Tar sands pipeline a global disaster

Posted: January 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

NASA State of Flux: Images of Change” app shows at a click how Earth has changed over the last few decades.

NASA State of Flux: Images of Change” app shows at a click how Earth has changed over the last few decades.

I was thinking about a short story I read long ago called, “The Boy Who Could Predict Earthquakes.” I couldn’t tell you which of the pulp mags published it or who wrote it.

In this little story, a down-on-his luck, old-school newspaperman grouses as he is handed a pile of letters to the editor and charged with sorting and editing them for publication. Of course he resents this duty as he believes he is overqualified for such a mundane task. Still he soldiers on.

One of the letters is a child’s warning of an earthquake yet to happen with an epicenter near an island in the vicinity of southeastern China.

He chuckles to himself puts the letter in the discard pile. At the bar after work one night later in the week (it’s the 1960s and we did say, “old school”), lo and behold, Walter Cronkite is reporting on the TV news on a devastating earthquake that has struck right in the place the letter described.

Some weeks later the newspaperman gets another earthquake forecast written in the same childish scrawl. He doesn’t quite know what to do with the letter – but a couple of drinks later he sees an opportunity to make a little money.

The newspaperman does a little research into the writer of the letters and sells the story – a series of stories, actually – to the Weekly Global Inquisitor, a tabloid of bizarre news.

The boy who can predict earthquakes begins to attract very real attention.

One might expect that his special “gift” is a benefit to humankind. There are, however, those who find it most inconvenient. There are still others who want to exploit this gift in various ways. The net result – well I don’t want to play the spoiler.

I think about this story, though, as pertinent to the Alberta tar sands/Keystone XL pipeline situation. There’s something really strange and sinister going on that enables the mining to continue without regard to the damage and the push to accelerate the development with the building of a pipeline. Something almost beyond human understanding, as tar sands development is so destructive to the biosphere that sustains us.

It’s erroneous to think that Keystone XL won’t worsen climate change “because the oil sands could be developed in its absence; bitumen could be moved to market by other means.”

That is akin to stepping into a riot mob with a bullhorn and saying, “Go ahead and loot the shops and homes; if you don’t do it, somebody else will.”

Facilitating the increased development of Alberta, Canada’s tar sands by building the Keystone XL pipeline would constitute an act of mass destruction and of self-destruction. As energy policy, it compares favorably to the activities of lemmings.

Brigette DePape writes:
“Today the greatest threat facing humanity is climate change … Future extreme weather events and the lives and homes lost because of them can be averted by the actions of human beings. This includes drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions by transitioning away from fossil fuel projects to renewables.”

DePape cites a letter signed by South African bishop Desmond Tutu and South African activists and African environmental groups:

“Canada, you were once considered a leader on global issues like human rights and environmental protection. Today, you’re home to polluting tar sands oil, speeding the dangerous effects of climate change.”

Let me just put where we stand with regard to survival as a species in terms of a football game. It comes down to where the home team is in field goal range but loses the ball on the next play. The opponent takes the ball to a position where a field goal is in easy range and thus scores.

So it’s a six-point swing against the home team. Instead of a three-point gain, it loses three points to the opposition.

That is basically what we have done with greenhouse gas emissions. And the information’s right there in Scientific American (Jan. 23, 2013) .

You don’t have to be a researcher; you don’t have to be a scientist to get this information. It only requires average literacy. Scientific American is written for everyone.

“The world needs to begin reducing emissions by roughly 2.5 percent per year in order to hit the trillion metric ton target by 2050. Instead emissions hit a new record in 2012, increasing 3 percent to 34.7 billion metric tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.”

We can probably estimate at least a 3 percent increase for 2013 as well. The US Environmental Protection Agency cited a domestic surge to a slight increase in coal consumption.

So we’re 12 points down now and we’re not going in the right direction. Unfortunately this is not just a game. This is life and death for a great many people on this planet. This is species extinction, the elimination of habit for plants, animals and human beings, the loss of our ability to grow the food we eat.

