"Thin Margin" Part 5/8
Comments to cretkid@j...
Disclaimer in Part 1

George Washington University

It had been a long time since Josh had set foot in an academic building for reasons other than political. The minute he finished his last final exam, he had never wanted to see another classroom ever again. He took the bar exam only because his father had asked him to do so; his true passion had always been politics.

If pressed, he could probably come up with the name of the building, despite the fact that Donna told him exactly where to go and even drew him a map with the names of the buildings on it. That map, unfortunately, was left in the cab. For about ten seconds he was ready to give credence to Donna's infatuation with the old woman's curse.

Luckily, college directories had not changed since he was in school. He found the room number for Gary Wyatt in the fourth building he had checked, and trucked up the stairs to the second floor.

The hallway was wide, with wall to wall glass cabinets filled with maps, gigantic museum quality minerals, plaster skeletons of animals he had never heard of, and rocks that appeared to have things sticking out of them that could have once been living; he wasn't sure. There were placards near many of the specimens, detailing its history, where it was collected and its significance. It boggled the mind. He was particularly impressed by a tooth labeled Carcharocles megalodon; it was nearly 7 inches long and according to the placard, belonged to the ancestor of the Great White shark, was nearly 50 feet long and hunted in the waters off the coast of Maryland. He shook his head and was glad the thing was extinct. The sharks in Congress were about all he could handle.

It was late in the day. Most of the classrooms were empty. He peered into a few of them as he walked down the halls. His appointment with Wyatt wasn't for another 15 minutes, he had time to roam the halls a bit. There were rocks on the tables in some of them, jars with things in them on other tables (he didn't want to dwell in that door for too long). In another classroom, students were gathered around a central lab bench. Half empty pizza boxes were stacked on one side. He spied several beer bottles stacked in a lab sink; he was sure that wasn't legal, at least not in an academic classroom.

His quarry was sitting in the thick of the congregation. It looked like a club meeting of some sort, from the casual atmosphere and the occasional group of raised hands. Josh left the window and continued hie perusal of bulletin boards and display cabinets.

Job postings. A search for teaching assistants for historical and physical geology for the summer semesters. Field course advertisements. Graduate school brochures. A request for tutors. A flyer for the next brown bag seminar. One poster caught his eye. It was on garish neon green paper with bright orange lettering announcing a vote for t-shirt designs and slogans to be voted on during the Undergraduate Student Geology Organization (USGO) meeting on Wednesday at 4 PM, pizza provided, BYOB. T-shirt shaped drawings were scattered about and around the text, sporting a number of different phrases:

Evolve, or Die!

Love a geologist and feel the earth quake.

Expose yourself to geology.

Imagine world pieces.

Geologists never die, they just get stoned.

Meet me behind the outcrop, baby; I'm a little boulder there.

Josh pondered what someone might come up with as a t-shirt slogan for the White House. After not so much deliberation, he decided that his brain was far too addled to think up clever sayings at this point in the day. Hours spent reading single-spaced 10 point font documents had left him with a tremendous headache.

The classroom door opened. The first student out propped the door open with a large rock sitting in the hallway. Students streamed out, slinging back packs over shoulders and generally ignoring him as they walked by. Josh slipped through the stream towards the door to peak his head in to the room. Nearly all of the students had vacated, leaving Wyatt to clean up the mess.

"Dr. Wyatt?"

Wyatt looked up and smiled. "Josh Lyman?"

"Yeah." Josh stepped up and shook the man's hand. "Leo McGarry said you might be willing to talk to me."

"Sure. Let me just clean up the room a bit. Just finishing a geology club meeting, and I drew the short straw for clean up this week." Wyatt stacked the empty pizza boxes on one table, emptied and drained the beer bottles in the sink.

Josh leaned against one of the lab benches and spied several sheets of paper with photographs, drawings and the same sayings he has seen on the poster outside the classroom. "So, which t-shirt idea won?"

Wyatt seemed a bit confused by the statement, but then Josh indicated the papers on the table.

