Sunday, January 18, 2015

Rant on fossil fuel age inaccuracies on the web!

In the last couple weeks, I have found a few websites with gross inaccuracies about the geologic age of fossil fuel resources. I was disappointed, but just rolling my eyes, after the first finds one day, mostly because they were not science websites. But the second incident pushed me over the threshold of frustration, partly because it was the second occurrence in so many weeks and partly because it was on a state government energy education webpage.

The first were on various Pennsylvania anthracite region websites, including and Blaschak is an anthracite coal producer in northeastern Pennsylvania (PA), USA. Although I found their fact sheet through Google, I cannot find it from within the Blaschak website, a well-done website that describes the current mining practices, reclamation, and coal quality data. On the fact sheet, however, they state "Today, anthracite is the oldest, hardest and cleanest type of coal". The Huber Breaker historical site also calls anthracite the oldest type of coal ("that is, it took nature the longest to form"). ( writes
"Anthracite is mined from the oldest geological formations, and therefore has spent the longest time underground and been subjected to the most pressure and heat, making it the most compressed and hardest coal. Hard coals contain greater potential to produce heat energy than do the softer, geologically 'newer' coals." Yikes!

In fact, in Pennsylvania, the rock formations of both the anthracite coals (eastern PA in Valley and Ridge physiographic province) and bituminous coals (western PA in Allegheny Plateau province) are time equivalents (p. 21 [page 2 of .pdf]: The higher rank of PA anthracite is due to increased deformation and probably advective (heated) groundwater flow (Harrison, M. J., Marshak, S., and Onasch, C. M., 2004, Stratigraphic control of hot fluids on anthracitization, Lackawanna synclinorium, Pennsylvania: Tectonophysics, v. 378, p. 85-103). The coals were deposited during the Pennsylvanian subperiod (323-299 Ma*) of the Carboniferous Period. The folding and thrusting that created the Valley and Ridge province occurred during the late Paleozoic Alleghanian orogeny, but was west of the most intense deformation and metamorphism in the Piedmont.

More concerning is information in the fossil fuel chapter of the award-winning "Energy Quest" education pages ( of the California Energy Commission ( The page says 
    "There are three major forms of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. All three were formed many hundreds of millions of years ago before the time of the dinosaurs – hence the name fossil fuels. The age they were formed is called the Carboniferous Period. It was part of the Paleozoic Era. "Carboniferous" gets its name from carbon, the basic element in coal and other fossil fuels. . . . Some deposits of coal can be found during the time of the dinosaurs. For example, thin carbon layers can be found during the late Cretaceous Period (65 million years ago) – the time of Tyrannosaurus Rex. But the main deposits of fossil fuels are from the Carboniferous Period."

This is very incorrect! The major coal deposits of western Europe and the eastern US are indeed Carboniferous in age. BUT, world-wide there are coals as old as Devonian, and peats and soft brown coals as young as Pleistocene (epoch of recent Ice Ages). Texas and North Dakota lignites (western US) are Paleogene (just after dinosaurs); "Gondwanan" coals of India, Australia, Antarctica and Africa are Permian (Taylor, G. H., Teichm├╝ller, M., Davis, A., Diessel, C. F. K., Littke, R., Robert, P., 1998, Organic petrology: Gebr├╝der Borntraeger, Berlin, 704 pages) (see also Geologic Time Scale link at bottom). Petroleum (liquid or gas) has been found in 1 billion year old rocks (thinking of the Nonesuch Formation, White Pine, MI); California's most hydrocarbon-prolific formation is the much younger Miocene Monterey Formation, whose age ranges from 15-4 Ma (

I have no idea where these webpage authors got their information! In a deep basin where sediments are sequentially buried by younger and younger rocks, organic matter in the older rocks would be more indurated or metamorphosed. But those discussing anthracite seemed to have gone backwards and assumed that higher coal rank means older, without looking up the actual age of the anthracite coals compared to the bituminous ones on the other side of the state: it is other factors like maximum burial depth, deformation and tectonics that caused the difference in PA coal rank.

