More on oil sands and pipelines

Con: Mining of AThabasca oil sands in Alberta leaves a big imprint on the environment. Photo: Shell Oil, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Con: Mining of Athabasca oil sands in Alberta leaves a big imprint on the environment. Photo: Shell Oil, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The XL pipeline and the whole topic of Alberta’s oils sands have raged on in Canada and the U.S. for years now. In some respects it’s a familiar tug-of-war between hostile factions.

The simplistic set up goes like this: supporters say integrating this now-available energy resource from a neighboring – and neighborly – ally is “a no-brainer“. Opponents say it’s dirty energy that involves more than the usual pollution and associated negative impacts. According to some, exploiting that much carbon fuel could actually be “game over for the climate.”

Slogans sum up positions quite readily. But this is a complex tangle of wants and fears, as with the nearly-identical polarization over fracking in the U.S.

On the want side, it’s basic human nature and national self-interest to utilize resources. The push in Canada to get that energy to market – any market – is quite powerful. Should the U.S. ultimately nix the XL pipeline TransCanada has alternative plans, including a proposal to build a pipeline to eastern Canada, according to this Aug 1st article by Ian Austen for the New York Times:

Pro: The Oil sands boom leaves a big imprint on the economy. Ft. McMurray, ALberta, shown here in 1991, has grown to almost 70,000 residents today. Photo: Gord McKenna, Creative COmmons, some rights reserved

Pro: The Oil sands boom leaves a big imprint on the economy. Ft. McMurray, ALberta, shown here in 1991, has grown to almost 70,000 residents today. Photo: Gord McKenna, Creative COmmons, some rights reserved

…Russ Girling, the president and chief executive of TransCanada, said the new project was not a sign that his company was retreating from Keystone XL. “What we know in North America is production is continuing to grow,” Mr. Girling said at a news conference. “The marketplace needs both of these pipelines and probably more.”

The Ottawa area now has a dog in that fight too, as the proposed route would traverse the city’s southern edge and cross the Rideau River, according to this from the Ottawa Citizen.

As least some of the necessary political support exists. Alberta Premier Alison Redford backs the proposal calling it “a nation-building project that will diversify our economy and create new jobs here in Alberta and across the country.” And New Brunswick Premier David Alward called the project a “game changer” for his province. Least anyone need reminding, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is from Alberta and has long championed that province’s economic interests. (Quebec’s political leadership has been non-committal thus far.)

But not so fast, according to Austen’s NYT article:

“They’re in for a fight,” John Bennett, the executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, said shortly after the announcement. Mr. Bennett said he was particularly concerned about the possibility of oil spills in the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick and about harm to whales in the area from tanker traffic. In a statement, Environmental Defence said the plan was “yet another misguided scheme that puts Canadians in harm’s way for the benefit of the oil industry’s bottom line.”

For those who are interested, here’s a useful map graphic from CBC of current and proposed pipelines to move Alberta oil.

Weighing in on the fear side, is this photo-journalism feature from the New York Times, where Ian Willms took a lot of time to explore the oil sands and how that industry has impacted people in that area.

Readers likely have their own opinions on the issue. This post is intended to provide updates on that topic.


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35 Comments on “More on oil sands and pipelines”

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  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Lucy: “…it’s basic human nature and national self-interest to utilize resources.”

    Boy, lots of assumptions packed into one short sentence. While it is human nature (or necessity) to want to utilize resources there must be some thought to the scale of utilization and the repercussions. On a very much smaller scale the Easter Islanders who erected the giant stone heads apparently utilized their resources into their own extinction. Many cultures value the careful use of resources over wanton destruction, greed and gluttony. Some (think Imperial England) didn’t worry too much about squandering resources because even though they couldn’t survive on the meager resources their tiny island provided they had the guns and boats to go take what they wanted elsewhere. In the end their empire collapsed of its own weight because the cost to secure the resources they wanted was too high to be sustained.

    That brings us to the question of self-interest. is it really a national self-interest to destroy the local environment in Canada or risk the results of flushing more carbon into the atmosphere from this dirty energy? Especially when we have hardly scratched the surface of energy efficiency? Canada has vast untapped resources, and is such a young country, maybe the national self-interest is to save its resources for generations to come.