"Oh, ah, the 'Expose yourself to geology' one. Two of our more extroverted students decided to have a friend take a photo of them in trench coats on our last department retreat."

Josh laughed as he picked up the paper with two students, one male and one female, with trench coats open wide and flapping in the wind and fedoras on their heads, facing a waterfall. Both were wearing thick wool socks and heavy duty hiking boots.

"I'm sure it will sell well."

"I have no doubt about that one. And since those two were kind enough to be facing away from the camera, the Dean won't have a problem with it." Wyatt washed his hands in the sink, drying them by shaking his hands vigorously and then wiping them on the front of his jeans. "Okay, why don't we head over to my office and we'll see what I can do for you."

Wyatt stopped around the corner and toed open one of the office doors. "I see you've named Louis Woliver to the EPA."

"Yeah," Josh replied, thinking that the cluttered state of the Wyatt's office would put Toby's piles of papers to shame. "The President thought it might be a good change of pace."

"You're not kidding. That man scares me the most, and I've faced polar bears."

"Toby's not too happy with the whole deal."

"Toby doesn't deal well with gregarious individuals that appear to be more show than tell."

"So what do you think?"

"About Woliver? I think the President made a good choice. Woliver is not a pansy-assed tree-hugger that is only going to go after issues that bring him publicity. Your administration already has one of the strictest emissions standards policy in history. That doesn't need to be addressed. Woliver will make sure the forgotten causes will be brought some attention. Look what he's done for Louisiana; he's pushed through legislation to study the effect of salt water incursion into the groundwater table along the Gulf Coast, he's seen to it that the oil companies that work out of Louisiana do not disrupt the environment any more than is necessary, and he's not going to let the doom and gloom-ers lead everyone down the primrose path that we're headed into unprecedented global warming episodes with the burning of fossil fuels. No one is better versed in the science of fossil fuels than Woliver. Trust me on this. He studied petroleum geology prior to entering law school, did you know that?"

"Actually, no."

"His undergraduate degree is in geology. He went to law school from there, paid for by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists."

"Bet they're wishing they didn't fund his post-graduate education."

Wyatt shrugged his shoulders. "He'll do a good job. But you're not here about Woliver."

"Leo tells me you used to study these gas hydrate things."

"Many years ago. Not much funding to look into them these days."

"First off, I'd like to tell you I'm not a stupid man. But what the hell is a hydrate?"

"Gas hydrates are naturally occurring substances composed of water and gas. A solid water-lattice holds gas molecules in a cage-like structure. While methane, propane, and other gases are included in the hydrate structure, methane hydrates appear to be the most common. With me so far?"

"Yup, think so. Keep going."

"Ever hear of CO2 sequestering?"

"Yeah, one of the senators from Tennessee was big on that a couple of years ago. Basically, you pump carbon dioxide into the oceans to lower the amounts in the air, right? "

"In essence. The question generally is how to get the carbon dioxide into the oceans. The oceans are a natural sink for carbon already; if you simply let the system sit, carbon dioxide will naturally go into the oceans. If we stop pumping the stuff into the atmosphere, all of our global warming problems would cease to exist. Granted, we'd probably head straight into another ice age, but that's another story.

"How do you get carbon dioxide into the oceans? Well, you could increase the amount of phytoplankton biomass, or in laymen's terms pond scum, so that the increased plant life draws more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That involves messing with the global carbon cycle, and though it makes sense to do so, dumping iron - a fundamental "food" for these phytoplankton, into the oceans to help form biologic blooms so that gaseous carbon dioxide can become solid carbon and then go into permanent cold storage when the algae dies, is a little bit of a double-edged sword. John Martin theorized that the last great ice age was caused by increased winds that brought iron rich dust into the global carbon cycle. More biomass bloomed, drawing down carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to about half of today's levels. And we were plunged into an ice age.

"You could freeze the CO2 in water-ice cages and torpedo it to the bottom of the oceans. Probably one of the best ways to figure out how to freeze the stuff is to study how it's done naturally."

