Archive for the ‘Oil Sands’ Category

Judge Pulls Spikes Off TransCanada’s Pipeline Tracks

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline has been hurtling along and blowing through opposition like a runaway train. Opponents of the pipeline haven’t exactly been meek and mild but TransCanada has been able to roll right over them without so much as a bump.

Most of the opposition to the pipeline has focused on its obvious ecological demerits; the dirty fuel’s filthy extraction at the source in Alberta, the near certainty of a rupture, the consequences of fuel spills in the  Ogallala Aquifer, and the increase in global emissions. Those concerns have given way like wet Kleenex in the face of TransCanada’s political and financial clout. The State Department’s recent report on the pipeline’s impact certainly doesn’t look like it will produce much friction – its conclusion that pushing ahead with the project won’t have any significant impact on global emissions or the rate of oil sand extraction is hardly calculated to put the brakes on the project.

While TransCanada has been able to sweep the nation’s environmental groups aside, a single judge in Nebraska has succeeded in taking the sheen off the company’s aura of  invincibility. The Nebraska legislature, in its wisdom, recently passed a law placing the state’s power of eminent domain at TransCanada’s disposal. In effect, it forced landowners to sell their property to TransCanada by transferring the power to force such sales from the Nebraska Public Service Commission – where it had resided for more than a century – to Governor Dave Heineman.

Late last month, District Judge Stephanie F. Stacy took a long hard look at that law and decided to drag it out behind the barn and put a bullet in its head. The law, she said, was unconstitutional and void in that it divested the PSC of authority and bestowed upon the governor the ability to wield the power of eminent domain without the possibility of judicial review. In other words, it allowed the governor to grab Nebraskans’ land and give it to a foreign company for that company’s profit.

Nebraskans are an ornery and independent lot, and some of the ranchers over whose land the pipeline is slated to run didn’t take kindly to having the governor  snatch their property up in such an imperious fashion. Three landowners whose property was in the path of the pipeline filed suit. The judge’s decision went over very well with them. The attorney who handled their case had reason to crow, saying, “They thought the governor would be a rubber stamp and he was.”

For the time being, TransCanada will have to negotiate with every individual landowner along the pipeline’s route, a prospect that must not fill the company’s directors with delight; the ranchers in the pipeline’s path haven’t been sending TansCanada Valentine cards. The issue will surely be fed into the appeals system where it will grind along. But the delay won’t do the company any favors either. The administration is unlikely to act on the State Department report while the court’s clear this issue off the tracks – the delay is a perfect excuse not to act. And Nebraska isn’t the only state gumming up the works. The Texas Supreme Court recently handed pipeline opponents a major victory in ruling that TransCanada couldn’t avail itself of the right of eminent domain under the state’s “common carrier” regulations. “We’re thrilled,” said one of the plaintiffs fighting TransCanada’s land grab, “because the Supreme Court has finally ruled in favor of us—the little guys—and against a foreign oil giant.”

Nobody likes the idea of having their property taken and handed over to a foreign company so that company can make money off the property. The misuse of eminent domain has been a volatile issue ever since the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London opinion upholding a city’s use decision to use eminent domain to take property from one private owner for the gain of another private owner.

If Keystone is running into a buzz saw over the issue in deep red, oil-friendly states like Nebraska and Texas, it’s got more trouble on its hands than it might have reckoned with. TransCanada’s train may be running at full throttle, but the tracks might not be stable.

State Department Gets Coy on Keystone

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

The State Department announced on Friday afternoon that it had gazed upon the Keystone XL pipeline and found it passing fair. A model of diplomatic even-handedness, the report concedes that, yes, the pipeline will increase carbon emissions but heck, those emissions are going to increase anyway. The tar sands oil in Alberta is going to make it to market one way or the other, it concludes, and whether the pipeline is approved or not won’t make much difference in the end. “Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States,” the Department said.

Unlike an earlier draft, the final report addressed other environmental concerns beside carbon emissions. But its tone and conclusions are mild, allowing both opponents and backers of the pipeline to brandish the report in support of their respective positions.

