Sunday, July 31, 2011


Alberta Tarsands Pipeline: Keystone to Our Tombstone?

With the world's oil reserves dwindling, and production at a plateau for the last 4 years, oilmen view putting into production the world's huge tarsands deposits as key to averting peak oil and the harrowing descent on the other side. Mining these tarsands was not economical until the price of oil rose to its recent highs above one hundred dollars a barrel. Now their moment has come. Alberta and Venezuela, with the richest deposits, have estimated reserves of 3.6 trillion barrels, compared to remaining global conventional deposits of 1.75 trillion barrels. Venezuela has had political problems in organizing the capital-and-technology intensive process of harvesting these reserves, but Alberta has aggressively moved to successfully mine, seperate, recombine and finally export as heavy crude the little globules of bitumen. They have been doing this during those four years, keeping the flow of oil going in the face of steady diminishment. Canada's tarsands project is the finger in the oil dike, allowing the global economy to continue its addiction to petroleum, just barely.

The problem is that our fossil fuel habit is rendering earth atmosphere suffocating through the steady increase in CO2. Burning fossil fuels is the chief contributor to accelerating climate change. Getting these little bituminous globules, nicknamed tar, into a form that can flow through a pipeline is complicated and expensive, both in dollars and in carbon emissions. The globules are mixed with sand, clay and low-grade ores, and must be “fracked” by using high-pressure steam, which requires a lot of water. Canada has plenty of that, but exporting drinking water and channeling it into agriculture, which a warmer, drier world is going to be even more desperate for, might be more important uses (never mind the forests and lakes and birds who need it). In addition, miners must burn natural gas to liquify the viscous oil sufficiently so it will flow through the pipes. Overall, emissions from tar sands production are 3x that of conventional crude.

But this is only the beginning of the problems of utilizing this marginal source of oil. It contains 11x the nickel and sulfur, 6x the nitrogen, and 5x the lead of conventional oil. What happens with these pollutants when you refine this crude (after hydrofracking) into gasoline? You guessed it. When the Soviets were forced to abandon their client Cuba, the Cubans needed to use local deposits of heavily sulfured petroleum to run their power grid. Burning it has created severe air pollution.

Mining tarsands is an environmental catastrophe, its toxic tailing ponds visible from space. When fully implemented, the surface mining will strip away a total area of forest and peat the size of Florida. Alberta alone creates more CO2 than 145 nations. Put another way, it stands sixth among nations in emissions. As Ryan Salmon, energy policy advisor to National Wildlife Federation put it, the site of extraction constitutes “wholesale destruction of the ecosystem.” It is the single most destructive project on earth.

Alberta is remote, far to the west of Canada, so how do they get this heavy crude to market? Though there are nearer ports, the big refinery complex around Houston is an attractive target for extension of an existing pipeline to Oklahoma. Another has been built to Wisconsin (jauntily and ironically named the Alberta Clipper), with the Great Lakes nearby for shipping, but the proposed Trans Canada pipeline, called the Keystone, would complete a pipleline running through the heartland to Texas. It seems to be key to reaching a global market, with the oil-starved US being the first beneficiary.

After quickly granting the permit to build the pipeline to Wisconsin, the US State Department has called for a series of studies before granting permission for the transcontinental Keystone, responding to protests from environmentalist groups and landholders along the route, including tribes of both the US and Canada. Studies show that a rupture could release 7 million gallons of oil. But that pales in comparison to the environmental costs of the basic operation, which is fundamentally flawed from an ecological point of view. State is calling for a decision by the end of the year. It is ultimately up to the President, and some sources say he will decide by the end of September.

Stopping this project is not going to be easy. It already has a lot of momentum. To encourage President Obama to make the right decision, a politically tough one, Bill McKibben has called for greens to up the stakes. He and are calling for an ongoing action at the White House gates, running August 20-September 3, waves of protesters, with many each day willing to commit civil disobedience. I am one of them.

This is a key moment for the US and world energy economy. It is also an absolutely crucial moment for maintaining a climate for human life as we know it. If there is no Keystone, then the arch of toxic economy is weakened. Put into place, it may well complete the tombstone of civilization. Think about that as you plan where you'll be during those two last weeks of summer.

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