Category Archives: tar sands and oil shales

How About Those Pipelines?

By now you have heard about the broken oil pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas that ExxonMobil is currently downplaying. By now you have heard the residents of this neighborhood say that they bought their homes without ever being informed that a pipeline full of tar sand oil from Canada ran near their property. By now you have seen the photos of the nearby creek and the lake with those only-somewhat-effective booms deployed to try to keep the oil out of the lake. And by now you have seen the poor ducks that have to be cleaned up after each of these oil spills, covered with oil once again. It’s a wonder we have any ducks left. Apparently this is the third incident of this type in recent history.

Do you want to live near an oil pipeline? Maybe you do live near one right now and you don’t even know it. If you are someone who backs the Keystone Pipeline (because we need energy and jobs), will you let them build it across your property? The media tried to excuse the break by saying that the pipeline was old and to suggest that the technology in 2013 is much improved. But ExxonMobil, perhaps with an eye to liability issues, denied that the age of the pipe had anything to do with the break. What did cause the break? We assume we will eventually hear the results of the investigation (if there is one).

This environmental mess, which has chased people out of their homes (we hope temporarily) and made a neighborhood unlivable, feeds into all of the arguments that we, the clean energy/clean water people have against building any more pipelines to carry oil (oil that doesn’t even belong to us). Call us any names you please, say that we are against capitalism, against business, against full employment, against energy independence and in this case we do seem to be all of these things. But this is not really where we are coming from. This is the rhetoric of our opponents who for some reason are not worried about our air or our water or the health of the planet. Why aren’t they worried about these things? They say it is because these are made-up things. They say these things are not really happening. But science has measured these things.

We have to ask why these deniers refuse to accept the evidence of the scientists. Maybe it is not just about money, maybe it is about their wish to believe that our lives will not have to change. Maybe they feel that these truths will ruin America’s greatness, although I don’t think this is an inevitable outcome of not building one pipeline. I was almost swayed by opposition argument about how important the Keystone is to our economy, and I felt that if they moved the pipeline away from Nebraska’s water supply that I might relent and back the pipeline; but, after hearing about the facts that several pipelines have broken and that people who buy homes are not even informed about nearby pipelines, I am back to being definite about my opposition to the Keystone Pipeline. I have some allies and I have some reasons.

Robert Redford has spoken up over and over about the reasons why we should say no to the Keystone Pipeline. He even attended a climate change rally held in Washington, DC in February. Here is some of what Robert Redford has to say:

Actor, director and environmental activist

You Can Move Washington, D.C. Forward on Climate Change

Posted: 02/03/2013 7:27 pm

On February 17, tens of thousands are coming together in Washington, D.C. to ask the president to stand up for climate. The Forward on Climate Rally is expected to be the largest climate rally in U.S. history.

How fitting that this will happen on President’s Day weekend after the inspiring inaugural address from President Obama about the moral necessity to tackle climate change for ourselves and for our children.

This is the beginning. The beginning of a real battle, for America’s future.

Real economic security is found in clean energy. That’s our future, not dirty energy that threatens us with ever worsening harm from climate change.

From rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to limiting carbon pollution from our nation’s dirty power plants, President Barack Obama’s legacy will rest squarely on his response, resolve, and leadership in solving the climate crisis.

The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would carry the dirtiest oil on the planet from Canada to America’s Gulf Coast’s refineries and ports, and then most of it likely exported overseas. It would promote one of the most damaging industrial practices ever devised, to coax low-grade crude oil from tar sands. We don’t need another pipeline for Canadian tar sands. It’s not in our national interest but is a profit scheme for big oil that needs to be rejected.

And in addition to the ability to say no to this dirty fuels project, the president has both the authority and the responsibility to limit the amount of industrial carbon pollution emitted from power plants. Taking this action will set the right course for reducing carbon pollution domestically and send the right signals that the U.S. is ready to lead globally. The Natural Resources Defense Council has laid out a common-sense plan that will cut carbon pollution; provide jobs to thousands of Americans; and save families real money in electricity bills.

He also has a video that you can search for on-line.

I worry about the fresh water resources on Earth. The Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy applies here. It says that energy is neither created nor destroyed but simply changes form. Which means that matter can become energy and sometimes energy can become matter, but there is only a certain amount of energy in the universe and we cannot add to it, we can only move it around from one state to another. This same law of physics is true about the fresh water available on Earth. There is only so much of it. Once it gets dirty (especially with oil or toxins) we don’t really know how to turn it back into potable fresh water. And so far we have not found any place to get more fresh water. I wrote a post about water wars. Here’s a reprint. The break and subsequent oil leak in Arkansas has me worrying about future water wars all over again.
How Likely Are Water Wars? – (Reprint of previous post)


I am not the only person on the planet who worries about water shortages. I have been doing some reading online and there are many reports about the worldwide shortage of fresh water resources. Scientific Americanreports about it and CNN, and Web of Creation (which may not sound quite as good as the other two sources). Some places never had great reserves of fresh water, places that are obvious like deserts and interior areas of Africa which only have rain for a part of the year and may have droughts that last for several years. We know the American Southwest also is a desert or near desert climate and lacks fresh water resources. If an area is unpopulated the lack of fresh water is not a problem (nature adapts), but as we have spread into areas where fresh water is scarcer, which people have done all over the world, water supplies in these areas become more problematic. Redirecting rivers will no longer do it for us.