The State Department was at pains to note that its analysis is only one factor in the administration’s final determination to approve the pipeline, which will also weigh national security, foreign policy and economic issues. Which is as much as to say that approval is all but assured. The environmental concerns were the alpha and omega of opposition to TransCanada’s plan to sluice the heavy oil from Canada to refineries in the Gulf Coast.

Consider some of the issues involved. Tar sands oil is some of the filthiest fuel on the market. Extracting it consumes extravagant amounts of water and leaves a wasteland of slurry behind. Large swaths of Alberta are even now heavily polluted as a result of the oil that’s already been sucked up. The pipeline will run through the Ogallala Aquifer, threatening the water supply for the world’s bread basket. Consider, too, that TransCanada has a hard time keeping oil and gas in the pipelines it’s already running around the U.S. Add all that up and throw in ham-fisted and sweeping seizures of private property under eminent domain to build the thing, and you have a volatile and messy way of moving a filthy product to market.

The report is blandly reassuring about the possibility of spills, noting that TransCanada is planning to change the line’s route through Nebraska, and will rely on satellite technology and an increased number of shutoff valves to minimize the risk of spills and leaks.

Eight other federal agencies have yet to weigh in on the project now that the Department has released its report. Meanwhile, the 30-day public comment period will open on February 5. You can let them know if their report troubles or soothes you.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Via WikiMedia Commons

Via WikiMedia Commons

Rumor has it that North America may be energy independent within a few years.

Alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and biomass are contributing ever greater amounts to the nation’s energy bank. And the country’s traditional oil and gas industry is booming as it hasn’t in decades. Where the U.S. had become an energy mendicant, relying on unstable (and occasionally unsavory) sources overseas, the country is set to be a net energy exporter and will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the globe’s top oil producer. Energy independence is a good thing. Weaning ourselves from middle Eastern oil reserves will bring market stability and reduce the temptation to secure our oil and gas supplies by force of arms.

But supplying the bulk of our own energy needs domestically presents challenges of its own.  Wind and solar electricity has to make its way from place where it is generated to consumers who might be thousands of miles away. The national grid is being upgraded but is not yet up to that task. Moving all the new oil and gas that’s flowing out of the various bonanzas around the country presents a whole separate category of problems. Quite aside from the environmental toll presented by hell-for-leather production in, say North Dakota or Alberta, just moving the stuff around the country safely and efficiently is a herculean task.

We generally think of oil and gas as flowing through pipelines. The Keystone Pipeline, which would bring tar sand oil from Alberta is a political flash point. Lots of people are questioning its safety, and for good reason. Exxon’s burst pipeline in Arkansas  and PG&E’s fiery pipeline failure in San Bruno are still fresh in the public mind.

But pipelines are not the only way oil gets around the country. Increasingly, it’s making its way to market by rail. And that’s proving to be a bit of a train wreck in its own right. Last month, the town of Casselton, ND had to be evacuated after a mile-long train carrying crude oil slammed into another train, resulting in thunderous explosions and a searing plume of toxic smoke. ABC tells us that this was the third accident in six months involving trains carrying North Dakota crude oil. In July, a train of 72 carloads of crude oil in Quebec derailed and burst into flames, killing  almost 50 people.

Coal, too, is being increasingly transported by train in the face of growing opposition.

It’s naive to think we don’t need the energy we’re pulling out of the ground with such new-found vigor. It’s also naive to think we could stop it being distributed around the country. But we shouldn’t think that energy independence is an unalloyed good. It presents a whole slew of problems of its own.

A Short Keystone Update

As another summer winds down, it looks increasingly like a final decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project won’t arrive until next year. The State Department is currently finishing their assessment of the project, giving the Obama Administration time to confer with Canada (the pipeline would begin in Alberta, and would be owned by TransCanada, an Alberta company). So far, reports from the State Department have made no recommendation one way or the other, and President Obama has said that he would only approve the project after being assured that it would not “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

As time stumbles on, prospects for the project seem to be growing dimmer, as more and more environmentalists come out of the wood work to oppose it. And if a new study from Ted Genoways at On Earth is to believed, it’s with good reason. Looking at Port Arthur, TX, a hub of oil and gas refineries where the Keystone Pipeline would end, Genoways found that mortality rates from cancer are 40% higher in Port Arthur than the rest of Texas, while cancer rates among African Americans in Port Arthur are 15% higher than elsewhere in the state. Then there are the lesser-but-still-very-serious conditions like heart disease, skin disorders, muscle aches, etc. which are also higher in Port Arthur. This is all very troubling, and suggests that taking all the time needed to assess this project from every conceivable angle isn’t such a bad idea, after all.

