Wednesday, April 10, 2013

We can do better

The sky is not falling (not today), and of things I am concerned about, the Keystone XL Pipeline does not top the list. But a decision is said to be imminent, the consequences of which we will live with for a long time, so I am posting yet again.

The XL Pipeline decision is complicated. The benefits are said to be continued affordable energy, energy security for our country, and many new jobs. A new larger pipeline would provide safer petroleum transport than rail, truck, barge, or smaller aging pipelines (which it would hopefully replace). On the flip side, serious environmental concerns have been raised, including increased greenhouse gas emissions, spill hazards along the pipeline route, and destruction of the Canadian boreal forests to name a few. These pros and cons have pros and cons of their own, and the evidence for or against each position is controversial. The questions do not have yes-or-no answers and the decision is not black-and-white. Thoughtful people may reasonably disagree.

In the end, though, either the pipeline will be approved and be built or it won't. There is no middle ground. Even if the arguments were exactly fifty-fifty, the outcome is all-or-nothing. Do we just flip a coin, then, and see how it lands? What decision would I make if it were up to me?

I have already written one "thoughtful essay" about a few of the more objective arguments, and I may write more. Today, however, I want to try out a subjective approach. My heart says we should just say no and reject the XL Pipeline.

If we allow the Keystone XL Pipeline to be constructed across a wide swath of our country it would mean business-as-usual, more of the same old get-while-the-getting-is-good mentality. This has (admiringly) been called an "all-of-the-above" strategy, but "have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too" is more appropriate. If it can be exploited we should take advantage, never mind the consequences. We hide-our-heads-in-the-sand and pretend that there are no consequences.

Proponents of the pipeline say that providing clean energy alternatives would cost too much and inhibit growth. This is because the true costs of fossil fuels, especially the dirtiest of them, the tar sands, are hidden. In truth, feeding our addiction to comfort and convenience by accepting this pipeline would stifle innovation and postpone addressing the issues facing us.

If we say no, on the other hand, we as a nation would take seriously for the first time our responsibility to preserve the environment. It would mean facing up to the true costs of a fossil-fuel based economy. Yes, we would still need oil, coal, and gas for the foreseeable future, but paying the true price of these would lead to innovation and constructive change. If we dare to dream (as we did when we accepted the challenge to put a man on the moon) we would reap the same benefits of new technology, skilled jobs, and a revitalized economy.

So I say no. Your mileage may vary (no pun intended).

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Unity Amidst Diversity

I am stirred by the notion of diversity, especially as it applies to planet Earth, our home. A few days ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a link on my wall about Ecuador selling its Rainforests to China. It caught my attention for a couple of reasons. Ecuador is a small country and home to Touch the Jungle (TTJ), a cause I have been supporting with my birthday gifts for a while now. It turns out that TTJ is not directly involved, as Apuela is on the north-western slopes of the Andes, while Yasuni National Park is in the Amazon side of the country, east of the Andes. Nonetheless, Ecuador is a small country and the political and the economic issues are all part of the same struggle. Because of my interest in TTJ, I am concerned with Yasuni.

The second reason is that the Yasuni National Park has been said to be the most biodiverse region on Earth. Whether or not this is the case is immaterial. What is important is that biodiversity is both an essential feature of our planet and crucial to our own survival as a species.

What blows me away about this is that in the small local community of Mayflower, Arkansas we are faced with exactly the same issues of biodiversity in the wetlands surrounding Lake Conway and the competing values of affordable energy that led to a catastrophic oil spill. Half a world away, different life forms, different cultures, different politics and different economies, but the same issues.

In other words, as different as we are, we are all in this together. Sometimes we don't want to accept that fact, but it is true.