  2. Ken Hall says:

    Right you are Knuc and as I am wont to point out, whenever an appropriate venue affords me the opportunity (which is becoming more frequent as TSATF more closely), the most poignant example that the self anointed smartest critter in the universe (us) is sadly mistaken with her/his concept of homo sapiens central importance upon spaceship Earth in that we as a species cannot accept that we are destroying the Earth and all of her creatures because of our desire to procreate at an exponentially increasing rate and collaterally consume and pollute with the finite resources of the Earth at an exponentially increasing rate.

    As one with a modicum of knowledge about space travel (BS Astronautical Engineering) it amuses me to read and listen to folks expounding about humans colonizing other planets to increase our breeding space and resources pool. Last I noticed we can barely put 6-8 men/women into low Earth orbit for 6 months or so at a time. The farthest object object man has been able to propel from Earth is Voyager I a space probe of of approximately 1600 pounds that has been traveling away from the Earth and Sun for approximately 35 years 11 months and is now estimated to be about 12 billion miles from Earth and nearly free of the Sun’s solar system influence. WOW that’s a whopping average speed of approximately 37500 MPH. At that rate if it were headed in the correct direction toward the nearest star to ours, in a mere 71,000+ years it would be nearly there.

  3. The Original Larry says:

    I read the linked article and it is unclear to me if the claim being made is that this particular oil produces more emissions than other oil or if the increased use of oil enabled by rising supply is the problem.

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Both are a problem, but tar sands oil is a particular problem as the extraction process itself uses lots of energy and the resultant oil is not too sweet, to coin a phrase. It is apparently exceptionally difficult to clean up when spilled too as it sinks in water. There are other problems too, like the fact it has to be mined instead of pumped from the ground, so there are all the problems associated with strip mining thrown in.

  5. erb says:

    Casting this as a he-said-she-said political issue isn’t very informative. We don’t need to know who is for the pipeline (oil companies, governments) and who is against it (environmentalists), we need to know the substance of the arguments. The objective world exists outside of our opinions of it, and objective journalism strives to bring us that world.

  6. The Original Larry says:

    So, you haven’t a clue, to coin a phrase. The BS meter is rising, as it usually does when direct questions don’t get answered but we get rhetoric instead.

  7. Paul says:

    ““…it’s basic human nature and national self-interest to utilize resources.””

    Knuck, I think the point (and it is a good one) is that demand is why this is being done. It is not the evil oil company or anything else. There isn’t a practical alternative. If there was there would be no reason to extract this oil. Since the demand exists (and is increasing) we better figure out how we are going to sequester the carbon back into the earth when we burn the stuff. Or we can continue to argue while the world burns.

  8. dave says:

    “It is not the evil oil company or anything else. There isn’t a practical alternative. If there was there would be no reason to extract this oil.”

    I’m guessing you didn’t realize it when you typed it, but if you re-read that string of sentences I think you can see the obvious connection between them. Oil companies are very politically powerful and have enormous influence over the research and development of practical alternatives, and it is precisely because such alternatives would mean they have no reason to extract oil, and make money, that they exert that influence against those alternatives.

    Supply and demand is an oversimplification of the issue because it ignores the fact that both supply and demand can (and are) manipulated by the oil industry.

  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Larry, I dont get it. I tried to give a concise, though admittedly simplistic response to your post. I’m not sure what the direct question was but let me try again.

    Tar sands oil is both dirtier than much of the other oil that is extracted, and the process is more wasteful in terms of energy usage to refine the oil, and the increased use of fossil fuels is a problem in terms of putting carbon into the atmosphere.

    I’m not sure what you mean by BS? I was trying to be accurate.

  10. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul: “There isn’t a practical alternative.”

    I offered a practical alternative – energy efficiency, or conservation. And as Dave points out there are other technologies to provide energy. Obviously we wont be transitioning overnight but many, many, many of us have been advocating for alternative technologies and energy efficiency for a very long time. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter both advocated ideas for saving energy or using alternative technologies.

    The people who have been fighting reduction of burning fossil fuels (and they grow fewer all the time) keep proposing the same solutions to the problem; keep on drilling. They will ridicule the idea that there is such a thing as peak oil but if you believe in economics then it becomes clear that vast reserves of oil are being used up. Otherwise we would still be buying $20 barrels of oil and the tar sands would be far too expensive to extract. But at $90 – $110 a barrel people can make money on it. Not that we “need” it.

    At some point the cost of oil will become higher than the value of the energy in it compared to other technologies. It is in our national interest to develop technologies to provide cleaner energy at a lower price, and/or to save energy through conservation efforts. That is the REAL national interest.