Oil and Water Don’t Mix

Ogallala Aquifer via Wikimedia Commons

Ogallala Aquifer via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama gave his long-awaited climate change speech this week. In it, he discussed possible approval of the Keystone Pipeline – the massive conduit to bring Canadian tar sands oil down to the gulf coast. In discussing the pipeline’s potential environmental effects, he focused – as most commentators do – on the impact of carbon emissions, both in extracting the tar sands oil and burning the stuff after it makes its way down the pipeline and into American (or Chinese) automobiles. “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest,” he said. “And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Obama said that he would only approve the pipeline if the State Department certifies that it will not lead to a net increase in global carbon emissions. That drops the fate of the Keystone project in the lap of the new Secretary of State John Kerry who has not shown himself to be an enthusiastic backer of the plan.

The Keystone pipeline has been drawing lots of heated opposition of late, and not just from the usual tree-huggers and totebaggers.  Rock-ribbed Republican sections of the country are beginning to sour on the idea of sluicing some of the filthiest fuel ever devised across the entire center of the country.

And carbon pollution is hardly Keystone’s only problem, despite Obama’s emphasis on emissions. It’s not just the stuff flowing through the pipes which can cause problems when it’s ultimately burned. The pipelines themselves pose significant environmental hazards on their own.

Existing pipelines haven’t been doing Keystone any favors lately in the publicity department. The fact that the nation is crisscrossed with fuel pipes literally burst into the country’s consciousness when a natural gas line exploded in Bellingham, Washington in 1999, killing three boys playing nearby. A decade later, a PG&E pipeline exploded in Burlingame, California, killing eight people and leveling 38 homes. In March, an ExxonMobil pipeline dumped some 5,000 barrels of diluted bitumen onto Mayflower, Arkansas, forcing an evacuation, contaminating local rivers and lakes, and sickening local residents.

Then, just this month, a whopping 9.5 million liters of toxic oil waste leaked in Alberta, the source of Keystone’s tar sands oil.  The Globe and Mail tells us that across a broad expanse of northern Alberta, the landscape is dead. “Every plant and tree died” in the area touched by the spill, said James Ahnassay, chief of the Dene Tha First Nation. The leak is just one of several major spills in the region, and local residents are alarmed at what all those toxins will do to wetlands and their water supplies.

And what of Keystone? Well, aside from providing a means of moving filthy fuel from one of the largest and most destructive energy projects in the world, the proposed pipeline just happens to run smack dab through the Ogallala Aquifer, the principal source of water in an area composed of  174,000 square miles of eight states. The Ogallala Aquifer is the single most important source of water in the High Plains region, providing nearly all the water necessary for residential and industrial use, and supporting a whopping one-fifth of  the wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle raised in the United States. It’s a big, big deal.

The Aquifer is already being severely stressed by drought and over-consumption.  In some areas, the water table has declined by 200 feet.  Aquifer residents, already alarmed about stresses to their vital water supply, aren’t taking kindly to the prospect of a foreign company laying down hundreds of miles of inevitably leaky pipe over that precious resource.  Quite aside from balking at TransCanada’s aggressive pursuit of eminent domain claims over farmland, High Plains residents are increasingly concerned about the possibility of oil leaking into their wells. One notable property of tar sands oil is that it sinks, rather than floats, making clean up difficult and expensive.

TansCanada is lobbying furiously to gain approval for it’s pipeline. But Secretary Kerry would be well advised to consider the likelihood of contaminating some of America’s key drinking and agricultural water as his agency weighs the environmental impact of the Keystone pipeline. Carbon emissions are only one of the problem Keystone poses. Its potential threat to one of our nation’s most vital water supplies should not be shrugged aside.

