. CG 2010-13].

This Decision shall become effective on May 15, 2015

IT IS SO ORDERED April 16, 2015

The corrections to the Proposed Decision are reportedly of code citations, without substantive change in the Judge’s Proposed Decision, which dismissed all the charges.


It Ain’t Over ‘till It’s Over
– attributed to Yogi Berra

Along with the Decision announcement, the Accused received a copy of Section 11521 of the Administrative Procedures Act. Part (a) of this section allows the Board to reconsider all or a part of its decision, and for any party to petition for reconsideration, within 30 days of the date the decision was mailed or delivered to the respondent, or at the end of a stay of not to exceed 30 days, which the agency may grant for the purpose of filing an application for reconsideration. If additional time is needed to evaluate a petition for reconsideration, another 10 days may be granted by the agency.

Part (b) of Section 11521 states that “The case may be reconsidered by the agency itself on all the pertinent parts of the record and such additional evidence and argument as may be permitted, or may be assigned to an administrative law judge. A reconsideration assigned to an administrative law judge shall be subject to the procedure in Section 11517.” Section 11517, as described above, allows 100 days from the date of receipt of the Proposed Decision for the Board to consider the Proposed Decision.

In virtually identical language, and under the same rules stated in Section 11517, Part (b) of Section 22521 permits the BPELSG to go through the very same procedure for reconsidering the document that was allowed for considering the document in the first place. In the event that a reconsideration is heard by an Administrative Law Judge, Section 11517(b)(3) apparently permits another 100 days for the agency to review the reconsidered decision.

This raises the question of how much time might pass after a Judge provides his or her Proposed Decision based on the initial hearing, before a case may really be settled?

  • 100 days from the date of receipt of the decision is allowed for BPELSG to review a Proposed Decision.
  • For case 2010-13, that date of receipt was January 8, 2015, and the effective deadline for the BPELSG’s decision was May 15, 2015, a total of 126 days. The additional time was given so that purely referential changes to the Judge’s decision could be entered into the record.
  • The Accused’s waiting time can be extended by a possible 70 days under Section 11521(a) and a possible 100 days under Section 11521(b)
  • There could be, as well, an unknown length of time for a second adjudication of the case, for a total of close to 300 or more days.


The process described for the case of a California-licensed geoscientist, who had been accused of multiple infractions of the State Code illustrates multiple failures of the Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists, the Board’s Enforcement Unit, and its Expert Consultants. An administrative law judge’s judgment of one complaint and the Board’s actions on three additional complaints with two citations all went against the BPELSG, underscoring the early pattern of failures, which will be further discussed in Part 3.

The simple fact is that a licensing agency equipped with dispassionate Enforcement Analysts, who are well-trained in earth sciences, would never have allowed most of the complaints to be investigated, because they lacked any factual support. The Board’s hired Expert Consultants provided flawed information that could easily be refuted by standard references, and even the BPELSG’s website. In addition to training for its own staff, this clearly shows that the BPELSG needs an effective means of screening experts in the geosciences.


1The case for the BPELSG is presented by Jonathan Cooper, Deputy Attorney General, and for the Respondent Kimberly Burr, Attorney at Law. Witnesses for the BPELSG: Jeffrey Johnson, Expert Consultant, who also acted as Expert Consultant in BPELSG’s investigation that led to the Citation here contested; and a written communication from Chuck Kull (acting as a second Expert Consultant hired by the BPELSG). Witnesses for Respondent (here referred to as the Accused): Jay Smith, geologist, and Jane Nielson, geologist

2The California Environmental Quality Act requires listing of all relevant reports considered during the decision-making process in the CEQA document

3The missing “geotechnical report”–RGH Consultants, Geotechnical Study Report, Fort Ross Vineyard Tasting Room, 15001 Meyers Grade Road, Jenner, California, August 6, 2009—is not a comprehensive geotechnical report. It’s principal purpose appears to be examination of soils at foundation points. It does not constitute a slope stability report

4Apparently the report delivered by Mr. Johnson, as Expert Consultant in the Fort Ross case, was deemed insufficient by the BPELSG, in particular as it exonerated the Accused in all issues investigated other than Charges 1 and 6. Charges 2 through 5 are all identical to those provided in Mr. Kull’s report, dated 4 months after Mr. Johnson’s report and 4 months before issuance of the Citation

5E.H. Boudreau, Geology & Groundwater Potential: Schwartz Property, 15001 Meyers Grade Road, Jenner, California, December 2009; EBA Engineering, Geologic Report for General Policy WR-2e 15001 Meyers Grade Road, Jenner, CA (UPE09-0027), EBA Job No. 10-1665, July 21, 2010


July 22, 2015

This review of the California Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists (BPELSG) enforcement policies and implementation procedures reveals substantial imbalances in the Board’s process and confusion about its role of overseeing geologic practices as an agency of the California Department of Consumer Affairs with the objective of protecting the public. This confusion appears largely due to a lack of geology and geophysics fields represented on the Board, and complete absence of staff geologic expertise.

Having inherited BGG complaint investigations, the BPELSG immediately demonstrated a willingness to excuse flawed reports of licensed geologists that had been thoroughly investigated by qualified BGG reviewers, and judged to be harmful to the public’s interests.

The BPELSG then failed to follow a competent investigative process for evaluating charges discussed in Parts 1 and 2, brought against a single individual, with a previously-unblemished record of geotechnical work during 40+ years of professional practice, and instead issued three indefensible Citations. That the list of complaints against this Accused licensee, cited in Parts 1 and 2, mostly lacked any of the specifics or evidence required by law, and that some were so poorly worded as to be incoherent, reveal the greater depth of this problem. It is not surprising that three of those citations have had to be vacated, and the fourth also was dismissed by the decision of a State administrative court.

This pattern of conduct suggests that the Board has participated in harassment of the Accused for having critically reviewed inadequate geotechnical project reports by licensed geologists. Testimony from a BPELSG expert consultant to a State Administrative court contradicted the Board’s own standard for licensing hydrogeologists suggests that the accusations represent an attempt to restrict the practice of Professional Geologists.

Enforcement actions involving this licensed geologist (hereafter the Accused), undertaken entirely under the BPELSG’s authority, show that the Board:

(a) improperly assigned unlicensed staff with no training in geology to implement much of the enforcement process;

(b) failed to thoroughly investigate obviously erroneous and inadmissible allegations, and also failed to identify false allegations based on BPELSG licensing criteria. At the very least, staff failed to demand specifics for each charge or supportive documentation, or both, or to rigorously examine documentation provided in support of complaints.

(c) routinely failed to follow regulatory guidelines that require a description with particularity for each citation, providing the basis of the citation in addition to citation of the specific code violated1;

(d) violated its own regulations regarding the signing of geotechnical reports and ignored its own legal/regulatory requirements for Certification of Hydrogeologists2;

(e) improperly reworded complaint allegations to assert them as fact-based accusations during investigation;

(f) improperly issued Citations that introduced new charges, without providing the Accused any opportunity to respond to them;

(g) improperly ignored the Accused’s requests for an opportunity to examine and verify documents named or alluded to in Citations;

(h) improperly issued Citations that manipulated the wording of complaint allegations to alter their literal meaning, giving the Accused no opportunity for additional response;

(i) employed Expert Consultants who made decisions and gave testimony in conflict with regulations governing the practice of geology in California and showed ignorance of the prevalence of Sonoma County geologic hazard zones, without adequate supervision or review; and

(j) failed to obtain rigorous reviews of Expert Consultants’ reports that recommended issuing Citations against the Accused.

The result of these failures was a series of enforcement actions that discredit the BPELSG, and open it to charges of favoritism, illegal actions, negligent violation of its own regulations and procedures, and of failing to protect the public’s interests.

Inadequate Complaints and Reviews. Focusing on two complaints that the BPELSG processed and issued citations on, it is clear that Geology and Geophysics Program staff did not understand the purposes of peer reviews, such as the Accused performed for his clients.

The purpose of peer review is to evaluate the accuracy and completeness of a report. Both the authors and users of geotechnical reports (e.g. City/County Planning Departments) benefit from such reviews. Support for exacting reviews of independent geotechnical reports by licensed geologic experts ought to be a critical element of the Board’s mission to protect the public from geotechnical malpractice or from lack of adherence to State and County standards.

Instead of seriously examining issues of malpractice in reports supporting proposed projects that the Accused reviewed, or issues of missing technical reports, the Citations focused on complainant allegations of the reviewer’s supposed misdeeds. There is not one instance in which the BPELSG found any of the Accused’s substantive geological criticisms to be invalid.

Thus the BPELSG’s actions appear aimed at shooting a messenger whose peer reviews reveal substandard work. This does not constitute protection of the public.

At minimum, the BPELSG’s failures are due to a lack of geological expertise, both on the Board and among the staff, and failure to obtain competent and independent Expert Consultants. These Board membership and staffing deficiencies likely are due to incorporating BGG duties and authority into the BPELS without adding enough geological expertise to the Board and staff. Rectifying these failures will require:

(a) a fully transparent BPELSG process for evaluating and investigating complaints against licensed geologists who have performed peer reviews of technical reports produced by other licensed geologists,

(b) a proper, and already authorized, program of the Board to continuously improve, clarify, and publicize the standards of geologic practice to which such geotechnical reports should be held;

(c) much more active scrutiny, involving State (CGS) and academic geologists, of the geologic practice of individual and licensed geologists in consulting firms, who prepare geotechnical reports for project proponents,

(d) periodic reminders in writing to county and local permitting authorities that they should establish and enforce standards for geologic reports; prevent unlicensed planning department staff from making geology-based assessments; and discard input from licensed geologists with previous records of conflicts of interest.

Performance Standards. The performance of any scientific endeavor must be judged against standards of care. Sadly, the BPELSG appears resistant to the idea that it has a responsibility to set or even endorse standards of performance, beyond those stated in the Geologists and Geophysicists Act, for licensed geologists who contract with private parties.

