Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: December 2018

I awoke Christmas morning, turned on the lights, took a shower, and made a cup of coffee, and found myself marveling, and not for the first time in my life, at that fact that I live in a warm house.  I grew up in a house without central heat, so it is not something I take for granted–it truly is a gift.  Most of my childhood, we burned kerosene, but there were a few years where we burned coal, anthracite delivered by dump truck into our cellar, carried up to the kitchen in a bucket.  I remember it as black and dirty, and burned hot with an acrid smoke.

My wife and I own a cabin that still does not have central heat–there is a wood stove.  It  was built in 1927, and was upgraded somewhat in the late 1980s, but is not particularly energy efficient. A precious occupant left a stack of firewood a decade ago, which we have just finished burning.  So this fall I found myself cutting firewood for the stove.  The job involves felling trees, limbing them, cutting the wood into lengths to move and fit into the stove, drying the wood (takes about a year), splitting, and then, on a daily basis, moving the wood into the house by the stove. All of it is hard physical labor–but also satisfying–at the end of the day, I can see what I’ve done.  

On a daily basis, I move firewood from the woodshed into the cabin–a distance of perhaps 200 feet.  We only heat part a few rooms, to limit the amount of wood we burn.  I estimate that we use about 100 pounds of wood a day in the winter.  My wife takes out the ashes every few days–at most a pound of residue left from burning the wood.

Bonfire, Spring Camping, March 2003

Which leads, finally, to the point of this story–where did all the rest of that weight go?   It disappeared into the atmosphere mostly as carbon dioxide and water vapor.   Nearly all of that 100 pounds a day goes into the air.  

Wood disappears, Spring Camping, March 2003

As I sit in my city home, heated by natural gas, I think about the energy I use.  A few years ago, I went onto the Energy Information Agency web site and from that calculated the amount of energy each American uses on a daily basis.  At that time, it was about 845,000 BTU/day–a meaningless number to most people.  To convert that into units that people do understand, that is 7.2 gallons of gasoline, or for the purposes of this story, 84.5 pounds of coal.  Per person.  Per day.  Everyday.

I live in a household of three people, and we have two working fireplaces.  Some years we do hang stockings by the chimney with care–which are supposed to be filled with gifts from Santa if we’ve been good, and lumps of coal if we’ve been bad.

So here’s my thought experiment for this Christmas.  Suppose this year, Santa delivered a single day’s energy supply to us in coal dumped down our chimney.  My family would have received a 250 pound ration of coal, which would fill the fireplace, and spill onto our hardwood floors.  Burning that much coal would release about 930 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere–nearly a half ton per day.  For just our household.

Coal grate, Fairbanks Power Plant, 2008

Of course, except for the firewood we use at our cabin, all the rest of our energy arrives at our house unannounced and unnoticed.  Our natural gas comes in pipes, our electricity in wires, and even the gas for our cars is pumped without physical effort on our part. It’s like magic–our lights go on, our house stays warm, and our hot water flows.   

It is easy to see why most people have a hard time visualizing climate change–we never lift a finger to get our energy, and the gases released into the atmosphere are mostly invisible.  But every once in a while we can see the process at work…

3 ton pile of coal outside home, St Paul Island, Alaska, 2008


Ben beside a 150 ton truck, 2008, Usibelli Coal Mine

On an annual basis, my family’s 930 pounds per day of carbon dioxide gas emission results in a total of 165 tons per year.   if that were a solid, it would fill that truck towering over Ben.  More than enough to bury our house.  So, this Christmas, instead of Santa and his reindeer flying through the air, I think about that 165 ton lump of coal that went up the chimney.


When Williams Corporation proposed building the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline through Lancaster County, the promise they made was that the landscape would be unchanged—that the pipeline would be invisible, once it was completed.  Can this be true?


Pequea Creek, just upstream from pipeline crossing point, summer 2004

As a photographer, one can at least try to answer this question, by photographing the route of the pipeline before and after construction.  My friend and fellow photographer Bob Lowing has been doing precisely this ever since the pipeline project was announced in the spring of 2014.  At that time, surveyor stakes appeared along rural roads weeks  before a public announcement was made of the intention to build the pipeline.   The initial route was mapped only to a precision of a 500 foot corridor—a fat red line on a fuzzy google earth map—the precise route was not given—and of course, a large number of people objected to the route.  Over the next year, the pipeline route was adjusted to avoid the loudest protests, and the exact route of the line remained in doubt until tree cutting began in the fall of 2017.