Once in a while, an art form comes along that helps us experience deeply what is otherwise difficult to grasp. Playing for Change is one of these. The whole idea is mind boggling. What this group does, essentially, is create a unified visual and auditory experience from diverse artists from around the world. Incredible, absolutely incredible! In my opinion the video is just as important as the sound track, probably more so. There are so many great singles, but my favorite is What a Wonderful World. We are wonderfully, ecstatically diverse, but we are indeed One. What a One-derful world!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Mayflower spill: 5 questions

For weeks I have been meaning to write a thoughtful essay about the Keystone XL Pipeline. But thoughtful essays require, well, thought, and thinking takes time, so I have been putting it off. The Mayflower oil spill last weekend changed all that for me. Imagine my surprise, my shock, to find that I have been living and hiking just a few miles from our very own tar sands pipeline. Who knew? No one, I think. Suddenly what I have been putting off seems much closer to home and more important. It is now time to write.

What surprised me was not the presence of the pipeline, but what it was carrying. Here I am, reading about tar sands for months, and I had no clue that barrel upon barrel of the stuff has been flowing almost under my feet the whole time. It turns out that the 20-inch Exxon Mobile Pegasus Pipeline was built in the late 1940's (a decade before Lake Maumelle) to carry oil derivatives from the Gulf Coast (Nederland, TX) to Illinois (Patoka, IL). In 2006 Exxon Mobile reversed the flow to transport Canadian tar sands oil from the Lakehead system in Chicago to Texas refineries. Then in 2009 new pumps were installed to increase the capacity from 50,000 barrels per day (Bpd) to 80,000 Bpd. I knew none of this, of course, and I'll bet not one in a thousand in our state knew it before this week.

So here's the thing. The Mayflower spill changes nothing and it changes everything. The Keystone XL issues are still exactly the same, the arguments on both sides are identical, but what the Pegasus accident has done is capture our attention and focus it on the important questions. The similarities and differences between the aging Pegasus and the proposed XL Pipelines are instructive and they are important.

Five questions for a conversation

1. What is acceptable risk? The oft suggested analogy is that automobile accidents happen every day, but that does not keep us from driving. We weigh the risks and decide that the benefits of driving are worth those risks. This analogy is imperfect, of course, because with driving the risks and benefits are individualized, but for at least seven decades, as a country we have considered the risks of oil pipelines and decided that the benefits outweigh the risks. The network of pipelines in the U.S. is extensive. There are approximately 55,000 miles of crude oil trunk lines (8 - 24 inches in diameter) that connect regional markets. Most of these carry light crude oil or its derivatives. Overseen by the Department of Transportation, this network has safely transported untold millions of barrels of oil from source to refinery and its products back to consumers. Yes, there have been accidents and spills, but it is widely recognized that pipelines are (or at least were) a safer means of transport than trucking, shipping, rail, or other means. It is also reported that pipeline safety has steadily improved over the past half century. Because of such pipelines I can affordably drive my (hybrid) car to work every day and on occasional cross-country trips.

But how would I feel if this spill was flowing through my back yard or the street in front of my own home? What if I lived a block or two away and now wake up every morning with headaches or nausea? The twenty-two families that have been evacuated from their homes are just the tip of the iceberg. Their lives and those of many others have been disrupted for weeks if not months. Maybe forever. Is this acceptable risk? And by all accounts it could have been much worse. What if the spill had made its way into Lake Conway (and it may yet)? What if the rupture had occurred nearer the Arkansas River (or one of forty other rivers and creeks along the route) or within the watershed of Lake Maumelle, Little Rock's water supply? Are these acceptable risks? I don't know the answer, but this question should give us pause. It is clearly worth a serious conversation.

So, what is special today? We have lived with these risks and benefits for decades. What makes us look at things differently now? I will get around to this shortly, but first we must ask ourselves about the benefits.

2. What is in it for us? We begin this line of reasoning by asking how the Mayflower residents benefited from this pipeline since 2006. How have the residents of Arkansas benefited? Have our gasoline prices been lowered or our heating costs reduced? I don't know, but I doubt it. I am pretty sure the victims did not benefit, at least not directly, and I am certain they had no idea they were living on top of a ticking time bomb. But I digress. What is in it for us?