A group of informed citizens and geologic professionals, concerned about lax standards in the practice of geology, sought to address the BPELSG on this issue. After being rebuffed twice, they filed a complaint with the Department of Consumer Affairs, the BPELSG‘s supervising agency. The BPELSG Executive Officer then offered to read the group’s letter to the Board, which elicited the following response from the Board’s sole geologist and Legal Counsel:

…this Board does not set standards of care nor did the original Geologists and Geophysicists Board. They were a licensing board. The Board does not have control over geologists as the letter implies in terms of standards of care. The implication that old notes issued by the Mining and Geology Board are somehow the standard of today is antiquated. The Board’s Legal Counsel reiterated what the Board’s geologist discussed by indicating that the standards are set by the profession and they evolve. 3

This statement ignores the fact that “the Profession” does indeed recommend standards published by the California Geological Survey (formerly the California Division of Mines and Geology, CDMG) and the Mining and Geology Board. On July 17, 1978, after extensive statewide meetings with interested parties, the BGG formally adopted eight CDMG guidelines for various practices of geology and geophysics.4 Note 52, adopted by the CGS in January 2013, provides Guidelines for Preparing Geological Reports for Regional-Scale Environmental Resource and Planning. The first four References to the current version of this document are: Geologic Guidelines for Earthquake and/or Fault Hazard Reports; Guidelines for Engineering Geologic Reports; Guidelines for Geophysical Reports for Engineering Geology; and Guidelines for Groundwater Investigation Reports — all dated July 1998 — cite the BPELSG (created in 2010) as those report’s preparers, even though the reports were all Notes prepared by the CGS, and adopted by the BGG well before it was abolished. None of these references is out of date with regard to approved scientific practices, contrary to the BPELSG’s ridicule of them as antiquated (see reference 3).

The BPELSG’s statement suggests that it sees itself as powerless to enforce the standards. It clearly has made no attempt even to endorse guidelines (standards) provided by the profession, and ignores them in its own enforcement practices. That is the truly antiquated view. Interestingly, another standard of practice publication referenced in Note 525 is California Geological Survey Note 41 – General Guidelines for Reviewing Geologic Reports, 1998, of particular importance for assessing the four complaints against the licensee that we have examined. Since Note 52 acknowledges the input of the BPELSG, the Board appears to be wearing more than one hat.

The Public Interest. The public interest, and public and private financial stability, are threatened by allowing construction in hazard zones without proper technical evaluation, or requiring mitigations when necessary. Under the Department of Consumer Affairs, the BPELSG is charged to protect consumers. If it is to protect consumers the Board cannot declare itself “powerless” to set standards. Unfortunately, use of the guidelines as envisioned by the BGG in 1979 “…to facilitate a screening of the geologic reports for violations of Section 7860(c)” did not carry the force of law. To be enforceable, the guidelines have to be adopted as regulations in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act.

The case histories recounted in Parts 1 and 2 show that a system that allows practitioners of geology to voluntarily take or ignore the advice of the profession does not work. Instead, the Board must take actions for turning the profession’s long-established standards of practice into regulations, hold practitioners accountable for their work, and hold local permitting authorities accountable for protecting the public and the environment.

This requires the BPELSG to join forces with the State agencies and academic and governmental organizations that create such guidelines and advisory notes, and to support the notes through the regulatory process, then keep them updated as the profession learns from experience.6

Disciplinary Function. If, as seems to be the case now, the Board’s disciplinary function for geologists is effectively run by complaints from sources with varying agendas, or possibly a focused agenda, the BPELSG is in violation of this important second sentence of its guiding principle: Whenever the protection of the public is inconsistent with other interests sought to be promoted, the protection of the public shall be paramount (Business and Professions Code §7810.1) (emphasis added).

The disciplinary function of the Board is important to ensure compliance with the rules, but even more important is to focus on raising the standards of performance — not through penalties, but through establishing standards befitting the professions covered by the Board, improving them by serious periodic review, and promoting their application.


The State badly needs an authority that holds licensed geoscience practitioners accountable. If there were no need for such an authority, there would be no need for licensing geologic practitioners. It is the licensing authority that determines whether applicants have the credentials for licensing, and the same authority must hold practitioners accountable for incompetent or dishonest practices, as the Board for Geologists and Geophysicists eventually attempted to do. That authority is the main reason for housing the licensing of geotechnical professionals within the State Department of Consumer Affairs. An impartial Board with a competent staff, well grounded in geology, should be able to assess the relevance of complaints filed against licensed geologists for the basic goal of protecting the public against malpractice.

The interests of the public and of professional geologists have been poorly served by incorporation of the BGG into the Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors. The BPELSG’s enforcement performance since adopting the BGG shows that it is neither impartial nor competent. Possible solutions to this problem should begin with:

(1) equalize geology and geophysics representation on the Board to that of engineering;

(2) add licensed geologists/geophysicists to the Enforcement Unit staff to review all complaints that are substantiated by geologic documents and/or references, and provide the public a complete list of Enforcement Analysts and their technical qualifications to perform their function. If the Board is unable to hire such personnel, complaints against licensed geologists must be reviewed by independent experts in the California Geological Survey and/or US Geological Survey.

(3) reform the enforcement process to have much more transparent disclosure policies. Under the U.S. and California constitutions, there is no defensible reason for an accused licensee to be denied access to the unedited complete complaint filed against him/her (except necessary redactions to protect the identity of the complainant or reviewer). Accused parties also should have access to any and all additions to the complaint during the investigation.

There is similarly no reason to restrict the public’s access to unedited complete Expert Consultants’ reviews of individual cases, or the full and complete reasons for the Board’s decision on a Citation at all stages of the enforcement process;

(4) require completely independent peer review of Expert Consultants’ reports of each case, and a third review if the Case expert and reviewer do not agree, prior to issuance of a Citation;

(5) guarantee unconditionally that the accused licensee may respond to all charges of the complaint at all stages prior to release of a Citation; and,

(6) require the Expert Consultant’s report to include specific responses to all the Accused person’s responses to allegations used in the Citation decision.



1California Code of Regulations Title 16 §3063(c) “Each citation for violation shall be in writing and shall describe with particularity the basis of the citation, including specific reference to the provision of law determined to have been violated

22014 Handbook of Laws and Regulations, California Board of Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists, Article 4. Specialties, p. 131

3Minutes of the Meeting of the Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists, 18 November 2011

4BGG adopted standards for the practice of geology in California promulgated in CDMG Notes 37, 43, 44, and 46-49 following three statewide meetings of regulatory geologists, CDMG personnel, representatives of associations, and individual consultants “to discuss possible violations of the Act and practices which may not be violations of the Act but substantially affect the public.”, stating that “The board adopts these guidelines as its policy statement on the adequacy of professional geologic work under Section 7860(c) of the Business and Professions Code for the geologic profession in California. The guidelines will be used to facilitate a screening of the geologic reports for violations of Section 7860(c)”

5California Department of Conservation, California Geological Survey, Guidelines for Preparing Reports for Regional-Scale Environmental and Resource Management Planning, Note 52, January 2013. Adopted by the CGS in January 2013, Note 52 provided Guidelines for Preparing Geological Reports for Regional-Scale Environmental Resource and Planning.

6An excellent example is California Geological Survey, Special Publication 117A, Guidelines For Evaluating and Mitigating Seismic Hazards In California, first published in 1997, and most recently revised in 2008. Introductory pages list more than 90 individuals who contributed to the publication, titled Guidelines for Evaluating and Mitigating Seismic Hazards in California. Among the contributors and reviewers were personnel of federal and state agencies, California universities, northern and southern California city and county governments and agencies, consulting companies, the State Department of Insurance, and Association of Bay Area Governments.

Book Review: Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste

May 25, 2015

tags: Atomic Energy Commission, dry cask storage, groundwater, high-level radioactive waste, low-level radioactive waste, National Academies of Science, National Research Council, Nevada Test Site, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Plowshare Program, radionuclide migration, spent nuclear fuel, transuranic waste, unsaturated zone, Ward Valley, waste disposal, WIPP, Yucca Mountain


by Howard Wilshire

Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste, Cambridge University Press

By William M. and Rosemarie Alley 2013

This review is presented in two separate sections: SECTION 1. A summary impression of the book and SECTION 2. More detailed comments on individual chapters 10, 14, 17, and 18. Note: this review was originally posted April 13, 2014 and included a long section giving brief reviews of every chapter. That section has been deleted, but can be supplied upon request to any interested party.


While Too Hot to Touch contains substantial information useful in educating the public about the dire mess we have made of dealing with both military and civilian high-level nuclear waste (HLRW), it is badly organized on two levels, arrangement and subject matter of chapters in the three parts, and internal disorganization within particular chapters:

Parts I and II contain chapters not relevant to the book’s subject matter. For example, Part I inappropriately contains a chapter (10, A can of worms) about a proposed low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) facility, and Chapter 11 is about an existing repository that is forbidden to accommodate high-level radioactive waste (HLRW); Chapter 14 in Part II has such a minimal amount of material, cited in Chapter 18, relevant to HLRW disposal that it interrupts the flow of information about HLRW.

Chapters 8, Dry cask storage, and 11, WIPP repository do not belong in Part I as they are not part of the problem, but rather partial solutions to the problem. Chapter 16, How long is long? in Part II is essentially irrelevant to the issue of HLRW disposal, disrupting the flow of information that seems, from the book’s title, to be its primary subject. The title of Part II, The mountain, is presumably a reference to Yucca Mountain, but starts with a chapter (12, The search for a geologic repository) that barely mentions Yucca Mountain and is followed by a chapter (13, Nevada wins the lottery) that appears to be a lead-in to the main topic of Part II (Yucca Mountain). Separating chapter 13 from the main package of Yucca Mountain chapters with chapter 14, The Nevada Test Site, makes it difficult to focus on the authors’ message(s).

