The Keystone Pipeline: what a debacle. It has dominated the news for several weeks now, and has brought out a new round of partisan flame throwing, name-calling, and all kinds of other ugly things. Such has become the norm of American politics. I wonder what the next explosion will be about…
Anyway, I’ve been trying to figure this out from Keystone mess from the get go, and I haven’t had much luck.
On the surface we have a proposal to build an oil pipeline from oil sand basins in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Illinois and Texas. OK, so far so good. But from what I’ve read, the crude oil coming from the Alberta oil sands is heavy in tar, sand and shale, and can therefore be very hard to transport and refine. Crude oil can be nasty stuff no matter how it’s packaged, but apparently this type of crude oil is particularly tricky, and there have been accidents involving pipelines moving this sludgy stuff before.
OK, but if the pipeline itself is built to precise specifications these problems can be avoided, yes? In theory, yes, but the track record for such constructions are mixed. Historically, pipelines never get the maintenance and servicing they should receive, and they frequently leak. Usually the leaks aren’t that big a deal, but sometimes they can be whoppers! You have to admit that constantly inspecting a 1600-mile length of pipe for inch-wide leaks or cracks is not easy, and mistakes are going to occur. But this time, the margin for error is, well, there isn’t one.
This is where the environmentalists came into the mix. A pipe that long will fail somewhere, sooner or later, and when it does, there would be an inland oil spill in the Midwest. That is to say, crude oil would be spilled all over some of the best farmland in the Northern Hemisphere. There is an old expression:
Granted, there are already oil pipelines snaking their way through the Midwestern breadbasket, so we’re already playing with toxic sludge. What’s the harm in another one? Again, this particular type of crude oil has some characteristics that make it inherently riskier than others. TransCanada keeps insisting that the safety measures for the proposed pipeline are more than adequate. But since this pipeline is largely their project, can we honestly expect them to say anything else? I mean seriously, of course they are going to say it’s all fine and good! Company policy requires them to say that even if it is patently untrue. A second opinion is warranted, and most federal and independent studies suggest that TransCanada’s projected failure rate (11%) is off by several orders of magnitude (versus up to 92%).
Another concern has been the proposed route of the pipeline. It would go through the Sandhills region of Nebraska, which is environmentally sensitive. A huge aquifer, one that irrigates several thousand squares miles of grassland in Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming and Kansas, is heavily fed by rainfall to this area. If an oil pipeline in the Sandhills were to leak, and it’s safe to assume that eventually it would, all of that farmland, and the health of any human or animal living on it, would be in jeopardy.
I don’t consider myself a treehugger, but that little factoid kind of grabbed my attention. After considerable pressure, TransCanada proposed an alternate route through less sensitive areas. Smart move, but the new route poses a risk to parts of the Missouri River watershed. Any leak that occurs anywhere along the route is going to be a big environmental problem.
On a related note, this type of crude oil is reported to be harder to clean and refine. The process can produce as much as 17% more pollutants. Shale oil like this has been refined at other refineries worldwide, and even without the additional particulates, it is more expensive to refine. The increased energy needed to extract and refine the oil reduces the net yield of useable energy (gasoline, kerosene or diesel fuel) at the end of the process. Less bang for the buck.
For comparison, one of the big problems with using hydrogen as a fuel is that the energy needed to extract hydrogen from the numerous compounds it is bound in,is almost as high as the final energy yield of the hydrogen itself. Usually it’s not worth the trouble! Tar oil can pose a similar problem.
So, let’s look at the score sheet so far:
- The oil going through this pipeline is among the most difficult to transport
- The pipeline poses a significant environmental risk along the entire route of the pipeline, and will produce more pollution during processing, and
- The resulting oil is ultimately not as cost-effective as other fossil fuels.
This isn’t shaping up very well. But let’s not call it yet.
We can all agree that the United States needs more sources of crude oil, so perhaps this is necessary, in spite of the risk. Proponents of the project say that it will create jobs within the United States, and will help reduce our dependency on oil from the Middle East. Most Americans seem to think that this Canadian oil will be fed directly into our domestic energy needs. If that were the case, then the pipeline would make some sense. But here’s a kicker. Much of this project is a sweetheart deal between TransCanada and a handful of oil firms (British Petroleum Canada and Valero for example) that would sell the oil to China and India! Very little, if any, of this Canadian oil would be used in the United States. We would continue to get most of our oil from the Middle East. I may be missing something here, but I don’t see how this pipeline will reduce American dependence on Middle Eastern oil, if none of the oil is staying in America!
As for the creation of jobs, the pipeline would create a large number of temporary jobs during the construction, some estimate as many as 5000. Fine and good, but once the pipeline is complete, those 5000 Americans would be under- or unemployed again, so this is little more than a temporary bandage. There is one estimate that the pipeline would only produce 35 permanent new jobs. That’s about the same number of jobs as a small department store.
So let’s look at the score board again. One the con side:
- Oil that is difficult and dangerous to transport and process
- Environmental risks throughout the process
- Not as cost-effective or efficient as other fossil fuels
And on the pro side:
- 5000 temporary and 35 permanent jobs.
…OK. But, let’s keep going. There are still some angles to consider.
Who, other than those 35 lucky Americans, is actually going to benefit from this thing?
TransCanada, and those companies tied to it, will make a fortune selling oil to a handful of American refineries. Those refineries will then, in turn, make a fortune selling oil to China and India, at prices that are competitive with oil from Saudi Arabia and other points in the Middle East. So the winner will be TransCanada, British Petroleum, Valero Oil, India, and China, and anyone who has strong investments in those companies or those areas.
I suspect that last group is the biggest pusher of this whole thing. It would include people like the Koch brothers, and other multi-millionaires, who are more loyal to themselves and the global economy than they are to any country or idea. Ned Beatty’s character in Network is a good example of this type, and they seem to be the ones calling all of the shots these days. God help us all.
Getting back on track, it looks like the real winners in this whole thing are a handful of oil companies (the largest of which are not based in the United States) and a bunch of investors. Sounds like another piece of pie for the infamous one percent.
OK, so we know who the winners are in this. Who appear to be the losers?
The Midwestern United States would bear the brunt of any ecological or environmental problem caused by this pipeline, or in the processing of this particularly filthy form of fossil fuel. And since the United States won’t be receiving much of the oil at the end of the day, we would be shouldering all of the burden, and the dangers, while enjoying almost none of the benefits. There is also the possible disruption to the already fragile agricultural industries in the area by slapping a dirty pipeline through the middle of prize farmland. That sounds inherently dangerous.
Saudi Arabia would also be a loser, because two of their primary customers for oil sales would be lost. Personally, I can’t get too upset about that one, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk. Creating an environmental catastrophe just to destabilize the economy of one nation? Nope, not worth it. But still, I know some people who consider that destabilization a top priority, and one that should be front and center on everyone’s mind. If Saudi Arabia suffers an economic hit, they say, their ability to finance the militant groups in the Middle East will be curtailed. That in turn will calm down the political mess over there. (Israel is particularly intrigued by that possibility.) That is a possible outcome, but I wouldn’t bank on it. The Saudi’s aren’t stupid. I think it’s more likely that Saudi Arabia would quickly find another buyer, or they would undersell the Canadian interlopers, before they cave. We may see a temporary upheaval, but things would quickly return to the status quo, or, we would see a new round of energy crunches. Saudi Arabia isn’t going to go down without some kind of fight, and economically, they have a strong arsenal. I do agree that reducing the demand for Middle Eastern oil will change the political climate over there, but the effect of this pipeline is likely to be minimal. In fact, I think the most effective way to calm down the Middle East would be for everyone to stop using oil. Hold that thought; I’ll be getting back to it.
So let’s look at the winners and losers, if this thing goes through:
- TransCanada, and it’s corporate partners
- British Petroleum, Valero Oil, and others who would refine and transport the Canadian oil
- Canada, for the influx to it’s economy
- China and India, for their lucrative new source of oil
- The Koch Brothers, and others who have investments in the various entities involved in the construction and operation of this pipeline
- The United States, for bearing all of the ecological and environmental risk of this thing, while gaining little or no long-term economic benefit
- Saudi Arabia, for losing two of their best customers
Since there are more winner and losers, some would say that this thing should happen. After all, it’s benefiting more people than it harms, correct? Some claim that the United States is being selfish by stopping what would be a boon to the world economy! To be honest, I think the global economy would be better served by something other than… this.
Let’s take one last step back and look at the even bigger picture.
The debate over global warming is ongoing, and there isn’t a consensus on it, so I won’t go too far into that. I do know that fossil fuels release particulates into the atmosphere that cause problems for crop production, create acid rain, and cause or exacerbate health problems for large numbers of people in many regions of the world. Global warming may indeed turn out to be a load of noise, but those other problems are not. This pipeline would make these problems worse.
It can be argued that in these times of economic hardship, deluded dreamers like me I don’t have the luxury of considering grand sweeping issues like the global environment and humanities place in it. We need income producing jobs and we need them now! Yes, that is true. But I firmly believe that we should be getting off the “Petroleum Standard.” The way I see it, we have technology available that could take us away from fossil fuels, or at the very least start pulling us away from it. If we would just spend the time developing it! That would generate jobs as well, if we play our cards right.
Bio-diesel is perhaps the best short-term option at the moment. Solar is another. The core technologies for these alternate forms of energy have been around for a while, but until recently there hasn’t been an interest in developing them. People would rather stick with what they know. Or, people with money in the old technologies are doing everything they can to discourage change. Change would only hurt their purses.
Now I’m going to call it.
Building this pipeline would be a collective step backwards, further into a dependence on fossil fuels. As a United States citizen, I have absolutely no reason to support it. As a member of the human race, I really really have no reason to support it. Apologies to Canada, China, and India, but we’re all riding on the same rock, and if we mess up one part of it, the rest will eventually follow. Then what? For the good of this world, we need to eliminate (or at least drastically reduce) our dependency on fossil fuels. Yes, it’s going to hurt, it’s going to be difficult, and a lot of rich people are going to lose their fortunes. Sorry guys, but you’ve got to take one for team humanity.
Or diversify your financial portfolios to include these emerging energy sources. It’s your call.
And finally, the Middle East would get very quiet if oil ceased to be such an important commodity. Taking away the money train would change the dynamic over there very quickly.
In short, fossil fuels are something we should be moving away from, all of us, and this pipeline will do nothing for that. Instead of looking into new sources of fossil fuels, why aren’t we looking into new forms of sustainable energy? We have the core technologies; we need only refine and perfect them. What’s the hold up? What are we waiting for? Don’t shit where you eat! As a species we’ve been doing that for almost 200 years, and sooner or later it has to stop. Why not today?
President Obama vetoed the Keystone XL bill on February 25, 2015. To that I say, good for him. If the Congress can’t override the veto by March 5th, then this project is likely to die. At the very least this will tie the project up in discussions for several more months.
The bulk of my information, and the image at the top, comes from the Wikipedia article on the Keystone Pipeline and the sources cited on it.