Pequea Creek, Pipeline Crossing, October 2018

Of course, the ideal photographic evidence of the pipeline’s lack of harm on the route would be from pairs of images, one made of the landscape before the pipeline was built, when the land was ordinary and safe, matched with the same view taken after the pipeline is operational .  Even more convincing would be a photograph made before the pipeline was even proposed, when the only reason to make the photograph was for some reason other than the pipeline, such as, perhaps, the completely pastoral nature of the landscape.    I have been making photographs of landscapes through the windshields of cars for decades now, many in Lancaster county, and have a handful of images of the pipeline route from before the pipeline was proposed in 2014. Once the pipeline route was proposed, I also drove the route looking for the stakes that marked the route.


Bob Lowing at Hilltop crossing, November 2, 2017

I also photographed during the construction of the pipeline, when the landscape was dramatically disrupted.  The construction occurred in phases—marking the route with stakes and ribbons, defining the construction corridor width with plastic pipe and streamer ribbons; tree removal; topsoil removal; placement rock and wood entry points at road crossings; placing sections of pipe along the route;  welding and bending the pipe; digging the trench; placing the pipe in the trench; covering the pipe with soil; replacing the topsoil; seeding with a cover crop;  cleanup;  and final restoration.   The construction began simultaneously at several locations in the county, and driving the route on any given day would show the pipeline construction at various phases of completion.  The first section of pipe to be completed was a short section just south of the Columbia pike—right through the land of the strongest protesters.  It was, and was intended to be, a big fat middle finger to the opposition.


Hilltop Crossing with pipe sections, January 23, 2018

I traveled back to Lancaster County five times during the construction of the pipeline:  in late October and early November 2017 (an extended visit for a family funeral),  late January 2018, May 2018, early September 2018 (a very short, hot visit), and late October early November 2018.  Most of these photographs are from that period.

I think it safe to say that, as of this writing, the pipeline has not yet disappeared into the landscape.  With the exception of a few spots near the southern terminus of the route, no crops were planted on the right of way during 2018 (and those that did go in were planted late).


Hilltop Crossing, welded pipe, January 25, 2018

Williams requested permission to begin flowing gas through the line in September, promising to have the restoration work completed on the line by the end of October.  Gas flow was permitted to begin on October 6, a Saturday.  However, when I traveled back to the county at the end of October, it was apparent that clean-up and restoration along the line was far from complete.

As a farm boy, I recall being amazed by the first major construction project I was involved in—a power plant costing about a billion dollars in the late 1970s.  It blew my mind that anyone would take on a project of that size—thousands of construction workers on site for a decade building a power plant big enough to power  the city of Philadelphia for decades.  Who dreams up these projects?


Hilltop Crossing, May 7, 2018

The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline project is a three billion dollar project, which averages out to about $10 million per mile.  All for something that the pipeline company tells us disappears.

But, of course, the pipe is still there.  As is the natural gas that flows through it, and the carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere after it is burned.  And the fugitive methane that escapes before it is burned.   All invisible.  But the damage is done, and continues.


Hilltop Crossing, October 30, 2018

But how much Carbon Dioxide is released from the gas flowing through this pipeline?  The nominal flow rate is 1.7 billion cubic feet per day, which is a big number.  Converting this to a mass flow (1.25 moles per cubic foot, 16 grams per mole, 1,000,000 grams per metric ton) gives a figure of 34,000 tons of methane per day, which wen converted to CO2 results in 93,500 tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere every day.

Now that is a very big number—I have a hard time visualizing that.  What I can visualize is a coal train—they go through Spokane for coal deliveries to Asia.  Each coal train car holds about 100 tons of coal, each train is 100 cars, so a single coal train is hauling 10,000 tons of coal.  So if the CO2 were a solid, it would take 9 coal trains a day to haul that much CO2, or one train every 2 or 3 hours.  I have stood by watching coal trains as they rumble by—the earth shakes from their weight.

Of course, all this plays with our perceptions.  When there is a natural gas leak, we can smell it because of the odorant that is added to the gas—but we never have a perception of weight—the natural gas simply mixes with the atmosphere, which we perceive as weighing nothing (after all, we don’t have to pick it up).   What I do think about is heating our cabin by burning wood—for a cold winter night, I bring about 100 pounds of wood into the house—it’s heavy, it takes me a few trips to move that much fuel.  In the morning, the wood is gone, only a tiny bit of ash remains behind.  Where did the rest of the weight go?  Most of it left the stove in the exhaust stream, as carbon dioxide and water vapor.   Burning natural gas is the same.  At my home in Spokane, gas enters my house in a small steel pipe, and the exhaust leaves by my chimney without me ever touching the gas, let alone carrying it.


Coal Train, near Sprague, Washington, December 2015

The old cliche goes, what you can’t see can’t hurt you.  The new Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is hidden underground.  It makes no sound.  It carries an invisible gas that has no odor, and appears to have no weight.  It enters homes and leaves without any effort on our part.  It all passes unseen and unnoticed.  We stay warm as if by magic.  But it isn’t magic.  And there are consequences.