Disorganization infects some chapters internally as well, for example Chapter 17, Leaving almost no stone unturned. Others, for example Chapters 6 (The peaceful atom and its wastes), and 15 (Yucca Mountain) are so incomplete as to interfere with the book’s continuity.

Chapters not relevant to the book’s subject (10, A can of worms and 14, The Nevada Test Site) or too disorganized for an easy short summary (17, Leaving almost no stone unturned and 18, Surprise) are reviewed in SECTION 3.

On the brighter side, I found the historical information provided in such chapters as 1 (The awakening), 2 (Brainstorming), 11 (WIPP), 12 (The search for a geologic repository), and 20 (The project gets into hot water) informative and interesting.

The treatment of science in the book is a mixed bag. There are quite good explanations of scientific issues involved in earlier attempts at addressing the problems of waste disposal. But when it comes to the repository, to Yucca Mountain, the book’s explanations of scientific issues are too often fuzzy, annoyingly incomplete, and embroidered with too much marginal background material. Arcane subjects such as TSPA (Total System Performance Assessment) and conceptual groundwater models are abruptly introduced and poorly explained.

There are too many omissions of important studies relevant to the book’s subject, for example the book contains no comprehensive statement of the scope of the HLRW problem: how much of it do we have?, where is it?, how is it being stored?, how much more are we creating annually?, who controls it? There is no comprehensive statement of what was expected from the concept of multiple barriers to loss of waste containment. And, discussions of specific waste sites, both domestic and foreign, lack adequate statements of their geologic settings, including Yucca Mountain.



from Uncategorized


Chapter 10, A can of worms

This account expands on my Amazon review of Too Hot to Touch. In my opinion, chapter 10 is a knowledgeable misrepresentation of events surrounding a proposed low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) disposal site in Ward Valley, California. Departing from the principal subject matter of the book (HLRW), it is the second longest of 22 chapters. I was directly involved in this matter and was criticized, along with respected colleagues. William Alley was also personally involved in this issue, but does not disclose that fact in his book.

The core of the story told in Chapter 10 is: 1) disruption of the process of establishing a low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) disposal facility at Ward Valley, California by three U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) geologists the Alleys call the “Wilshire group” (myself and two other senior USGS geologists); 2) the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review of 7 concerns of the “Wilshire group” raised with Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt; and 3) the testimony of David Prudic, USGS hydrologist, before the NAS panel.

Chapter 10 starts by setting up David Prudic as a principal scientist in the publicly contentious issue of establishing a LLRW facility at Ward Valley, California. This is done in a folksy way, but describes him as “a stickler for detail and scientific rigor” with important information to present to the NAS panel gathered in Needles, California July 7-9, 1994 to examine the “Wilshire group’s” concerns.

Enroute to Prudic’s testimony, the “Wilshire group” is charged in the book with various sins, the most significant one, made twice, is they “raised issues [about the safety of Ward Valley] outside their field of training and expertise (p. 137).” For William Alley, a hydrogeologist, this seems to be a claim of territorial rights—a presumption that only hydrogeologists, are qualified to talk about water movement in the subsurface, and not geologists (in particular, the “Wilshire group”).

Lesser charges were made of breaching USGS protocols by directly contacting Interior Secretary Babbitt with their concerns (I plead guilty; otherwise our concerns would not have reached the Secretary); and sending a detailed report on their concerns to Babbitt “…that had not gone through the peer-review process that precedes release of any USGS scientific document (p. 137).” The Alleys are wrong on both counts: the “detailed report” was not sent to Babbit, but rather to the person who requested it, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, and it was peer-reviewed, just not officially by the USGS.

Here is what really happened: The “Wilshire group” sent a one-page memorandum (February 24, 1993) to Secretary Babbitt expressing our concern about the inadequacies of the very limited USGS involvement in preparation of the Ward Valley Environmental Impact Report/Statement (EIR/S), and offering our assistance as he evaluated transfer of federal land to the state of California—we were, after all, his employees since the USGS is an agency within the Department of the Interior, and we did have expert experience with the geology of the Ward Valley region. On May 26, 1993 we were invited by the Secretary’s office to submit a statement of our concerns, which we provided in a two and one-half page outline, dated June 2. We had no further contact with Secretary Babbitt or his office staff.

Secretary Babbitt’s staff (unknown to us) released our June 2 memo, a copy of which found its way to the company—US Ecology—which was licensed by the State of California to operate the Ward Valley dump. US Ecology sent Babbitt a lengthy rebuttal of our short outline. We were completely unaware of that document until September 1993 when we were contacted by Senator Boxer’s office. When they discovered we had not seen the US Ecology rebuttal, they faxed a copy and asked for our response. After reading it, we told Boxer’s staff that it was “slick and wrong.” They then asked us to respond to the US Ecology critique and elaborate our concerns. It is that report (we call it the “Boxer report”)—sent to Senator Boxer December 2, 1993 that the Alleys erroneously refer to on p. 137. We did go through USGS channels for approval to respond to Boxer.

Strangely, the Alleys miss two main points about peer-review of the report: it was the decision of USGS management, in which William Alley participated, that our response to the US Ecology rebuttal be done as private citizens, and the report therefore did not go through the USGS peer-review process. It appears also that the Alleys did not read the “Boxer report” as its title page and text acknowledge peer reviewers.1

In preparation for the NAS review, the “Wilshire group” expanded to 10 members (by agreement with the National Research Council (NRC), six of whom are USGS scientists,2 but continued to be identified by the Alleys as three geologists raising issues “outside their field of training and expertise.” All seven of our concerns were addressed by experts on the NAS panel, but I will address only the issue of contaminant migration through thick unsaturated zones to the water table. Widely considered geologic barriers to contamination of groundwater, thick unsaturated zones represent formidable barriers at Ward Valley (~650 feet thick) and at the Beatty Nevada LLRW disposal site (~280 to 370 feet thick), the latter studied by Prudic and colleagues. Considered by Ward Valley proponents to be geologic analogs, information about either of the two sites was deemed applicable to the other.

The Alleys present their own assessment of this issue, leading to the testimony of David Prudic regarding his long-term USGS research at the Beatty, Nevada LLRW facility. The bottom line of Prudic’s testimony was that water movement in the unsaturated zone at Beatty and Ward Valley had been restricted to the upper ~30 feet of the thick unsaturated zones during the past 16,000 to 33,000 years. Therefore, contamination of the groundwater by materials dumped at those sites was not credible, at least for thousands of years.

There was, however, the inconvenient finding during site characterization of a very small amount of tritium at a depth of 100 feet at Ward Valley. Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, was a major component of fallout worldwide from bomb testing during the Cold War; it is also a major constituent of radioactive materials dumped at Beatty. Tritium migrates with water and fallout tritium is widely used as a tracer for water movement in the subsurface. Hence, the finding at a depth of 100 feet in Ward Valley, if correct, would mean it had traveled 100 feet in less than 50 years, and would thus contradict Prudic’s conclusions. Discussion was vigorous, with most of the NAS panel leaning toward discounting the Ward Valley data as resulting from improper sampling or analytical error.

During Prudic’s presentation, one panel member asked him if he had any tritium data on the unsaturated zone at Beatty. His answer was that samples had been submitted for tritium analysis but he had not seen the results. The Alleys’ characterization of this episode (p. 144-145) was that “Prior to the [NAS] meeting Prudic learned that the tritium results had come back and were larger than expected, but he hadn’t seen the results.” Prudic avoided answering the question and the Alleys’ book tries to make it appear that he had told the panel of the results, but he had not. Put plainly, Prudic was informed by telephone of the tritium findings by his colleague Robert Striegl two weeks before the NAS meeting, but he hadn’t received a copy of the piece of paper on which the lab report was written. The reported results for tritium contamination were indeed much larger than expected and affected the entire unsaturated zone.

Further questioning revealed that Prudic did in fact have data showing groundwater contamination by tritium in a well drilled by USGS in 1987 just outside the dump. Groundwater from that well was sampled in 1989 yielding replicated positive tritium values. Prudic speculated that the tritium came from drilling fluid from the 1987 well emplacement although the well had been purged before it was sampled. Further probing revealed major tritium contamination of groundwater in a US Ecology monitoring well very close to the USGS well in 1982-1984, for which Prudic had no explanation.

Prudic’s failure to inform the panel of what he really knew about the new tritium results, whether or not he had seen them on a piece of paper, had a significant impact on the NAS panel’s report. Four months after the May 11, 1995 release of that report, a panel member made the following statement to a meeting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Mr. Wierenga: [Excerpt] “I had the pleasure this year to serve on a national academy panel to look into Ward Valley. As you know, Ward Valley was licensed by the State of California as a disposal site for low level nuclear waste. And it became very clear to the panel that it was not possible to give this site favorable recommendation just based on the data from the contractor. There would have been no chance in the world that we would have had the majority of the committee do this. As it is, there’s all the additional information, some of it at Yucca Mountain, some of it at the Beatty site, some of it from New Mexico [WIPP site], some of it from Texas [Sierra Blanca] – the committee basically disagreed with the three hydrologists [sic][“Wilshire group”] who said that the site was not suitable and there were major problems.“3

The problem with this statement is that Beatty was the only facility among the sites listed that had actually served as a waste repository, and Prudic had left the panel uninformed about new data in hand that had the potential to directly contradict his hypothesis. Models of processes in the unsaturated zone serve useful purposes, but they can only be verified by real data on what has actually happened or is happening. Prudic’s model was in jeopardy, and he seemed reluctant to inform the panel of potential problems, old ones as well as budding ones. Absent from the Alleys’ book is any mention of these issues.