"Gas hydrates," Josh said.

Wyatt nodded. "Gas hydrates. Scientists have known about these things for more than a century. In the 1930's, as pipelines were extended into colder and colder climates, engineers discovered that the pipelines weren't freezing and clogging due to the presence of ice, but of methane hydrates. Methane hydrates form at higher temperatures than the freezing point of ordinary ice. So, science went in the direction of figuring out how to stop forming them rather than studying how they formed in the first place.

"But until this time, it wasn't known that these things form naturally. In 1964, a Russian drilling crew found frozen natural gas in one of their wells. After that, extensive study went into finding stores of frozen natural gas. I was part of a scientific crew that looked for these things off the coast of Guatemala in 1981.

"Two prerequisites are needed for gas hydrates: cold temperatures and a bit of pressure. They can be found around most of the continental margins, and permafrost regions of the Arctic. Some have even been found in deep lakes of Russia. They've even been found in Prudoe Bay, one of the United States' largest oil fields.

"The United States Geological Survey did a study of possible storage capacity of gas hydrates in the world's sediments and permafrost areas. With help from the Ocean Drilling Program, the USGS estimates that there could be as much as 200,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas stored in the gas hydrates in the United States alone. There's only 1400 trillion cubic feet of conventionally recovered natural gas resources, most of which is untapped right now. World-wide, there may be up to 400 million trillion cubic feet of natural gas stored in methane gas hydrates. You tell me if it isn't worth our while to check into this sort of thing."

"The Senate introduced a bill to look into the development of hydrate technologies in 1998, but nothing came out of it."

"Three years ago we weren't looking at $2 a gallon at the gas pump. Find some senators and congressmen to reintroduce it. The Department of Energy has already funded some research into this sort of thing."

"Yeah, I know. My assistant has the uncanny ability to find every piece of minutia imaginable concerning whatever little project falls in my lap. You should see the number of index cards I know she has waiting for me when I get back."

"It can get a little dense at times. There are pitfalls to harvesting methane gas hydrates, not the least of which being that methane is 10 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is. If something should go wrong, we could be in a heap of trouble. The temperature and pressure conditions that I talked about are very sensitive to hydrate stability. Change sea level, you change pressure on the continental margins. Change the pressure, and you might, MIGHT, upset the balance that keeps the dispersed gas hydrates naturally found in ocean sediments from releasing methane into the atmosphere. However, depressurization may be exactly what is required to mine the stuff. The Russian gas field I was talking about earlier, where they discovered naturally occurring gas hydrates, probably had been tapping a gas hydrate the entire time; the pressure in the well never decreased. The heat of drilling may have destabilized the hydrate enough to continue to feed the gas field they were mining.

"Look, I've got a few more questions, if you've got the time," Josh asked.

"Certainly. My classes are done for the day."

"Greenpeace and Inupiat Eskimos have both filed separate law suits against the US Minerals Management Service for permitting Phillips Petroleum to do prospect drilling near McCovey, along Alaska's North Slope last Decemeber," Ainsley said, taking a bite out of her sandwich.

Sam paused in his study of the material Jessie Witt had messengered over to take a sip of water. His feet were propped on the corner of his desk. The pile of files on his desk had grown to a small mountain chain. A small portion of that was due to the folders Ainsley had brought with her, along with the bags of takeout she had generously offered to bring with her for their dinner. He tried to ignore that.

"Who filed first?" he asked.

"The Inupiat."

"Figures. Greenpeace yet again is riding on the tails of legitimate judiciary action."

"I haven't even told you what they are suing for. Why are you making assumptions? I thought you were an environmentalist."

"I am."

"And you, for lack of a better phrase, turn your nose up at Greenpeace, the liberal watchdog of all that is wrong in the world?"

"You're a Republican and you're defending Greenpeace?"

"The fact that I am a Republican does not mean I care any less about the environment than you do. Granted, Greenpeace is not my cause of choice, however--"

"However nothing! Why are you defending them?"