Our economy is dependent upon on a ready supply of inexpensive energy. The XL Pipeline would bring some 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to Texas refineries and open up 170 billion barrels of recoverable oil sands oil over the coming decades. Developing oil resources from our North American neighbor would seem to improve our national energy security. Oil from Canada is also claimed to be more "ethical" than "conflict oil" from Venezuela or OPEC. And despite the inherent risks, a pipeline may be the safest way to transport the tar sands oil to refineries than the alternatives of rail, shipping, or trucking.

The previous paragraph is oversimplified, extremely and deliberately so because to develop even one of its statements would take another whole essay. Please let me recommend, therefore, the website Oil Drum, a site which raises awareness of society’s dependency on energy and the magnitude of the problems we may face if energy becomes either too expensive or scarce. The only point I want to make here is that the role of energy in our economy, and the roles of oil in providing that energy, are complicated, and I for one don't pretend to understand them all. Energy is important, and how the tar sands should contribute is not clear.

Yes, there are benefits to society of having a ready source of inexpensive energy, and it may not be easy to weigh these. But one thing is quite clear. The primary beneficiaries are the fossil fuel energy companies, the refineries, and the energy distributors here and world-wide. The oil companies and refineries will profit, but our society may not. More than half of the products of Canadian tar sands are exported presently, and it is estimated that between 60 and 90% of the output from the future XL Pipeline is destined for export. I have no way (at present) to judge the validity of these claims, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the cost-benefit balance is shifting. The fact that Exxon Mobil reversed the direction of flow in the Pegasus Pipeline, in my opinion, changes the whole equation. Which brings us to the third question.

3. What is different about this situation? At the time of its rupture, the Pegasus Pipeline was carrying "Wabasca Heavy crude oil from Alberta." This is the same bituminous petroleum that would be transported by the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. Extracting crude from the tar sands requires first clear-cutting the forest above, then removing as much as 100 ft of underlying soil and peat. The thick, viscous bitumen beneath must then be separated from the sands in which it is soaked by an energy-intensive steam process. It must then be further processed into crude by diluting with a natural gas condensate or synthetic crude. The resulting "diluted bitumen" or "dilbit" is thick, viscous, and corrosive, and it often has to be heated to be transported in pipelines. Here are just a few of the unique problems associated with dilbit.

  • Transportation is more dangerous due to the higher viscosity and corrosive nature of dilbit.
  • Clean up of spills is difficult, especially around water, due to its greater density and viscosity.
  • Spills are more hazardous due to the diluents required for its transport via pipeline.
  • Bitumenous sand is considered the "dirtiest" oil on the planet (higher carbon content).
  • Tar sands oil is inefficient. The energy it provides costs more energy to produce than regular oil.

I don't claim to know how to properly weigh the risks versus the benefits. I am just saying that all bets are off when the pipeline is carrying dilbit. Frankly we don't know the risks yet, and from what I can tell, we don't even know how to clean up dilbit spills.

How does the proposed XL Pipeline compare to the stricken Pegasus Pipeline? The most obvious difference is that the Pegasus Pipeline is more than sixty years old. It stands to reason that newer pipe would be more reliable and hence safer. It is worrisome, then, that TransCanada’s first Keystone pipeline leaked 12 times in its first 12 months, not exactly a confidence builder. The other huge difference is the size. The 36-in XL Pipeline would be nearly twice the diameter of the 20-in Pegasus Pipeline and would carry more than nine times the flow of Wabasca Heavy Crude (dilbit).

4. What impact would the XL Pipeline have on greenhouse gas emissions? Prior to the Mayflower spill, my greatest concern was not the environmental risks, but the negative impact it could have on global warming and climate change. This issue has been called a "no-brainer" by both sides of the issue, and both sides are wrong. It is "a brainer" because there are so many facets. For those who choose not to believe that climate change is due to human activity maybe it is just that simple. Nothing to worry about, end of discussion.