The California energy page information is even more disappointing, given the excellent resources right there in state: the California Geological Survey, state public and private universities, and the oil industry itself. I found the webpages because a technology education teacher acquaintance uses them as source information for students on types of conventional and alternative energy. I did send the Energy Quest media contact an e-mail describing the inaccuracy and suggesting (hoping) they contact either the state survey or a university geology department to get their geology information in order.

*Ma= million years ago; Here is a link to the geologic time scale:

Friday, January 2, 2015

Wax and Wonderful New Year!

Happy New Year to all! We are now past the anticipation of December, in Western culture, for Christmas and other religious holidays (gatherings of family and loved ones, traditions of gift-giving, greetings of love and friendship), and anticipation for the end of one calendar year and the hopes of the new year. We have also survived the long darkness of the northern winter solstice and welcome slowly lengthening daylight.

At this time of the year, candles have long been popular, originally as a source of light during the long dark cold nights. Our lights of winter and winter holidays have not just been utilitarian, so we can actually see or find our way in the physical darkness, but carry symbolism of hope, knowledge, goodness, truth, “a light shining in the darkness”. Before electrification, candles provided a slow, long-burning source of light and the portability that a campfire or hearth could not. Candles, in regions with reliable electrical service, are now primarily for decoration or ambience, although here in the eastern US, we keep spare candles in case of hurricane/ice storm/blizzard power outages. Certainly no one, hopefully, is using real candles as lighting on interior Christmas trees anymore!

Candles these days are primarily made of paraffin wax, a soft malleable long-chain hydrocarbon derived from coal or petroleum. Beeswax is occasionally used in artisan candles, and, formerly, rendering of animal fats was a major source of candlewax.

Waxy paraffins are generally longer chain hydrocarbons of the alkane series CnH2n+2. Simply, the carbons are linked by single covalent bonds to each other in a chain, and a hydrogen is single-bonded to each of the two remaining bond sites of each carbon; the end carbons have three hydrogens. The first four alkanes in this series (methane, ethane, propane, butane) are gases at room temperature; the next alkanes to C17H36 are liquid. The waxy solid alkanes (or paraffins) have a carbon number of 18 or higher.
Example of alkane structure, ethane C2H6 (

My favorite mental picture of waxy crude hydrocarbons comes from Hollis Hedberg’s seminal 1968 paper on  “Significance of high-wax oils with respect to genesis of petroleum” (American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, vol. 52, p. 736-750): “High wax content is a distinctive and readily detectable characteristic of many petroleums, most simply manifested by a tendency for the oil to congeal at relatively high atmospheric temperatures (high pour-point). This tendency is often dramatically demonstrated by drill-stem tests in which the fluid blown into the air at reservoir temperature falls back with a dull thud as a solid on the derrick floor.”

But despite the New Year, there is still a lot of cold winter, actually most of astronomical winter, left to “weather” since the spring equinox is still almost 3 months away. For two years, I lived in Norway, “Land of the Midnight Sun”, although in Oslo, it is never 24 hours of darkness (about 6 hours daylight in late December). By February, the continuing cold, lack of daylight, lack of holidays until Easter, can make the populace ‘vaersyk’ (weather-sick or, in modern lingo, to have seasonal affective disorder), despite their enthusiasm for winter sports, with an unfortunate high suicide rate. Here in eastern Pennsylvania, 70 miles due west of New York City, we wait now in anxious anticipation of whether Heikki Lunta, the Finnish-American god of snow from the blizzardy Upper Peninsula of Michigan (lived there the record-snowfall winter of 1978-79), will taunt us this year as he did last (I was running out of places to pile up what I shoveled off the sidewalk). 

Eventually it will be spring, with visible new life, new beginnings, less darkness. We can trade our long-chain-paraffin candles for short-chain-propane-powered barbeques and easy outdoor social gatherings in comfortable weather. However, we should actually never wait for a calendar date for new beginnings or steps toward improvement in the human condition, but make it a year-round goal. Best wishes for joy, good health, and peace in 2015!