The preliminary results of the 1994 USGS sampling of the deep unsaturated zone outside of the Beatty dump were clearly unsettling to Prudic and Striegl, leading them to try on several explanations that preserved their model, which would not allow such contamination to have occurred naturally. As the Alleys state (p. 145), “it was unprecedented that tritium gas would work its way through the deep UZ to 350 feet outside the fence (emphasis in original)”. Unprecedented, that is, except for the substantial earlier data that tritium, whether gas or liquid, had indeed accomplished that trick at Beatty, more than once.

Most research scientists can appreciate the feeling of dismay when a perfectly beautiful hypothesis is threatened by ugly facts. What is difficult to appreciate is Prudic’s unwillingness to tell the NAS panel what he knew. The panelists were, after all, experts with a lot of experience. He could have told them the results were preliminary and needed verification, and surrounded the information with whatever caveats he chose. He could have chosen, perhaps reasonably, not to reveal this information in a public setting, but there were months ahead in which he could have informed the panel in a non-public venue as they worked on completing their report. This opportunity was not exercised. Instead, a USGS report written by Prudic on Beatty and Ward Valley in which the same conclusions about restricted water movement in the unsaturated zone as he presented at the July 7-9 NAS meeting was special-delivered to the panel at its second meeting a month later.

Fallout from Prudic’s choice to leave the NAS panel uninformed of his preliminary tritium results was a split decision of the panel’s recommendation to verify the small tritium values reported for Ward Valley. The majority of panelists favored performing the new measurements during site development, an expression of their confidence that the original measurement was in error. Two panelists, both hydrogeologists, favored verification before the dump was permitted. What influence Prudic’s data might have had is unknown, but the panel’s report was seen as a green light for constructing the dump, mitigated by a number of recommendations including testing for tritium.

Why the NAS panel chose to discount the pre-1994 data on tritium contamination of groundwater at Beatty is not clear.4 They were given an oral account of the issues at their second public meeting in August 31-September 2, 1994, and a 21-page comprehensive report, on which the oral presentation was based, was delivered to the NAS October 12, 1994.5 It showed clearly why interpreting the reported contaminations as results of migration of the contaminants through the unsaturated zone is viable. This report is not referenced in the NAS report. Also in October 1994 another report6 giving substantial additional information on Beatty contaminant migration was published; this report is cited only in one of the two panel dissents (Appendix F). The two 1994 reports were available to the NAS panel for eight months before their report was released. Presumably the dissenting opinions were known to all panel members in ample time to perhaps have introduced a stronger element of caution into their deliberations. Appendix F is an excellent, experience-based, fully referenced account, directly relevant to Prudic’s model of water migration in arid lands unsaturated zones. And, who knows, maybe reviewing this information would have led the Alleys to a more circumspect endorsement of the (unverified) Prudic model of water movement in the unsaturated zone.

Completion of retesting the Beatty sampling, months after release of the NAS report, left no question that the dump was the source of the tritium contamination, and, as the Alleys put it (p. 146), “For the first time, scientific lingo described what the test results had revealed: a plume of unexpectedly high levels of tritium had been detected in the unsaturated zone 350 feet7 outside of the Beatty, Nevada LLRW disposal facility.” Of course, “In spite of years of study, the exact cause of the tritium gas in the unsaturated zone remains unknown” (p. 151). One thing was learned: the model of fluid behavior in the unsaturated zone on which the NAS relied is not valid. Another lesson derives from knowledge of a tritium plume moving laterally long distances through the unsaturated zone, which conflicts with the NAS report’s discussion of the potential for lateral flow (p. 130).


1“Boxer report” disclaimer: “This report does not represent the policies or positions of any government agency. It does represent the professional judgments of its authors who are employed by the U.S. Geological Survey as research geologists. The report has been reviewed by professional scientists in geology, hydrology, isotope geochemistry, and soil physics, and has been modified by consultation with many experts in these fields within and outside of the USGS

2The enlarged “Wilshire group” was composed of five geologists, two hydrologists, one soil physicist, one isotope geochemist, and one biologist. The NRC denied us our choice of an expert on the LLRW waste stream, a very controversial issue, misunderstood by the NAS panel report.

3Aside from identifying the “Wilshire group” as three hydrologists, there are two errors in Wierenga’s statement: the panel was charged only with evaluating the seven concerns of the “Wilshire group”, not sanctioning the site. We made it clear to the panel at the outset of the NAS review that we did not have a position on the suitability of the site for the proposed use; our problems were with the adequacy of the EIR/S’ supporting data and analysis.

4The NAS report’s majority decided (p. 23) “…that the Beatty site may be useful in understanding some natural processes, but it is limited in evaluating the behavior of the Ward Valley site because of the historical uncertainties.”That is, because of “unexplained anomalies in the 30-year monitoring records of well data,” which did not accord with the panel majority’s views of unsaturated zone processes.

5Committee to Bridge the Gap and Southern California Federation of Scientists, The Proposed Ward Valley Radioactive Waste Facility: Papers Submitted to the National Academy of Sciences, October 12, 1994

6Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors, Inc. Environmental Monitoring Report for Commercial Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Sites, Chapter 4, Environmental Summary of the Beatty, Nevada Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Site, October 1994

7Contamination extended far beyond the UZB-2 drill hole located 350 feet from the dump fenceline. An 820 X 820 feet grid of 58 sample points outside of the dump fence were sampled in 5.5 foot deep hand-driven cores. All cores were positive for tritium, ranging from <50 tritium units to 35,000 tritium units (TU). Contours of equal TU show a declining gradient to the southwest from the dump. The full depth to which tritium contamination penetrated at these sample points is not known. R. G. Striegl and others, Tritium in Unsaturated Zone Gases and Air at the Amargosa Desert Research Site and in Spring and River Water, Near Beatty, Nevada, May 1997, U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 97-778

Chapter 14, The Nevada Test Site

Designation of the Nevada Test Site (NTS) to replace the Pacific island testing areas is a remarkable story of fuzzy rationalizations and deliberately falsified public assurances by politicians, federal agencies, and too many scientists. The story told here is too cute for my tastes, but is interesting. Following the story is an account of early testing that presaged very serious problems to come. However, the chapter has nothing to do with disposal of HLRW and does not belong in Part Two, The mountain. It is more appropriately an element of the Cold War legacy.

Taking a big leap in the bomb-testing story, pages 212-214 relate some aspects of the Plowshare Program for peaceful uses of nuclear explosions (PNE), a section that belongs in Chapter 6. The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty banned atmospheric testing and struck fear in the heart of physicist Edward Teller that he might have to stop detonating bombs, and sent AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg into raptures: “Plowshare can help mankind reshape the earth into a Garden of Eden by overcoming the forces of nature”.

The Plowshare Program was intended to make sure weapons testing continued in the guise of peaceful applications, but the descriptions in Too Hot to Touch leave too much out. It is stated (p. 213) that “…the only experiment actually tried in practice was using bombs to ‘stimulate’ natural gas production in Colorado and New Mexico.” In all 27 nuclear detonations were performed with peaceful uses in mind, 10 to test PNE explosives design; six to determine excavation characteristics (including Sedan Crater, Fig. 14-2); four for heavy element (transuranic) production; three for natural gas production stimulation; two to examine emplacement techniques; and one each for steam power generation and determining blast effects in limestone rocks. 23 of these tests were conducted on the NTS.1 Ten other projects made it to the drawing boards, but, happily, were never executed. Three of these were mentioned by the Alleys, including the proposal to excavate the right-of-way for Interstate Highway 40 and railroad through the Bristol Mountains in California by simultaneous detonation of 23 nuclear bombs (totaling 1,830 kilotons). This project was actually endorsed by the National Research Council, Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Geological Survey.2   Other harebrained proposals, among an elite list, that made it to the drawing boards were a series of water projects that I thought might have attracted William Alley’s attention; these included a project that aimed to “conserve” surface waters along Arizona’s Gila, Salt, and Little Colorado rivers by directing them into bomb craters that would serve either as reservoirs or groundwater recharge basins.

The narrative then returns to brief accounts of the bomb detonation history on the NTS, followed by a very nonspecific account of health impacts of atmospheric tests.3

Missing in this chapter, are the dozens of so-called “safety” or “equation of state” surface experiments that blew up packages of plutonium and uranium with high explosives to examine the size distributions of resulting radioactive particles. In rationalizing the lack of cleanup of most such sites, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (now the DoE) stated “The above ground areas where safety experiments have been conducted in the past offer unique sites for studies of the behavior of plutonium in the natural environment. Recognizing this, the Nevada Operations Office intentionally has preserved these areas.4

One of these “safety” experiments, Area 13, just offsite from the NTS, is especially important because of several years of careful monitoring of soil, soil organisms, vegetation, and cattle impacts. Processes of biotic transport, from soil organisms to transient wildlife and health impacts on cattle impounded in the contaminated area were studied in detail.5


1A.G. West and R.C. Kelly, A Selected Annotated Bibliography of the Civil, Industrial, and Scientific Uses for Nuclear Explosions, TID-4500, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Technical Information Extension, 1971

2National Research Council, Application of the Plowshare Program of Nuclear Excavation Experimentation to Highway Construction, Circular No. 20, 1966; B.C. Hughes, The Corps of Engineers’ Nuclear Construction Research Program (in L.E. Weaver, Ed. Education for Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Explosives, University of Arizona Press, 1970); F.N. Houser and E.B. Eckel, Possible Engineering Uses of Subsidence Induced by Contained Underground Nuclear Explosions, U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 450-C, 1962

3To help fill in the large gap regarding health impacts of atmospheric testing in Too Hot to Touch, see S.I. Schwartz (ed.), Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940, Brookings Institution Press, 1998; see also Chip Ward Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West (New York: Verso Press, 1999)

4U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration, Final Environmental Impact Statement, Nevada Test Site, Nye County, Nevada, by Energy Research & Development Administration, 1997

5Much of the information on Area 13 is in gray literature, summarized by Wilshire and others, The American West at Risk, Appendix 6



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Chapter 17, Leaving almost no stone unturned

On the whole, this chapter is a poorly organized agglomeration of topics, contains far too much “backround material” that is irrelevant to the subject of the book and the immediate topic, fails to clearly explain the TSPA in its various iterations, and gives no idea of the negative expert opinions of the adequacy of the TSPA for site recommendation or licensing. Description of “major experiments” without saying at least briefly what they revealed, is at best annoying.

