Pipeline In, Carbon Out
Burning Our Current Oil Reserves Could Lead to Catastrophe
by Tod Westlake
We consume an awful lot of energy here in the US. As of 2008, this is one area in which we were still number one in the world, though more recent estimates suggest that, in the past couple of years, China has eclipsed us, with its industrial boom leading to huge growth in energy consumption. Of course, the European Union, when taken as a whole, isn’t too far behind the US and its number-one trade partner. Japan, too, is a huge consumer of energy. Now we can add Russia and India into the mix as two countries with huge populations hungry for fuel. And every year more and more humans fall in love with the latest electronic gadget, putting even more pressure on our already-stretched-thin energy supply. The era of peak oil production, if it’s not already upon us, will certainly be here presently.
Thus we’ve begun to start looking at new ways to produce energy, some of it good and some of it not so good. On the good side, Germany created national subsidies that provided residents and businesses with powerful incentives for renewable sources, so much so that the country now gets more than 20 percent of electricity from renewables. On the bad side, in the coal fields of the US, mining companies now level entire mountains in order to get at the anthracite buried within; and, it turns out that the “hydro-fracking bonanza” that has been touted as a savior of our energy needs comes with a number of dangerous downsides, including and especially long-term damage to water quality. To some folks, all of this might seem a bit like throwing not just the baby out with the bathwater, but also the tub, the house, the neighborhood, and the land on which it all sits.
And, believe it or not, there is yet another controversial source of energy here in North America. If you follow the news, it’s likely that you’ve heard the term “Keystone Pipeline” a few times. In a nutshell, Keystone is a 2,000-plus mile pipeline system that brings synthetic crude oil—which is refined from “tar sands,” also known as bitumen—from northwestern Canada to refineries here in the US. As it is now configured, the pipeline runs from Hardisty, Alberta, east across the southern tier of Canada, until it turns southward into the US along the eastern end of the Dakotas and into Steele City, Nebraska. There it splits, with one section going eastward into Missouri and Illinois, and a second spur that heads south to Cushing, Oklahoma. There are also several proposed additions to the pipeline, one which will link up with the big refineries along the Gulf Coast in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas, and a second, much longer addition (known as Keystone XL) that would cut diagonally from Alberta, through northeastern Montana, across South Dakota and Nebraska, before linking up with the present pipeline in Steele City. When completed, the pipeline would encompass approximately 4,000 miles in total.
There are several major problems with the pipeline, according to critics. And those individuals whose land is, or will be, bisected by the pipeline are very concerned. Briefly, these folks have every right to be agitated. Pipelines rupture, sometimes with catastrophic results. Last month in July, for example, as cited by the Calgary Star newspaper, a pipeline owned by Ravenwood Energy (also in Alberta, interestingly) began to leak oil on the property of a local resident. While the company addressed and repaired the leak relatively quickly, the fact that just “75 to 80 percent” of the spill has been cleaned up thus far has made these residents very nervous. There were a total of four oil spills in Alberta in July alone. But these folks were relatively fortunate.
Here in the US two years ago there was a pipeline spill of epic proportion. On July 6, 2010, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy ruptured, spilling in excess of one-million gallons of bitumen crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. While initial fears that the oil would eventually make its way into Lake Michigan were unwarranted, the oil ended up contaminating a 40-acre stretch of river bottom, and the ongoing cleanup is currently the most expensive, and the longest, pipeline cleanup in US history.
Another aspect of the pipeline project that has environmentalists concerned is its location, particularly the section that will traverse Montana and Nebraska. As students of American geography know, this is the very heart of our breadbasket, some of the best agricultural land in the world. One of the big reasons for this is its easy access to large quantities of fresh water.
It’s the source of this water that is so concerning. Beneath this fertility sits one of the world’s great water sources, the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground lake that provides the region’s farmers with an easy-to-reach, clean water source. Approximately 25 percent of the region depends upon water from this aquifer, and nearly a third of the nation’s water for irrigation comes from this source.
Columnist Charles Pierce in Esquire magazine summed up its importance succinctly: “Make no mistake,” he writes. “You screw with the Ogallala Aquifer and you screw with this nation’s heartbeat…. Pumping the water from it is all that has kept the Dust Bowl from coming back, year after year. Any damage to it fundamentally changes the lives of the people who depend on it, their personal economies, the overall national economy, and what we can grow to feed ourselves.”
And not just the lives of the farmers, mind you, but also those who rely upon its bounty, a population that extends to the coastal cities whose bakeries produce the daily bread for millions of people. It even goes well beyond that, as American grains are transported to far-flung regions around the world, helping to provide sustenance for millions more. Any significant disruption to this production would resonate globally, forcing grain prices to spike upward, with the poorest folks paying the heaviest price.
This concern is perhaps most acutely felt in a region of Nebraska known as the Sand Hills. The Keystone XL’s route would bisect this environmentally sensitive area, a region with a soil that is highly permeable. A significant spill in this area, many fear, could have a dramatic impact on the quality of the water from the aquifer.
If the concerns listed aren’t enough for you, which is understandable given that the region in question is far from our own, there are disturbing global implications when it comes to the source of the oil the pipeline carries. This source, the Athabasca Tar Sands, is one of the most carbon-intensive fuel sources currently being developed. And carbon, you are likely aware, is the main catalyst in the potential climate catastrophe unfolding.
Journalist and environmental activist Bill McKibben, one of the most diligent critics of the Keystone pipeline, has stated that to fully tap this resource could make reversing climate change all but impossible (short of some unknown miracle technology that would allow us to scrub excess carbon from our atmosphere).
As of right now, scientists have estimated that our atmosphere can handle about 565 million more tons of carbon before the effects of climate change would push the average global temperature up beyond the threshold of two-degrees Celsius, a sort of climate point-of-no-return.
“The 565-gigaton figure was derived from one of the most sophisticated computer-simulation models that have been built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades,” wrote McKibben in a recent (and highly recommended) article in Rolling Stone magazine. “And the number is being further confirmed by the latest climate-simulation models currently being finalized in advance of the next report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” In other words, this number is currently just about the best scientific estimate we have going.
Now the bad news: The Athabasca Tar Sands will only add to the nearly five times this amount (or nearly 2,800 million tons of carbon) that currently sits in oil company reserves. “This number is the scariest of all,” McKibben writes. “[One] that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma.” And quite a dilemma it is, with the world’s oil companies already counting on these assets. Needless to say, they won’t be quick to back down from this fight.
“If you told Exxon or Lukoil that in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet,” McKibben writes. “[Those] 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison.”
For now, however, through the intensive efforts of McKibben and other environmental activists, the Keystone XL portion of the pipeline has been put on hold. But money is like water. It always manages to find the cracks in any bulwark. And the short-term drive for profits often has a tendency to miss significant long-term implications. But, if these scientists are right, coming up with renewable, clean energy sources could become to be the most important global imperative humanity has ever faced.