It’s big trouble, in other words.

Why are government officials blithely ignoring science at this crucial moment? The emergence of this desperate fuel source – and I do mean desperate – comes at a time when a majority of scientists concur that mass extinction is underway (American Museum of Natural History—New York) and, furthermore, when most scientists agree that human activity influences destruction global climate change and that immediate action is necessary to even have a chance at mitigating global catastrophe (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, etc.).

Scientific American points out what mechanical engineer John Abraham of the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota, NASA climatologist James Hansen and other scientists have been alerting the world about: The Alberta tar sands development will add enough greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere to trigger global warming catastrophe.

“Even if just the oil sands recoverable with today’s technology get burned, 22 billion metric tons of carbon would reach the sky,” SA reported. “And reserves usually expand over time as technology develops, otherwise the world would have run out of recoverable oil long ago.

“If all the bitumen in those sands could be burned, another 240 billion metric tons of carbon would be added to the atmosphere.”

This is NOT one of those situations where progress is being made in reducing pollution through technology. Instead, a greenhouse gas-intensive melting-in-place technology is increasing emissions per barrel for tar sands extraction.

“Emissions have doubled since 1990 and will double again by 2020,” says Jennifer Grant, director of oil sands research at environmental group Pembina Institute in Canada.

It’s not simply a matter of choosing between foreign oil — and tar sands bitumen: This is comparing apples and oranges.
Tar sands bitumen is not the same as crude – it requires more energy to extract, more energy to refine and is more toxic. High carbon/low yield. It is junk energy.

Significantly, “producing and processing tar sands oil results in roughly 14 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average oil used in the US,” SA reported.

That is just the tip of the iceberg, however:

“Either near oil sands mines in the mini-refineries known as upgraders or farther south after the bitumen has reached Midwestern or Gulf Coast refineries, its long, tarry hydrocarbon chains are cracked into the shorter, lighter hydrocarbons used as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. The residue of this process is a nearly pure black carbon known as petroleum (pet) coke … Canadian tar sands upgraders produce roughly 10 million metric tons of the stuff annually, whereas U.S. refineries pump out more than 61 million metric tons per year.

“Pet coke is possibly the dirtiest fossil fuel available, emitting at least 30 percent more CO2 per ton than an equivalent amount of the lowest quality mined coals.”

It’s inconvenient to list all the problems associated with tar sands development. Let’s talk in these terms, however: Those of us who survive the period of tar sands development may see a solar energy future. Fossil fuel use is already killing many people. They are developing and dying from cancer in their youth. The development of the tar sands will kill many more people. Why speed it up?

It could be like a lot of things human beings do that can’t be easily explained — “hidden persuaders,” etc. If I tried to figure it all out I’d still be wondering why Nixon handed the U.S. economy to China … I have to say I just don’t know.

What I do know is that I do know that in the United States we must, at the very least, insist that our aquifers are protected. Transportation of bitumen via any means is a high-risk activity. We have already seen a local health disaster in the form of bitumen spill into Lake Conway in Arkansas — although the mainstream media has not really covered that story. TransCanada’s 1,700-mile pipeline to Texas Gulf Coast refineries, which would process the tar sands crude for shipment to China, would cross the largest freshwater aquifer in North America.

Unfortunately, we Americans are not so good at protecting our drinking water. Take a look at this pertinent article on permitting for a BP tar sands refinery in Indiana.

Lest you be inclined to think of this tar sands issue as a short-term problem that will be overcome as we transition smoothly to renewable energy sources, consider the US Department of Energy’s International Energy Outlook Report which, as Michael T. Klare points out, describes a world continuing to be fossil-fueled, for the most part, into 2040 and beyond. This is a tragic and unsustainable situation as global warming and environmental toxins claim lives.

Consider a short, succinct (click here) list of reasons to kill the Keystone XL pipeline.

Business Week has reported that the US State Department will seek public comment on a yet-to-be-released environmental impact study on the Keystone XL pipeline.

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