With the cart leading the horse, this chapter starts with the delivery of a truck load of copies of license applications, each weighing 110 pounds we are told, to construct a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Having still not provided the reader with a simple, straight forward-account of what a geological repository was supposed to accomplish1, the reader is launched into DoE’s Total System Performance Assessment (TSPA) based on about 3 billion dollars worth of studies of Yucca Mountain accumulated through 1998—these studies comprised the main part of the 110 pound applications for licensing construction of the Yucca Mountain repository.

The TSPA, the reader is informed, “was built by stringing together computer models of widely differing levels of detail…[which] are highly simplified descriptions of the real world.” By implication, this approach is deemed necessary because “In spite of [the] limitations, using computer models for prediction is irresistible given society’s demands of certainty. It is simply not good enough to say that a site looks good….Regulators require quantitative predictions to compare to standards for site performance, with the assumption that predictions based on our knowledge of physics and chemistry are better than no predictions at all.” I suspect that society can come to grips with uncertainties if they are clearly explained, and, especially, if it has to. As for regulators “requiring quantitative predictions”, simplified models won’t get them there no matter how many iterations they are put through.2

Evaluating how good the several versions of the TSPA may be in assessing the degree of confidence that the repository will behave in an acceptable manner over a long period of time, is not easy. Too Hot to Touch broaches the subject in terms of assessing the TSPA’s “credibility” by giving a lengthy description of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board’s (NWTRB) creation (established as part of the 1987 Nuclear Waste Act amendments), staffing (“selected in a similar fashion to the Supreme Court justices, but with term limits”), and given authority and autonomy.

Nevertheless, the progress of the TSPA is assessed (p. 262) thusly “While the uncertainties remained great, the results of each generation of TSPA increasingly suggested that the Yucca Mountain repository would meet regulatory standards…and might even ace the license application test.” Remarkably the Alleys fail to record that in January 2002, the NWTRB expressed “limited confidence in the current performance estimates”, and found the technical bases for the repository performance estimates to be “weak to moderate 3 More damning assessments, also not cited by the Alleys, were recorded earlier: in February 1999, a very comprehensive review4 was highly critical of vital segments of the TSPA; in September 2001, the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste, in response to the TSPA in support of the site recommendation was that it “relies on modeling assumptions that mask a realistic assessment of risk” and that “computations and analyses are assumption-based, not evidence-supported.”5 There appears to be no substantive evaluations of the TSPA since 2002 that might indicate improvements before submission of the license application in 2008.

In a belated effort to say something about the scientific underpinning of the license application, the subject then switches abruptly to development of the Exploratory Studies Facility (ESF), a 5-mile long U-shaped tunnel big enough for a railroad to carry scientists to various experiments performed close to, but not in the part of the mountain scheduled to be the repository. Combined with extensive surface geologic mapping, inspection of hundreds of shallow pits and trenches, and drilling of about 500 boreholes, scientific studies made in the tunnel formed the basis of the license application. The NWTRB did a useful service here by pressuring the DoE to dig a smaller tunnel above the ESF to provide direct access to rock units present in the proposed repository horizon.

Carried by the ESF railroad to location, scientists conducted more than 20 major studies. In one of these, water containing chemical tracers was released in that smaller tunnel in the geologic horizons to be used in the repository. This was to examine the relationship between water percolating through the mountain and seepage into the drifts (where the waste was to be deposited). In another study, moisture was monitored to evaluate possible preferential pathways provided by faults. It would have been more useful to explain what these two major experiments actually revealed, rather than describing the huge expensive machine that dug the tunnel, that it was painted white, and that it could not be sold even for scrap when its job was done.

Another series of studies (p. 266) examined how heat flow affects hydrologic, mechanical, and chemical processes in the proposed repository. The importance of these studies is explained in the following section How Hot is Hot? which discusses the “thermal pulse” that arises once the repository is sealed. Upon sealing, the heat generated by radioactive decay of the waste is no longer dissipated to the atmosphere, so temperatures rise rapidly above the boiling point of water and persist at those levels for about 1000 years. The repository design choices for dealing with this issue and problems attendant on each are well described in this section. But again, the reader is left uninformed about what the experiments actually revealed, while being entertained with information about the importance and immensity of the experiment.


1The principal elements of the geological disposal strategy are: 1) it was to be deep, permanent, and long term, using to advantage the decrease in radioactivity, thermal output, and radiotoxicity over time; 2) the geologic history of stable regions was taken as indicative of continued future stability; and 3) the passive hydrologic and geochemical properties of the geologic formations were to be key to the isolation strategy. The large uncertainties in predicted future behavior were to be reduced by a system of independent, multiple barriers, geologic and engineered. (R.C. Ewing, Less Geology in the Geological Disposal of Nuclear Waste, Science, v. 286: 415-417, 1999); see also J.D. Bredehoeft et al., Geologic Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Wastes—Earth-Science Perspectives, U.S. Geological Survey, Circular 779, 1978

2A performance is quantitative only in the sense that it provides a numerical result, but the substance of the result is qualitative.” R.C. Ewing, Performance Assessments: Are They Necessary or Sufficient, in A.M. Macfarlane and R.C. Ewing (eds.), Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste, The MIT Press, 2006, p. 81

3U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, Evaluation of the Department of Energy’s Technical and Scientific Work, Cover letter and report to Congress, January 24, 2002,

4U.S. Department of Energy, Peer Review Panel, Final Report, Total System Performance Assessment, February 11, 1999,

5Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste, Letter Report to R. A. Meserve, Chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 18 September 2001. Quoted by: R.C. Ewing and Allison Macfarlane, Yucca Mountain, Policy Forum, Science, v. 296:659-660, 2002



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Chapter 18, Surprise

This chapter deals with an issue of primary importance to the concept of multiple natural and engineered barriers as protections against loss of waste containment in the proposed Yucca Mountain repository. If any loss of containment were to spread radionuclides potentially affecting the biosphere, it would have to be through the agency of water transportation. Selection of the Yucca Mountain site was predicated on the assumption that little, if any, water could penetrate the thick unsaturated zone, firstly because the arid climate provides very low precipitation, secondly because most of that would run off the surface, and thirdly because the diminishingly small amount that might reach the repository level would take another several hundred thousand years to percolate through to the water table. The first geologic line of defense, then, had to do with the movement of water in the unsaturated zone.

Too Hot to Touch immediately plunges the reader into conceptual models of water movement in the mountain, which were pieced together from limited data based on drill holes and the ESF tunnels. This left a lot of room for uncertainty as is reasonably explained. Early efforts to create a detailed conceptual model suggested that about 6 millimeters of water would get below the root zone of plants per year, and would migrate downward mainly through the abundant fractures, including major faults, in the rock. Another conceptual model suggested about 4 millimeters of water per year moved through the unsaturated zone by fracture flow.

The surprise from which the Chapter takes its name came in 1996 with discovery of the radioactive isotope chlorine-36 in samples from the ESF tunnel. Cl-36 occurs naturally, but the amounts present were deemed too large to represent natural occurrence. Cl-36 was also dispersed abundantly by atmospheric bomb testing at the Nevada Test Site next door to Yucca Mountain. If the Yucca Mountain Cl-36 does represent a bomb-pulse, it was carried to a depth of 600 to 1000 feet in the unsaturated zone in less than 50 years.

While this finding has obvious implications for the efficacy of Yucca Mountain’s thick unsaturated zone as a barrier to water penetration, the Alleys run through the “ifs” and “buts” in much the same manner as they did with tritium in Chapter 10: analytical error is possible due to the difficulties of measuring such small quantities; the samples could be contaminated, especially considering proximity of Yucca Mountain to the NTS (how contaminants made there way into the area of the ESF is not mentioned); confirmatory tests of samples from 50 drill holes “near” to the location of initial Cl-36 discovery showed no Cl-36 (the samples collected in the ESF tunnel were obtained adjacent to through-going faults; no description of the drill hole cores is given); and anyway even if the results represent fast-track transport from the surface, “they represent only a small portion (about 1 percent) of total water movement through the UZ at Yucca Mountain.”

The DoE wasn’t so sanguine about these findings, losing faith in their concept of a dry mountain barrier to protect the repository. This resulted in a shift in emphasis to engineered barriers. The major problems with these manufactured barriers are reasonably well-described on pages 278-280. The issues are not, however, put in the context of the basic strategic mistake of selecting a repository site in an oxidizing environment, nor in the behavior of the dominant waste component (reduced U02), which is unstable in the presence of even minor amounts of moisture under oxidizing conditions. “Orders of magnitude of durability for the spent fuel would be gained by maintaining reducing conditions at the repository horizon, [thus] At Yucca Mountain, the passive properties of the repository site do not provide a long-term barrier to radionuclide release.1 I strongly recommend that interested readers consult reference one.

The chapter continues with a useful discussion of plutonium transport in the unsaturated zone at the NTS. The findings of long-distance transport of this highly toxic long-lived isotope in unsaturated rock materials and the mechanisms of transport also represent surprises that challenge the efficacy of arid unsaturated zones as barriers to radionuclide dispersion in the environment. However, a more thorough discussion of the mineralogy of Yucca Mountain rocks as barriers as well as facilitators of contaminant migration in the total system is needed.2


1R.C. Ewing and Allison Macfarland, Nuclear Waste Forum, Yucca Mountain, Science, v. 296:659-660, 2002

2D.L. Bish et al., The Importance of Mineralogy at Yucca Mountain, in A.M. Macfarlane and R.C. Ewing (eds.), Uncertainty Underground, Chapter 13

Back to Bakken

September 8, 2014

Many of our readers dislike reading negative words about Bakken. Yes, it’s still being drilled and currently is producing 1.1 million bbls per day.1 But what does it take to keep up that production level?