For the purpose of our conversation, however, let's tentatively agree that carbon emissions are a threat to the planet. It can nonetheless be argued that the Canadian tar sands account for less than 0.2% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, so a ten-fold increase in their contribution would still amount to less than 2% of all emissions. Furthermore, the Alberta bitumen deposits are relatively small in comparison to the total base of coal and unconventional gas worldwide. As far as I know, these facts are not in dispute. Maybe the tar sands are not such a big deal after all.

The problem is that these facts represent only a partial truth. The rest of the truth is that tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil on the planet. This resource has the highest carbon content by unit of energy of any fossil fuel, except perhaps coal and even that is not clear. In fact, coal (petroleum coke) is a by-product of refining bitumen. (See below.) Furthermore, bitumen is "junk" energy. A joule, or unit of energy, invested in extracting and processing bitumen returns only four to six joules in the form of crude oil. In contrast, conventional oil production in North America returns about 15 joules. Because almost all of the input energy in tar sands production comes from fossil fuels, the process generates significantly more carbon dioxide than conventional oil production.

Two new reports came out recently that bear on this topic. (1) Pembina Institute released a The climate implications of the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. "Given its size, scope and market potential, the Keystone XL pipeline, if approved, would result in significantly increased oilsands production and increased global greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of whether other transportation options go ahead." (2) Oil Change International released a reportPetroleum Coke: The coal hiding in the tar sands.

In fairness, Pembina and Oil Change International are not disinterested (objective) parties, and neither of these articles entirely nullifies the observations of Swart and Weaver above. In the big scheme of things coal reserves are (still) a much larger problem than the tar sands reserves. Granted. Nevertheless, both of these articles are well-research and convincingly written. Moreover, I find it highly disconcerting that Petcoke in the tar sands is turning American refineries into coal factories. This can only help the coal industry, not deter it. I am still open minded about the relative merits, but I am discovering more and more climate change reasons to be disturbed about the tar sands project. The Canadian government seems to confirm this opinion.

And my biggest concern about further opening the tar sands fields by building the XL Pipeline is simply that it is "business as usual". That decision would mean that the U.S. and Canada are not taking seriously the problems associated with climate change.

5. Why has the State Department endorsed the XL Pipeline? In looking at all sides, we must take into account that the State Department has determined that "Keystone XL will not have a significant impact on the environment." I took this seriously enough to read much of the Executive Summary for the SEIS myself, and this report puts the XL Pipeline project in positive light. There is good reason to insist, however, that it is not an objective report. Most or all of it was written by firms with close ties to the very companies that would benefit most from the pipeline. In fairness, I'll concede that it is not unusual for the government to outsource technical studies such as this one, and any company with the expertise to perform such a study is likely to have ties to industry.

Digging deeper, however, "ERM Group, a recent DeSmogBlog investigation revealed, has historical ties to Big Tobacco and its clients include ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Koch Industries. Mother Jones also revealed that ERM – the firm the State Dept. allowed TransCanada to choose on its behalf - has a key personnel tie to TransCanada." This is disturbing, to say the least.

Conclusion. In the months I have been studying the Keystone XL Pipeline, I have formed a opinion about it: I'm opposed to it, in case that was not already apparent. But thoughtful people can reach differing opinions, and I hope I have made it clear that I understand there are valid points to be made on both sides. I even made some of these, on both sides, myself. In the end, though, we can't have it both ways. The President either approves the project or not, and it gets built or it doesn't. Being able to see both sides of the coin doesn't lead to a decision. Where I end up, then, is believing it is not in our best interests to allow the XL Pipeline to be built. I started out opposing it mostly because of what it would mean for global warming and climate change. The more I study the situation, though, the more other reasons I find to oppose it, not the least of which is safety after this week. I used to buy the acceptable risk argument, but I'm not sure that I do any more. The bottom line is that the Tar Sands are not oil. We should not pretend that they are.