"Just to watch that little vein on your forehead pulse. It's kind of cute."

Sam scowled. His hand drifted to his temple and before he recognized what he was doing, Ainsley was snickering behind her napkin. "Are you just about finished?"

"Oh, no. I think I'll have to relive this a few more times before it loses its charm."

"Thank you. Can we get on with this? What was the nature of the law suit?"

Ainsley put down her sandwich and reached for one of several manila folders on the floor next to her. "The Inupiat Eskimos, -- should they be called Eskimos? I thought that was a derogatory name for natives of the Arctic region?"

"I don't know. They can call themselves Rin Tin Tin for all I care. Why did they file suit?"

"The tribal organization of the North Slope Borough claim that Phillips Petroleum failed to meet Mineral Management Service regulations to effectively deal with an oil spill. The off-shore area where they plan to do the prospect drilling is near the migratory path of bowhead whales."

"I wonder how long it will take Greenpeace to make a video of poor, unsuspecting whales drowning in oil saturated waters."

"I don't think that's exactly how it works, meaning that I don't think water can be saturated with oil, being that oil is less dense than water and--"

"I was being facetious." His feet dropped from his desk, and he used that momentum to stand up. As he paced around his office, he absently noted the growing number of piles and that he might even be giving Toby a run for his money.

Ainsley appeared to be having much too much fun at his expense. She was smiling sweetly up at him as he trolled around her chair. "Could have fooled me. What happened, did Greenpeace reject your contribution to the Save the Spotted Owl fund?"

"Very funny."

"Seriously, Sam. I sense some hostility here."

Sam settled the door frame, arms crossed over his chest. Ainsley would have to crane her neck 180 degrees in order to smirk at him. "Remember our Howard Chase discussion last night?"

"Yes."

"He learned that I was one of the attorneys handling the transfer of the oil tankers Toby was talking about last night. Let's just say I spent more than a fair amount of money to get the rice out of my gas tank and the sand out of my radiator."

"He did that to you? No wonder you think he's an under-medicated psychopath."

"Sociopath. I don't care what Toby says." He returned to his desk chair, moving some of the piles so he wouldn't have to move from side to side in order to see Ainsley.

"Whatever. Greenpeace's lawsuit also cite inadequate oil-spill planning."

"That's not surprising."

"Apparently oil spills are particularly hard to clean up in the colder climates."

"If the Exxon Valdez is any indication, I would suspect that case to be true."

"Phillips Alaska maintains that they plan on winter drilling; they will build an ice road and an ice island to maintain their drilling platform, and that the sea ice will effectively lessen the severity of an oil spill or well blowout, should one occur." She held up a photo-copy of what looked to be a blueprint of the drilling platform.

"Is that right?"

"They want to use horizontal drilling in McCovey as they have in Prudoe Bay."

"And that's supposed to lessen the environmental impact on the area?"

"That's what they claim."

"Do they have a case? The Eskimos, I mean."

"The Inupiat community has also filed suit against development in Northstar, 6 miles closer to shore than McCovey is. BP Exploration Alaska Incorporated needs to reapply for permits and submit an environmental impact statement in order to continue drilling prospects there. If anything, the lawsuits will slow down the application process."

"Wonderful."

Several loud bangs in quick succession rattled on the glass wall separating Sam's office from Toby's. Ainsley nearly jumped out of her skin. Sam took some joy in that. He stood up and walked towards the door.

"What was that?" Ainsley asked, jumping down from her chair.

"That was Toby."

"Toby?"

"Yeah."

"Princeton!" they heard Toby bellow.

When they stepped through the threshold of Toby's office, they found him with a phone to his ear and a red rubber ball in the other hand. He threw it viciously against the wall between his office and the bull pen.

"What's the problem?"

Toby moved the mouth of the receiver away from him as he said, "Someone just blew up a drilling rig off the North Slope of Alaska."

Thin Margin - 6

 

 

 

Home        What's New        Author Listings        Title Listings