Production levels in “tight oil” formations, including the Bakken, start high but drop very quickly: on average Bakken wells have a 69 percent decline rate in the first year of production, but over a 5-year period the decline rate is 94 percent. This is why production from Bakken wells that were drilled before 2011 reached a maximum (peak) of about 350,000 bbls per day in 2011, and then dropped steeply to less than 200,000 bbls per day by mid-2012.

To maintain Bakken production, some experts estimate that 40 percent of wells must be replaced annually.2 One estimate of the annual cost to offset that decline is about $8.2 billion. Energy experts also estimate that more than 6,000 wells must be drilled per year in all tight U.S. formations to maintain such high production levels. Estimates of the cost for drilling 6,000 wells annually start at $35 billion.Funding that level of effort requires continually stimulating investment income, so of course the industry wants to see only happy talk about Bakken’s current and future production.

We can oblige that wish in the short term, because some credible energy analysts estimate that at the highest rate of well replacement, tight oil production at the major plays: Bakken in North Dakota and adjacent states, and Eagle Ford in Texas, will eventually peak at a total production of around 2.3 million bbls/day by 2017.

The peak will come earlier (2015) if 2000 replacement wells are drilled per year, and later (2017) if 1,500 are added per year. At the peak, all useful drilling sites likely will have been fully exploited3 and then production will drop. The expectation is that production will be back to 2012 levels by 2019, and will keep on dropping to stripper well status (production of less than 10 bbls per day), by 2025.

Blue curve - Lower 48 U.S.

Blue curve – Lower 48 U.S.

This prediction contrasts starkly with the history of U.S. conventional oil production, shown in the graph, above. Production in the lower 48 states grew exponentially from the 1950s to the 1970 peak, then went into steep decline. Alaskan oil production leveled it off until 1989, when production again dropped steeply. In 2008 tight oil production turned the U.S. oil production curve upward once again, but that trend is expected to peak by about 2019 — depending on how the economy progresses.

The tight oil peak is likely to be a very sharp one, with a decline curve nearly as steep as the rising one.

In our current global economic system, dating only from the end of WW II, finance and energy are tightly intertwined. Finance/energy analysts now warn that prices for oil and derivatives are low compared to the costs of production and distribution. This negative cash flow has continued for a number of years, even as interest rates for financing new wells went zooming down. Also—in spite of what you thought you knew—interest rates could turn negative. Add increasing turmoil in the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, and we soon could be facing worldwide financial turmoil.4

IF the tight oil estimates quoted above prove correct, and IF the complexly contorted Monterey Formation in California remains difficult or impossible to frack,5 U.S. oil production would not help address the world’s petroleum demand.


  1. Tight oil production figures summarized in J.D. Hughes, Drill, Baby, Drill, Post-Carbon Institute, February 2013,
  1. Rune Likvern, Is the Typical NDIC Bakken Tight Oil Well a Sales Pitch?, The Oil Drum, April 29, 2013:
  1. For a detailed explanation of current financial trends and their relation to energy production and distribution, see the 12-minute talk, “Global Financial System: On Life Support.” by Roger Boyd, August 14, 2014 Speaker bio at
  1. J. D. Hughes, Drilling California: A Reality Check on the Monterey Shale, Post Carbon Institute, 2013:


Lures to Energy Complacency Part IV

July 23, 2012

This is Part IV of a 5-part blog that addresses the various pressures brought on American society to believe that we have an abundance of oil and gas and therefore no problems with alarmists who warn of impending shortages. “Energy is the key which unlocks all other natural resources”.1 It is essential that we not delude ourselves about its availability so that we can prepare ourselves for the future.

If snake oil2 could be refined into gasoline and diesel fuel, the nation would have no foreign oil dependency problem. It is always plentiful and cheap. Snake oil is the fuel and balm that lures us to curse those we imagine are responsible for high gasoline prices, to grasp at “vast new” fossil energy sources, to ignore peak oil, and to banish fears of climate change, all the while assuring us that technology will solve any impediment to our god-given right to enjoy life as we always have in the past.

1Eugene Ayres and C.A. Scarlott, Energy Sources – the Wealth of the World (McGraw-Hill, 1952)

2The term “Snake oil”, folk etymology has it, originated as a corruption of Seneca Oil. Seneca Indians supposedly had been observed to use crude oil from surface seeps as a liniment. Whatever its origin, it has become a generic name for panaceas or miraculous remedies whose ingredients, unknown to the buyer, are mostly inert or ineffective. That is the sense in which I use it (Wikipedia,; see also Rosie Mestel, Snake Oil Salesmen Weren’t Always Considered Slimy, Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2002)


Part IV. The Peak oil “Myth”


The euphoria surrounding “discovery of vast new” deposits of oil and gas (Parts II, III) is spawning many declarations by the snake oil merchants (both “experts” and wishful dreamers) that peak oil is dead:

Declining output no longer seems inevitable; some scenarios indicate sustained growth1

Oil is not in short supply. From a purely physical point of view, there are huge volumes of conventional and unconventional oils still to be developed, with no ‘peak oil’ in sight2

The world has plenty of [oil] reserves, and they will continue to fuel prosperity and growth around the world for many decades3

Contrary to the [peak oil] theory, oil production shows no signs of a peak . . . Oil is a finite resource, but because it is so incredibly large, a peak will not occur this year, next year, or for decades to come4

One of the points that economists have a really hard time getting over, probably because it is so counter-intuitive, is that we human beings don’t really consume resources, we create them5

Shale energy could be responsible for the resurgence of the US as an economic superpower, with cheap local energy underpinning the second coming of its manufacturing. One thing is for sure: the world isn’t running out of oil and gas any more6

‘Technologically recoverable’ resources are not the ‘total’ amount of oil thought to exist in the US, so the total in-place reserves are much, much larger. It does not take a lot of imagination to predict that many of these oil resources will eventually be unlocked with new technological innovation thus added to the total ‘proven reserves’7

“Of all the idiotic things people believe, the whole “peak oil” thing has to be right up there. It is literally impossible for us to run out of oil. We have never run out of anything. And we never will” 8

In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Exxon Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson said “fears about climate change, drilling, and energy dependence were overblown” and “…huge discoveries of oil and gas in North America have reversed a 20-year decline in U.S. oil production9

For decades, advocates of ‘peak oil’ have been predicting a crisis in energy supplies. They’ve been wrong at every turn10

Besides trampling on some important facts, the critics of peak oil mostly don’t seem to understand what peak oil is—and isn’t.11 Peak oil isn’t about running out of oil, but rather represents a level of production that we are unable to increase because of the tension between the nature of new resources and depletion of those we have already found and are producing. This tension is not substantially alleviated by new technologies as is repeatedly claimed, because much of the oil remaining in the ground is very difficult and costly to extract, “new technologies” notwithstanding. The deposits containing most of this oil have characteristics endowed by their geologic history that make extraction of fluids a very slow process as explained in Part II. We can overcome these characteristics—very low porosity and permeability—by artificial fracturing (fracking), but only on a very small scale that requires constant drilling of new wells to replace the very rapidly declining older wells. The age of wells in shale and other tight formations and deep water deposits before they slip closer or into the stripper well range (<10 bpd) is very short—for tight formations just 5-10 years, for deepwater deposits a little longer, but not much.12 All those hundreds of thousands of stripper wells (Part II) have reduced the rate of decline of U.S. production, but did not prevent it.

Figure 1. U.S. oil production 1900 to 2009

Figure 1 shows U.S. oil production from 1900 to 2009, with a 1970 peak of about 9.6 million barrels per day (Mbpd); the production peak was preceded by 40 years by a peak in discoveries. The 1970 production peak was followed in 1985 by a lesser peak representing the giant Prudhoe Bay, Alaska field.13 Thereafter, production steadily declined reaching a low of about 4.9 Mbpd in 2008, several years into the period in which modern techniques of tight oil formation production began. The upward tick in 2009 on the graph reached 5.4 Mbpd, followed by 5.5 in 2010 and 5.7 in 2011.

These small increases, ascribed primarily to shale oil production, are claimed to herald further increases that will push U.S. production above the 1970 peak by 2020.14 Such claims by Citigroup and a Harvard University report are predicated on assumptions that, among other problems, ignore the very low flow rates of oil in shale deposits and propose well decline rates far lower than reported (see Figure 6, Part II).15 The Harvard report assumes a 15% decline in well production over the first 5 years followed by 7% decline, grossly misrepresenting actual experience. With decline rates averaging on the order of 50% or more and ranging to 90% in the first year, U.S. shale oil wells are quickly reduced to production levels far below those needed to support the report’s conclusion.  It took more than 6,500 wells to give us a tiny tick upward in Bakken field production, and many more to add a tidbit from the Eagle Ford field. To drill out the shale oil deposits will take tens of thousands of more wells, the Bakken alone is considered to require 33,000 more wells to fill that field.16 According to one operator,“To put the 33,000 new Bakken wells into perspective: at current costs it will take almost $200 billion for leases and drilling capital expense. The Current rig count is around 80 – 90. Expand that to 120 rigs in the future (this will take a lot of new rig construction). At an average of 4 wells per year per rig it will take about 70 years to drill all the wells. I am not saying it won’t be done–just putting it in terms more easily appreciated.” If this were not bad enough, sustaining production over 30 years would require more than 200,000 wells.17 But, “bear in mind that, after a while, it becomes harder to find a spot where no-one has already been. Also bear in mind that at $8.5 million per well and sweet spots receding ever farther toward the horizon, such a drilling program might be a hard sell.18

We solved our problem of declining production and expanding consumption by importing oil from elsewhere in the world. Our present (2011) consumption of oil is 18.8 Mbpd, down from 20.7 Mbpd in 2005, due in part to recession. Domestic oil production (5.7 Mbpd) is about 30 percent of consumption, so boosting our production to a figure close to the 1970 peak of 9.6 Mbpd, as claimed by the Citigroup and Harvard reports, would get us half way to our consumption level. This isn’t exactly energy independence. Pinning our hopes on unconventional oil sources is not a good idea if you believe the Energy Information Administration’s forecast, which is for shale oil to peak in 2020 at about 1 Mbpd and together with deepwater production to put U.S. oil production at about 6.5 Mbpd in 2020. That gets us to about 35% of current consumption and still a long way from the 1970 peak.19

Peaking of shale oil fields means that the frenzied pace of drilling is no longer exceeding the loss of production from older wells, and that means decline in production will be steep. Even at the present stage of development of the much ballyhooed Eagle Ford shale, tracking of 200 wells in 2008 indicated a 145% rate of decline—“the most astonishing decline rate of any shale play I’ve looked at.” 20

The history of U.S. oil production illustrates the meaning of peak oil. So, how bright is the future of our continuing to import a large fraction of our consumption? Or, in other words, is the rest of the world imminently faced with a problem similar to our own—peak oil?