Update from the Great Soon-To-Be-Not-Quite-As-White North

Photo by wikimedia/PMX. Some rights reserved.

Photo by wikimedia/PMX. Some rights reserved.

You’ve heard of Canada. Exporters of the finest maple syrups, snow-dusted land of elk and hockey, America’s sun hat (and just to be clear, that was an intentional “land of milk and honey” joke). When last we checked in with the great white north, the government of Alberta was setting up advanced techniques to monitor oil sands, in anticipation of the “infamously stalled” Keystone Pipeline (more on that here).

Now it appears that, in the face of a recent “lobbying blitz” by Canadian officials in support of that dastardly Keystone XL, the necessary voice of opposition is on its way to Washington. Yes, Tom Mulcair (leader of the Official Opposition in Canadian government, which is currently his New Democratic Party) will arrive in D.C. this week to oppose recent claims by the Canadian government (whom he says is “playing people for fools”) that Canada is only backing the Keystone project because it’s not as bad for the climate and the environment as its opponents claim it is. Muclair argues that these statements are fundamentally dishonest, as Canada’s environmental record is spottier than officials claim (they are the only country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, and fail to meet the emission targets set at Copenhagen).

President Obama, who holds the omnipotent decision power on the Keystone project because it crosses country borders, has so far indicated that he is leanings towards scrapping Keystone, even as its proponents argue that this would result in a huge loss of potential jobs in the energy market.

However, as we also learn this week that 20% of Canada’s glaciers could melt by the year 2100 if the global average temperature rises 5.4 degrees or more in the interim time (a rate that fits with projected models), it seems to me that doing everything we can to protect Canada’s majestic natural beauty is in our own best interest! After all, a loss of all that glacial ice would result in a 1.4 inch rise in global sea levels, and we’ve discussed how that kind of change could negatively affect all sorts of other things.

Coming Down the Pipe

Photo by Carl Chapman. Some rights reserved.

Just days after the pomp and circumstance of the Inauguration, President Obama is being confronted with a renewed push to make a decision on one of the more divisive environmental issues of his presidency – the Keystone pipline. On Tuesday, Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska approved new revisions to the pipeline route through the state, which became the last of the six states along the route to approve the plan. The President had previously delayed the approval process due to concerns about the Nebraska route, including possible effects on nearby water supplies in the event of a spill. A group of 53 Senators sent a letter to Obama encouraging swift approval of the  new plan.

One piece of the puzzle is still missing – an environmental review of the plan by the State Department is still underway and is expected to be completed sometime in March. While that review is separate, the approval from Nebraska at the state level has increased pressure to resolve the situation.

Canada’s Environmental Monitoring Plan for Oil Sands Development

Photo by Martin Loader. Some rights reserved.

Oil sands, now synonymous with the infamously stalled Keystone Pipeline, have an inexorable future in Canada, regardless of Keystone’s fate. And our neighbors to the north aren’t denying it: a recent newsletter from law firm Gowlings reports on steps the Governments of Canada and Alberta are jointly taking to enhance monitoring systems that would track “cumulative effects and environmental change” in the oil sands area.

The Government of Alberta’s web page on oil sands monitoring is cautiously optimistic about development in the region – “Albertans have high expectations that we excel at both energy production and environmental protection – we can have it both ways.”

It appears that the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring is just one part of an attempt to provide, well, disinfectant through sunlight. By offering coordinated and comprehensive information to the public about oil sands development, the two governments hope to “enhance our ability to detect environmental change and manage cumulative effects.”

Some of the planned improvements to existing (and currently disparate) monitoring programs are as follows:

  • the number of sampling sites will be higher and over a larger area;
  • the number and types of parameters being sampled will increase;
  •  the frequency (how many times) that sampling occurs each year will be significantly increased; and
  • the methodologies for monitoring for both air and water will be improved

The plan not only describes the increased monitoring efforts to be phased in over the next three years, but also the development of an integrated data management system to host all the data – the Oil Sands Data Management Network. The new “OS_DMN” will presumably replace or supplement the existing Government of Alberta Oil Sands Information Portal, a “one-window source for information on the environmental impacts of oil sands development.