  11. The Original Larry says:

    I merely asked what the central issue is; whether it is that this oil is “dirtier” than other oil or if increased supply leading to increased usage is the objection. I still don’t know.

  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Larry, I answered that question, twice. But since you still don’t know I’ll answer again.
    Both are a problem.
    The oil is dirtier…in fact it isn’t really oil like the sweet crude they pump out of Texas. It is much more like tar, hence the name tar sands. Because it is tar-like it doesn’t pump out of the ground as easily and is instead typically mined then the oil is extracted using input energy often from natural gas or burning of tar sand oil itself. And it doesn’t flow through a pipeline very well either which requires more energy input.

    since it requires so much energy input to get oil out the increase of oil supply is a problem because it slows the development of the technologies that will replace oil.

    More info here:

  13. oa says:

    Also, to help Knuck here, the XL plan is to transport this low-grade oil through a pipeline across the Ogalalla aquifer in the U.S. over the objections of farmers in places like Nebraska, who believe spills won’t be guarded against or cleaned up and will foul their crops’ water supply, not to mention the Midwest’s major drinking water source.
    The oil, meanwhile, wouldn’t stay in North America. It would be refined in Texas and move internationally. So it’s not really a domestic boost in energy supply, which fracking is (because gas is harder to transport overseas than oil, and thus stays “home”). The XL plan does help domestic oil companies by keeping their refineries running.

  14. Paul says:

    Dave, all of what you say is true and that is part of the reason that there are no practical alternatives. Research into alternative energy is going on at a very brisk pace. I don’t think that is part of the problem. Conservation and energy efficiency are not really practical alternatives. We should do it by all means but it is a minor thing that only solves a small portion of the problem.

  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul, you state that “Conservation and energy efficiency are not really practical alternatives” as if it were true fact. I dispute your assumption. A few percent reduction in energy use equals an enormous amount of energy. Could everyone save 5% of their energy use? Probably. 10% ? maybe. More? Dont say it cant be done; it can. We did have this thing called WWII that proved it.

  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Meanwhile, 2012 was a record year for high temperatures, melting sea ice and rising oceans all due to record emissions from burning fossil fuels. We are in the middle of a crisis and you can tell by the number of air conditioners you see in the Adirondacks.

    Read this:

  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul, here’s some info on conservation and efficiency:

    “clean diesel car registrations have shot up by 24 percent since 2010. Because they are 20 percent to 40 percent more fuel efficient than their gasoline counterparts,”

    “While American consumers obviously benefit from diesel’s added miles per gallon and fewer stops at the pump, car companies have another motivation: federal fuel economy standards will soar to a 55 mile-per-gallon average by 2025. The auto industry is investing billions in improvements such as direct fuel injection, turbo-charging, lighter materials and tires with less rolling resistance — all with the objective of more miles per gallon. Thus, when a diesel is added to a company’s product mix, improved fuel economy is a given.”

  18. oa says:

    My favorite folks at the InBox: The ones who downrate comments that state facts and have links to sources. You make the world a more hilarious place!

  19. Peter Hahn says:

    Larry – to jump in on the objection to tar sand oil: I think the issue is that that the carbon released into the atmosphere per barrel extracted. It is very high due to the amount of energy required to recover it. The cost per barrel is high for the same reason.

  20. The Original Larry says:

    I am beginning to think the issue is the long-hoped for liberal vision of a world without oil/fossil fuels. How are they going to run all those Subaru SUVs?

  21. Peter Hahn says:

    the issue is the carbon released. Its a symbolic/moral argument since the oil will be sold to China whether it goes through that pipeline or some other one.

  22. Walker says:

    Peter, the issue isn’t symbolic when it comes to the results of pipeline oil spills. And if the pipeline is the lowest cost method of getting the oil sold, it will push the price lower than it would be otherwise, and the lower the cost, the faster it will be consumed.

  23. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Larry, I (for one) am not looking for a world without oil/fossil fuels, but I would like to see a more sustainable use of those fuels. I want my children and grandchildren to enjoy the same quality of life that I have. I don’t want them to have to pay the costs of cleaning up a mess that my generation made. Is that wrong?

    I use fossil fuels. But I try not to waste them. I try to buy the most fuel efficient vehicle that suits my needs. I burn fuel oil for heat, but I also supplement that heat with wood, I have a set-back thermostat that keeps the house at the lowest setting when I’m not home, and I try not to take long showers. All of those things seem to me to be very conservative and I would think that we could agree on them. Why should people be wasteful?

    Sometimes I take a vacation and I drive or take a plane. It is wasteful but I’m not asking for everyone to live like monks. If everyone does their part we can solve our problems and doing their part ends up saving people money. I don’t understand why people find that so disturbing.

  24. oa says:

    “I don’t understand why people find that so disturbing.”
    Becuse your a LIBERAL!!!!! iT SAys so rite in yer namme!

  25. Peter Hahn says:

    Walker -both good arguments but they don’t quite hold up. Increasing the cost doesn’t decrease the use because the price is the same. Our Canadian friends just make less.. And that pipeline should be judged like any other in terms of environmental danger. We need to be careful with all of them.

  26. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Peter, tar sands oil is WORSE than other oil. It should be judged to a higher standard.

    “…because when tar sands oil spills, it can be next to impossible to clean up.”

    “The EPA says it has learned about the additional risks of tar sands spills from a cleanup of a 2010 tar sands spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that has dragged out nearly three years and cost more than $1 billion. A lot of the heavy crude sank to the bottom and hasn’t biodegraded.”

  27. The Original Larry says:

    What disturbs me is the overwhelming tide of negativity that always accompanies any story about oil/gas supply development. Plus, I’m sick of all the required liberal rhetoric about our children and grandchildren. We don’t have to go around reminding everyone how much we care ot how righteous we are. Give it a rest.

  28. Walker says:

    Me, I’m sick of all the required conservative rhetoric about our children and grandchildren when the subject is the national debt.

  29. oa says:

    I’m with Larry. I hate my children.

  30. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Larry, stating facts about the possible negative effects of a given policy is what those in the business world call “due diligence.” I’m sick of conservatives fighting policies that are beneficial to people, business, and society in general.
    Jimmy Carter imposed CAFE standards to increase gas mileage. While Detroit fought those standards Japan embraced them. Detroit told us that hybrid vehicles were too expensive and nobody would buy them, enter the Prius. Toyota dealers have had a hard time keeping them in stock.

    Many conservative still deny the human component driving climate change – I’m sick of it.

  31. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    On the bright side, I am happy that my children and grandchildren will have the option to marry the person they love even if that person is of the same sex. I’m happy that someday they will have universal single payer health care, because it is coming since the current system will collapse. I’m happy that liberals are working hard to end sexual violence against members of the military and any of my grandchildren who enter service will be far less likely to be raped. I’m happy that my grandchildren will look back at me and see that I worked to stem the tide of climate change and slow the costs that they will have to pay for changes to infrastructure. I have lots to be happy about.

  32. Peter Hahn says:

    Me – Im happy I have a grandchild.

  33. Mervel says:

    I just want people to have jobs.

    Certainly if delivering this type of oil by pipeline is particularly dangerous then that to me would be the issue; not whether or not we should be using this “type” of oil because it is dirty or clean.

    We use oil, we need energy; it is in demand. Its not as if refusing to allow the pipeline to go through is going to stop this oil from being sold. There is a world wide market for oil, this oil will be sold, the question is do we in this country want to optimize our benefits from this oil? If the costs of letting a very dangerous type of oil go through our communities outweigh the benefits then no we should not do it.

    It seems that oil spills are a real concern with this type of oil. I have not been overly impressed with the oil industries commitment to preventing oil spills.

  34. Paul says:

    Don’t worry be happy!

    Knuck, I understand that conservation and energy efficiency are important. I drive a hybrid (it has those low rolling resistance tires you are talking about (whatever that means, I assumed it meant I was going to crash in the first snowstorm so I do get snow-tires in the winter sorry!)), I have place off the grid, all solar. I have so much insulation in my house I can hardly get into the place. Look I get all that, my point is on practicality. Solutions that have a snowballs chance in getting broad political and public support. You have to work with the people you thinks are stupid and don’t get it (people like me in this case).

  35. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Sounds like you’re pretty smart, Paul. You see that efficiency and conservation equal value and savings.
    There are examples of other policies that people wouldn’t have given a snowballs chance which have happened – gay marriage, for one, or gays in the military serving openly. Change does happen and one change that needs to happen is that big oil interests need to take a back seat to the interests of the whole of society in general. We are at that tipping point but I dont think the Keystone folks get it yet.

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