Figure 2. World oil discovery and production

Figure 2 reveals a global oil discovery and production history like our own: discoveries of new oil deposits peaked more than four decades ago, in the mid-1960s, and since the mid-1980s consumption has exceeded production. The peak of discovery presages the peak of production.

Figure 3. U.S. crude oil and other liquids production 1980 to 2010

Figure 3 represents production of four categories of petroleum liquids21 with a discernable flattening of production starting in 2004.

Figure 4. U.S. crude oil production 2002 to 2010

A tighter illustration of the flattening in production of crude oil is shown in Figure 4, a plateau that has persisted for 7 years through 2011. Production beyond the plateau is likely to signal lasting decline.22

More important than the time of peak production is the rate of decline of the world’s giant conventional deposits, which contributed more than 60% of world production in 2005 and which contain approximately 65% of ultimately recoverable conventional oil. Most of the world’s giant fields are already in decline, generally reaching their peak production before 50% of their recoverable resources had been extracted. Overall production from giant fields is declining because most are more than 50 years old and fewer and smaller giant fields have been discovered with time (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Giant field discoveries and volumes, 1900 to 2006

The average decline rate of 261 giant fields that are past their peak production plateaus is 6.5%, with offshore fields declining faster than onshore ones. Importantly, decline rates have increased over time, and a strong correlation between depletion and the rate of decline indicates that much new technology has only been able to temporarily slow depletion at the expense of rapid future decline.23

The problem posed by any expectation that we can continue to depend on foreign oil imports is diminishing quantities of oil available, increasing competition for that oil, and increasing domestic consumption by exporting nations.

Sources and Notes

1Oystein Noreng, Peak Oil? – Not in Norway, World Oil, v. 233, April 2012

2Leonardo Maugeri, Oil: The Next Revolution, Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, June 2012

3Saudi Arabia’s Petroleum and Mineral Resources Minister Ali I. Naimi, speaking at the same conference as de Margerie, further stated that “it is not just that oil continues to be discovered. It is that technology, partly driven by prices, enables ever greater reserves to be booked, and eventually recovered” (Cameron England’s, Peak Oil Debate is Over)

4Exxon Mobil Advertisement in New York Times, June 2, 2006

5Tim Worstall, We Don’t Consume Resources, We Create Them, Forbes, 24 March 2012. Worstall explained this statement: “I am not trying to state…that we do not live on a finite Earth” without limits, but rather while there are indeed “hard limits to availability they are so far away from our current situation that they’re irrelevant”

6Alan Kohler, The Death of Peak Oil, Crikey, February 29, 2012

7George Wuerthner, The Real Problem Is Not Too Little Oil, But Too Much, CounterPunch, March 29, 2012

8Quoted by Peter C. Glover, Whatever Happened to Peak Oil? Canadian Free Press, August 15, 2012. Attributed to Mike Munger, Posted by Mungowitz

9Associated Press, Oil Exec: Earth Can Adapt, June 28, 2012. Tillerson “blamed a public illiterate in science and math, a lazy press, and advocacy groups that manufacture fear for energy misconceptions.” I have to conclude that it is Tillerson who is illiterate in the effects of climate change, speaking as he does from a platform of endless oil production and ever increasing greenhouse gas emissions. He also said that “dependence on other nations for oil is not a concern so long as access to supply is certain.” Why does he think access to foreign oil is certain now, particularly in light of declining reserves and increasing internal consumption in the world’s major exporting countries?

10Daniel Yergin, There Will Be Oil, The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2011

11Robert Rapier, Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil (Apress, Springer-Verlag, New York, 2012); Energy Bulletin, Peak Oil Primer, last updated October 20, 2011

12“Rockman,” The Oil Drum, Drumbeat comment, March 31, 2012

13U.S. Energy Information Administration, Crude Oil Production The 2009 upward tick was due primarily to deep water production rather than onshore tight oil production (see Richard Heinberg, The Oil Depletion Protocol, New Society Publishers, Canada, 2006, figure 1.1). Shale oil contributed increasing amounts to the still small 2010-2011 production increases

14Citigroup, Oil Supply Growth: No End in Sight?, March 2012; Maugeri, Oil: The Next Revolution, June 2012

15”Heading Out”, The Citicorp Energy Projection – A Gentle Cough, Bit Tooth Energy, March 27, 2012 (; “Heading Out”, Tech Talk – New Energy Report from Harvard Makes Unsupportable Assumptions, The Oil Drum, July 2, 2012

16Lynn Helms, Director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, which has direct oversight over Bakken oil production stated that “We think it is going to take about 33,000 wells to produce this oil field [Bakken]

17“Rockman”,The Oil Drum, Drumbeat comment,18 November 2011 (slightly edited); To sustain production over 30 years, more than 200,000 wells are estimated to be required (“WebHubbleTelescope”, The Oil Drum, Drumbeat comment, July 1, 2012)

18“Heading Out”, The Citicorp Energy Projection

19Tom Whipple, The Peak Oil Crisis: Parsing the Bakken, Falls Church News-Press, March 21, 2012

20Arthur E. Berman, quoted by Michael Barajas, Why the Great Shale Rush in the Eagle Ford May Be Over Sooner Than You Think, Current, March 14, 2012. This along with the EIA’s forecast of shale oil peak in 2020, makes it difficult to understand how the EIA can forecast tight oil production levels above 6.0  Mbpd after 2020. Indeed, some experts believe that 10 years from now “at least 90% of the wells currently producing oil from shale formations will be plugged and abandoned, or down to 10 bpd or less” (“Westexas”, The Oil Drum, Drumbeat comment, March 23, 2012)

21Production in barrels per day is reported variously as some combination of crude oil, natural gas liquids, condensates, refinery gain, and biofuels. Hence total values vary by as much as 10 million barrels per day or more, and it is not always easy to find out exactly what the figures represent. In Figures 2, 4 and 5, the categories represented are stated

22Mikael Höök, Robert Hirsch, and Kjell Aleklett, Giant Oil Field Decline Rates And Their Influence On World Oil Production, Energy Policy, 2009. Giant fields are the world’s largest, defined as having more than 0.5 billion barrels of ultimately recoverable oil. There are some 500 such fields, about 1% of total fields; 261 of these are considered post-peak

23Höök et al, Giant Oil Field Decline Rates, 2009. As an example of the effects of technological improvements, consider a conventional reservoir whose pressure is maintained by injection of water below the oil column. This displaces the oil level upwards as oil is extracted. Oil production of a vertical well declines gradually as oil at the bottom of the well is displaced by water and both oil and water are produced, with gradually increasing proportion of water as the water level rises to the top of the reservoir. A horizontal well drilled near the top of the reservoir produces only oil until the water level reaches the well, at which point decline in oil production is abrupt—in oil patch parlance it falls off a cliff.

Lures To Energy Complacency Part III

July 2, 2012

This is Part III of a 5-part blog that addresses the various pressures brought on American society to believe that we have an abundance of oil and gas and therefore no problems with alarmists who warn of impending shortages. “Energy is the key which unlocks all other natural resources”.1 It is essential that we not delude ourselves about its availability so that we can prepare ourselves for the future.

If snake oil2 could be refined into gasoline and diesel fuel, the nation would have no foreign oil dependency problem. It is always plentiful and cheap. Snake oil is the fuel and balm that lures us to curse those we imagine are responsible for high gasoline prices, to grasp at “vast new” fossil energy sources, to ignore peak oil, and to banish fears of climate change, all the while assuring us that technology will solve any impediment to our god-given right to enjoy life as we always have in the past.