While response to the plan is reportedly positive, The Calgary Herald points out a few glaring omissions:

[one] thing that stands out is the upfront acknowledgment that “this plan does not deal with implementation issues like funding and responsibilities of existing organizations or institutions.”

The plan speculates that “the total cost of enhanced monitoring beyond what the two governments currently spend would be up to $50 million per year.”

Libya and the Case of the Falling Oil Prices

Photo by Vicki & Chuck Rogers. Some rights reserved.

An editorial piece that ran in the New York Times this week takes a look at the current conflict in Libya and how it is affecting global oil prices. Brent crude oil fell 1.2% to $107.27 a barrel following the rise of conflict between rebel forces and the troops loyal to Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi that began in February of this year, and though Saudi Arabia has responded by increasing its rate of production to a whopping 10 million barrels a day, Libya’s rank in oil exportation is nothing to sneeze at.

Libya houses the largest oil reserves in Africa and ninth largest worldwide. Prior to this year’s conflicts, the country exported 1.3 million barrels of oil a day, but the production of crude oil has been shut down almost entirely since fighting broke out. As such, European oil companies and, by extension, American oil naturally have a large stake in these reserves, and would stand to benefit from a ceasefire, though a June study from the International Energy Agency estimated that it would take years, even once the conflict is resolved, to climb back to the rate of production seen before February.

Though Una Galani and Reynolds Holding, authors of the editorial, are quick to point out that “any price slump is likely to be less severe than in 2008, when oil prices crashed by more than $100 a barrel in six months,” thanks mainly to demand from rapidly growing countries like China, the uncertainty of Libya’s situation leaves room for concern.

Though Michelle Bachmann made a campaign promise this week to get American gas prices back under $2/gallon, her supporters may not want to hold their breaths too long: as Aaron Smith at E2 begins his article, “Brent crude oil prices are easing but don’t expect that to translate into sharply lower U.S. gas prices anytime soon.”

Keystone XL Pipeline Takes Another Step Towards Reality

Photo by Carl Chapman. Some rights reserved.

The controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, headed by the company TransCanada, took another step towards Reality today, as the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved (by a measure of 33/13) Republican-backed legislation that would strong arm President Obama into making a decision on the approval of the Keystone XL no later than November 1, 2011. The bill will appear on the House floor for a vote this summer.

First proposed in 2008, the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline proposal would span 1,600 miles and carry Canadian oil sands from their genesis in northeastern Alberta to oil refineries in Texas, adding to the original Keystone Pipeline which was first proposed in 2005 and which has been under construction since March of 2008. The Keystone XL proposal was first approved by the National Energy Board in March of 2010, and its supporters have touted it as the kind of resource that would drastically reduce US dependence on foreign oil and create, according to HECC chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), “100,000 jobs directly and indirectly.”

However, outcries arose shortly after the project was first approved from the NRDC and from a committee of 50 members of Congress opposed to the project, who in June of 2010 drafted a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighting the pipeline’s potential consequences. A State Department environmental review of the project was submitted in April of this year, a study that served to assure naysayers that the project was environmentally sound, however the EPA this month deemed the study inadequate, and called for a revised report with a more specific approach towards safety measures and oil spill response procedure. Some skeptics have, perhaps rightfully, cited recent leaks in TransCanada’s Keystone line, as evidence that the safety regulations are not up to snuff. In addition, some critics, such as those behind the website Dirty Oil Sands, have cited oil sands as “the most harmful type of oil for the atmosphere,” and have written off the project for its hypothetically humungous GHG emission rates as well as the potential for spills.

And yet, in the face of its opposition, TransCanada remains apparently optimistic, brushing off criticisms from grassroots organizations and governmental figures alike – TransCanada Vice President of U.S. Pipeline Operations  was quoted last week arguing that “the opponents to the project come across as experts on economics, or chemistry or engineering and that’s just not the facts.”

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