The lack of water can mean a lack of food for obvious reason. Crops do not grow without water. When populations try to grow food in low rain or snow environments they must irrigate. To irrigate one takes groundwater and exposes it on top of the earth. It will evaporate and fall again as precipitation, but perhaps not in the same area where it evaporated. It takes 1 ton of water to grow 1 ton of wheat, which makes wheat a water-costly food, says BBC News. Many other foods do not require as much water but do not have the appeal of wheat. We may find ourselves having to get used to things like soybeans. Of course meat is also a very water-costly food.

Irrigation and raising farm animals are also activities that increase the pollution of fresh water. Manufacturing waste pollutes water, or air and therefore water. Retrieving and using fossil fuels also pollutes water in all kinds of ways. Of course, polluted water cannot be used to quench thirst without negative outcomes, including death. Children are especially susceptible to diseases borne in polluted water, especially in poorer countries without water filtration systems and in low-water environments. There are dead water zones even in salt water off many of the coastlines of developed nations worldwide.

Scientists also say that global warming is having an effect on water reserves as snow packs, glaciers and ice caps dwindle in size. The Yellow River in China never used to run dry, then it ran dry for about 15 days a year, and now it is dry for over 200 days a year. It is not the only river that dries up for part of the year when it never did before.

The 10 worst cities in America in terms of available fresh water are not at all surprising. We could almost name them without a list. However, more and more people are moving to these areas. Some populations have grown as much as 20% in the last decade which creates a larger demand for water. They are, as named in an article by Yahoo Finance:

1. Los Angeles – Major water supply, Colorado River Basin, Pop. 3,831,868

2. Houston – Major water supply, Jasper Acquifer, 2 Lakes, Pop. 2,257,926

3. Phoenix – Major water supply, Colorado River Basin, Pop. 1,593,659

4. San Antonio – Major water supply – Groundwater – Pop. 1,373,668

5. San Francisco Bay Area – Major water supply, Various, Lake Hetch Hetchy – Pop. Over 1.5m

6. Fort Worth – Major water supply, Multiple – Pop. 727,577

7. Las Vegas – Major water supply, Lake Mead/Colorado River – Pop. 567,000

8. Tucson – Major water supply, Local ground water – Pop. 543,000

9. Atlanta – Major water supply – Lake Lanier, Ga – Pop. 540,922

10. Orlando – Major water supply, Floridan Aquifer – Pop. 235,860

There are spots around the world with water problems similar to these problems of United States cities or some areas with even more pressing needs for fresh water. Will those of us with plentiful supplies of fresh water be expected to share? Will companies privatize our water supplies and sell them to us for big bucks? Will water resources belong to public utilities which give people with plentiful water no choice about sharing water; water might essentially be sold down the grid like electricity. Will these water resources be distributed equally or go to the highest bidder? Will some of us take luxurious showers while others die of thirst? Oh, we already do this! Will we continue to develop wetlands out of existence although we know how much they contribute to a healthy water cycle? Will we need a Global Water Management Agency? How happy would privileged people be about this? Oh, the protests! Will we learn to control the weather so it will rain where and when we need it to? We can’t even desalinate the oceans because we have nowhere to put the brine that is produced as a side product.

How many years of fresh water remain on our beleaguered little planet? What things can we do now to tip the fresh water resources in our favor? Humans are the only species on earth which can manage our water resources. Will we actually do any of those things unless laws are passed to force greater respect for fresh water resources, which for economic reasons, seems unlikely? Perhaps we could all go live in low water areas and leave the great water zones pristine. Then we can all have our water piped in. Humans, for all our capacity to evaluate and recognize problems before they become crises, seem unable to react quickly to take steps to lessen the impact of these problems. It could be a fatal flaw.

Posted 31st January 2012 by Nancy Brisson




More Global Warming

James Hansen, who directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote an article in the NYT about global warming, called Game Over for the Climate on May 9th, 2012 which tips the scientific scale towards proving that global warming is real and what will be likely to happen if we ignore the data. He says with certainty, “global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening.”
“If Canada proceeds [to exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves] it will be game over for the climate,” he continues.
“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history.”
Paraphrasing he insists that if we continue current use and “fully exploit” this new source concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene Era, more than 2.5 million years ago when the sea level was 50 feet higher than now.
If heat trapping gases reach that level we will see, long term:
·         Disintegration of the ice sheets
·         Rising sea levels
·         Destruction of coastal cities
·         Intolerable global temps
·         20 – 50% of planet’s species driven to extinction
Short term outlook:
·         Western US and semi-arid region from N. Dakota to Texas in semi-permanent drought
·         When it does rain, it will occur in extreme events with heavy flooding
·         Incalculable economic losses
·         More and more of Midwest will become a dust bowl
·         California central valley no longer able to irrigate
·         Food prices will rise to unprecedented levels
The Numbers
CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 ppm over the last 150 years.
Tar sands contain enough carbon, 240 gigatons, to add 120 ppm.
Tar shale found mainly in US contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon
We have to keep carbon concentrations below 500 ppm to keep earth livable
We have to turn away from the dirtiest fuels.
We have to find ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels.
James Hansen says, “The science of the situation is clear – it’s time for politics to follow.
The Republican in My Backyard does not agree with anything Mr. Hansen has to say. He says that the science proves that global warming is not real. How is it possible that science can be used to prove that global warming is real and also that global warming is not real? How is anyone supposed to know what to make of this?
My Friendly Neighborhood Republican has this to say about oil
The oil that is in the world, will eventually be developed – example Canada.  Canada instead of selling cheap oil to the US and fostering growth, jobs in the US, because of the Obama administration is selling that oil to China. The Obama administration has stopped drilling in the gulf putting hundreds of thousands out of work, driving up the cost of oil.  The oil in the gulf is now being drilled by other countries, rather than the US.  Those countries now are selling that oil to us.  How does that help the US? The Obama administration has spent TRILLIONS of dollars for things like Solar Panel Manufacturing.  This was supposed to be “Green Shovel-Ready Jobs.”  The few jobs that it created, are gone, the companies are bankrupt or out of business and each job – which lasted less than a year, cost the taxpayer upwards of 1 Million dollars each??  How has that helped the US?
Regardless of the actions of the US (or Obama), the world is going to consume more oil.    The population is growing and even more importantly, China, India, Indonesia and soon Africa and transitioning to developed countries, that will be become big consumers of oil.  Not just for auto / truck, but for all kinds of other things like plastics.  Demand is going to increase.  The oil will be developed and purchased by these countries regardless of the US decisions.  There are only two answers – either we become a net exporter of oil or we continue to be dependent upon oil.  Other countries like Brazil and France have taken the steps to make their countries independent of energy imports through renewable sources but mostly through nuclear.  Solar, wind and many of these other sources are not ready for primetime.  The only reason that they have had any success is because of government subsidies to consumer, business and power plants that are required to buy this expensive energy.  None of these things are efficient enough for true commercialization. 
The answer is easy and clear:·        
  • Develop those resources in the US in way that is safe for the environment – clean burning coal, nuclear power, natural gas, oil·        
  • Become a net exporter and bring wealth and prosperity to the US·        
  • Stop with the direct subsidies to encourage use of these renewable sources that are not economical, rather provide tax subsidies to encourage exploration, research and innovation.  Tax subsidies cost little to a tax payer and tend to actually be a net increase in tax revenue because the company’s hire more people, who pay taxes, who buy things, who pay more taxes.·        
  • Build up whatever infrastructure that is required to make this work – refiners, nuclear plants, etc.·       
Drill, drill, drill…. The answer isn’t that difficult.  The US is one of the richest countries in the world with natural resources. Tell me what Obama is doing to improve the energy situation in the US???
Me:  Who is right? It is enough to drive a conscientious citizen crazy. It is obvious that we are not ready to give up fossil fuels. It is also obvious that some Americans are not convinced that global warming is real. If global warming is not real and if we are not putting our water resources in jeopardy then we can continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate and there will not be any dire consequences. On the other hand I don’t believe that scientists are just making up global warming as a scare tactic to foil the oil and gas industries. What would be the point? Who would want to stop using fossil fuels if there are no negative effects on the environment? Should we suck every last drop of oil out of the planet? Are fuels we retrieve from tar sands and oil shales dirtier than other oils (produce more carbon dioxide) as experts say they are? 

It does seem like a good idea to keep winding down our use of fossil fuels and to also keep our options open, to keep developing oil and gas resources for the time being. Mr. Hansen, I think, would not agree.

Bonnie Burnatowski Really interesting points of view there. I find it hard to believe that science cannot come to a valid conclusion as to whether or not we as a planet are creating global warming. I respect anyone’s decision to ignore scientific facts, but hey let’s be real. Of course the things that we do to the planet are going to impact the environment and the atmosphere. That’s just the simple law of cause and effect.

Bonnie Burnatowski I do agree though that we haven’t really found any monetarily viable sources of energy, even though we’ve spend big time dollars in development. Clean energy sources seem to be our best options at this point in time.