1Eugene Ayres and C.A. Scarlott, Energy Sources – the Wealth of the World (McGraw-Hill, 1952)

2The term “Snake oil”, folk etymology has it, originated as a corruption of Seneca Oil. Seneca Indians supposedly had been observed to use crude oil from surface seeps as a liniment. Whatever its origin, it has become a generic name for panaceas or miraculous remedies whose ingredients, unknown to the buyer, are mostly inert or ineffective. That is the sense in which I use it (Wikipedia,; see also Rosie Mestel, Snake Oil Salesmen Weren’t Always Considered Slimy, Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2002)

Part III. U.S. Natural Gas boom(let)

Unfortunately the increasing production of natural gas from shale formations is duplicating the fantasies of shale oil, including the hype:

“This ‘golden age of gas’ could wean us off foreign, unfriendly oil suppliers.”1

“A massive natural-gas discovery in Louisiana heralds a big shift in the nation’s energy landscape. After an era of declining production, the U.S. is now swimming in natural gas” 2

“The development of shale gas plays has become a ‘game changer’ for the U.S. natural gas market. The proliferation of activity into new shale plays has increased shale gas production in the United States from 0.39 trillion cubic feet in 2000 to 4.87 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 2010”3

“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years”4

“The natural gas industry, which less than a decade ago feared running out of domestic gas, is suddenly dealing with a glut so vast that import facilities are applying for licenses to export gas to Europe and Asia” 5

“Energy crisis is postponed as new gas rescues the world. Engineers have performed their magic once again. The world is not going to run short of energy as soon as feared”6

Figure 1. U.S. Natural Gas production, 1900 to 2009

Figure 1 provides a historical perspective of U.S. natural gas production from 1900 to 2009. It is noteworthy that the 2009 production is very close to the 1973 production peak (~22.6 trillion cubic feet–Tcf).7 Data assembled by the Energy Information Administration since the graph was created show that 2010 production (21.6 Tcf) is close to the 1973 peak, and the 2011 production (24.3 Tcf) exceeds the old peak. The history of natural gas production shows annual levels essentially identical to consumption levels until 1987 when consumption began to exceed production. Unlike oil, imports making up the difference between production and consumption have always been low. A sharp increase in production beginning in 2005 is nearly compensated by an increase in consumption, leaving a deficit of 2.5 Tcf in 2010.

As drilling activity in shale deposits blossomed in the late 1990s, the average productivity per well dropped dramatically at the same time as the number of wells drilled increased (Figure 2).

Figure 2. U.S. gas production and number of producing wells 1990 to 2009. Click to enlarge

This is due both to much lower initial production of shale gas wells and their very high production decline rates. These traits, shared with shale oil, result from very low flow rates.

The continued rise in drilling rates reflects the need to replace rapidly declining production of the earlier wells.

Figure 3. Number of wells vs natural gas production 1990 to 2011

Figure 3 shows that gas production was slow to respond during rapidly increasing drilling rates between 1999 and 2008 but rose from the 2008 low to a level nearly 16% above the 2001 level in 2011. Interestingly, however, the rising gas production did not reflect a precipitous drop of 50% in gas drilling rates in 2009. This reflects a shift of drilling focus to shale oil at a time in which gas prices plummeted to below break-even price and oil was enjoying high prices. The continued rise of gas production in spite of this shift is interpreted8 as due to the fact that oil production also produces gas, which masked the decline in gas well drilling.

Another factor affecting the decline in drilling is a 40% increase in average depth of wells drilled for gas and oil (Figure 4), raising capital expenses of drilling. This also increases the energy input required further marginalizing the value of the product (measured by the energy returned on the energy invested, EROEI).9

Figure 4. Total well length drilled vs average well depth. Click to enlarge

Lags in production vs drilling rates also contribute to the behavior shown in Figure 3. For example, declines in Texas gas production in the first 5 months of 2012 over 2011 production are still not as pronounced as might be expected from drilling decline because about 40% of current production comes from wells brought on line in the past 12 months, the time period of maximum well production from shale gas wells. The question remaining to be answered is when the full effects of reduced drilling are combined with rapid declines in well production, will renewed drilling allow production to catch up.10

Even catching up is not sufficient: “The level of drilling activity that [will] be required to maintain and grow U.S. gas production in the future [will] be unprecedented in the history of U.S. gas production.” 11 This cannot happen at the current price of natural gas (~$3.00 per thousand cubic feet), so we must look forward to significant cost increase. Producers are likely hoping for a spike in price, as happened four times in the 2000s,12 but if this doesn’t happen or persists no longer than previous spikes, it will be hard to make money drilling more shale gas wells.

Figure 5. Shale Gas production 2000 to 2011

What is the worth of recent shale gas production in terms of consumption? U.S. consumption for the year 2011 was 24.4 Tcf. Figure 5 shows that in 2011 total U.S. shale gas production amounted to a bit under 3.5 months of current consumption. Since the larger producers in this graph (Barnett, Haynesville, and Fayetteville) appear close to their peak production, sustainability of supply is in question.13 This makes a claim of 100 years supply of natural gas look somewhat hollow.

The 100 years supply claim is based on estimated resources, not reserves—resources are what’s in the ground whether we can get it out or not, reserves are the fraction of resources known to exist that can be produced economically with current techniques. Ignoring speculative resources and giving a conservative estimate of how much of probable resources can reasonably be considered as available, the Potential Gas Committee14 estimates that we have an 11 year supply. Added to existing gas reserves, the supply when developed is a total of 23 years at the present rate of consumption. This is all gas sources, not just limited to shale gas. To make matters worse, there will be less time if projected consumption increases are realized, and a major impending problem if we are dumb enough to export gas.

The assertion that we have 100 years supply of natural gas is basically meaningless. We don’t know what demands will be put on the reserves we do have 5 years from now let alone 100 years from now, and we can’t seem even today to make up our minds what the reserves might be (The Energy Information Administration recently dropped its guess for shale gas reserves 40% to a figure that is barely above 15 years supply at current consumption levels).

Whether reality will make inroads on shale gas extravagance is only slowly surfacing as it is so vigorously hyped by the snake oil merchants. Their success prompted the President to push its agenda15, has led devotees to contemplate North America becoming a natural gas exporting powerhouse16, even to the extent that an industry-sponsored course of instruction was held including this plank17, and has lured mainstream media into its grasp as a cure all for the energy crisis (Figure 6).

Many officials and scientists working in the natural gas industry know better as the New York Times has revealed in a stunning haul of industry e-mails and documents now made public in a form that protects its authors.18 Four samples that show the tenor of the documents:

August 2009 e-mail is in response to an article in an industry publication questioning shale gas economics. The official from IHS Drilling Data, a research company that specializes in energy issues, says that the word among independent oil and gas producers is that shale gas drilling is a Ponzi scheme and that it will be difficult for companies to make money in the Marcellus and Haynesville shale formations

August 2009 e-mail. Official of Anglo-European Energy, an oil and gas company compares the excitement surrounding shale gas to that which led to the mortgage bubble. He also says that after a lot of experience in the industry, he knows what good wells look like — they produce for a long time, they are cheap to operate, they produce large amounts of gas — and shale gas wells do not bear those characteristics.

July 2008 e-mail in which a geologist describes a report he helped to prepare for IHS CERA that took an independent look at the economic prospects for natural gas production in 275 areas in the United States and Canada. After looking at all of the costs of producing shale gas, the analysts reached conclusions that were “not kind” to many plays, including the Barnett shale. The geologist adds that one area where the analysts struggled was finding accurate assessments of how soon production would peter out from shale gas wells.

March 2010 e-mail. What really drives the shale mania? – Conventional exploration doesn’t work. I think managements had their back to the walls and were forced to embrace this Shale enthusiasm because the last 15 years has been so dismal for domestic exploration they were just out of options.

Sources and Notes

1Michael Barajas, Why the Great Shale Rush in the Eagle Ford May Be Over Sooner Than You Think, Current, March 14, 2012

2Ben Casselman, U.S. Gas Fields Go From Bust to Boom, Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2009. The metaphor, “swimming in natural gas”, is a bit misplaced considering buoyancy issues

3U.S. Energy Information Administration, World Shale Gas Resources: An Initial Assessment of 14 Regions Outside the United States, April 2011. The increase in production over a period of 10 years cited amounts to less than 5 days of current consumption. It is further stated that U.S. “Shale gas reserves have increased to about 60.6 trillion cubic feet by year-end 2009”, approximately 3 days of current annual consumption

4Remarks by President Obama In State of the Union Address, January 24, 2012.

5Clifford Krauss and Eric Lipton, Inching Toward Energy Independence In America, New York Times, March 22, 2012

6Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Energy Crisis Is Postponed As New Gas Rescues the World, The Telegraph, October 11, 2009

7The labeling protocols are somewhat awkward. The production units, left side scale, are in millions of cubic feet, so a value 25,000,000, or 25 million million cubic feet is 25 trillion cubic feet, abbreviated Tcf

8David Hughes, With Gas So Cheap And Well Drilling Down, Why Is Gas Production So High? Post Carbon Institute, January 19, 2012

9Hughes, With Gas So Cheap, January 19, 2012

10“westexas”, The Oil Drum, Drumbeat comment July 25, 2012. Texas gas production figures available at

11David Hughes, Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century? (Santa Rosa, California 2011)

12Jonathan Callahan, Gas Boom Goes Bust, The Oil Drum, February 6, 2012

13Arthur E. Berman, After the Gold Rush: A Perspective on Future U.S. Natural Gas Supply and Price, The Oil Drum, February 8, 2012

14Potential Gas Committee, report 2011, data provided by Berman, After The Gold Rush, February 2012

15Voicing strong support for the natural gas industry, a bipartisan group of eight federal lawmakers from gas-producing states sent a letter to President Obama on Monday asking him to promote continued natural gas development “by any means necessary, but most specifically, by unconventional shale gas recovery.” “The need for the United States to move toward energy independence becomes more crucial as the crisis in the Middle East and North Africa worsens,” the letter said” Nicole Foss, Get Ready for the North American Gas Shock, The Automatic Earth,  July 8, 2011. This is an excellent report covering many issues of shale gas hype.

16Nicole Foss, Shale Gas Reality Begins to Dawn, The Automatic Earth, June 24, 2012

17Electric Utility Consultants Inc. presented a course entitled Shale Gas: Commercial, Regulatory, and Environmental Aspects in May 2012. Description of the course includes the statement: The course will also highlight some of the emerging trends and issues resulting from U.S. shale gas development. One of the most interesting and potentially significant developments is the possibility that increased shale gas production may allow the U.S. to become a major exporter of natural gas as liquefied natural gas (LNG) – a significant shift in thinking from just a few years ago when it was anticipated that the U.S. would become one of the largest importers of LNG

18Over the past six months, the New York Times reviewed documents related to shale gas, including hundreds of industry e-mails, internal agency documents and reports by analysts, available at: