Sticky Solutions

Map: HuffingtonPost

Canadian tar sand oil has been touted, along with natural gas, as one of the primary means of gaining energy independence in North America. I was dismayed when I heard this, not because I don’t want North America to be energy independent, but because this independence will come at the price of continued use of fossil-based fuels, as well as making vast infrastructure investments into a fuel system most agree is both outdated and dangerous.

The billions spent exploiting tar sands for oil are billions that won’t be spent on increased development of renewables and supporting infrastructures.

James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who alerted the world to the dangers of global warming almost 30 years ago, has warned that conventional oil, gas and coal reserves already have a level of carbon stored in them which would, if burned, cause further dangerous levels of global warming.

In a speech before the Environmental Audit Committee in May, he said, “The potential amount of carbon in these unconventional resources is huge. If we introduce the tar shale and the tar sands as a source and exploit those resources to a significant extent, then the problem (of climate change) becomes unsolvable (without) geo-engineering.”

Engineering is exactly what many supporters of fossil fuels are counting on – technological solutions to global weather systems. My question is, if the companies can’t even engineer safe and reliable oil exploitation and delivery systems, where do they gain their confidence in the ability of humans to engineer climate systems or safe biosphere havens?

Due to an old US law, the diluted bitumen extracted from Alberta tar sands is not classified as oil. For oil companies and pipeline operators (including the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline under discussion), the exploitation of tar sands oil will come without the cost of paying the regulation-stipulated 8-cents-per-barrel contribution into the US federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which helps pay for spill clean-ups.

There have already been a number of tar sands oil spills. Included here are a few that were discovered:

13 oil spills in 30 days Source:

From NPR: “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  has come out in support of higher standards for pipelines carrying tar sands oil because the oil is more aggressive to pipelines than conventional crude, making leaks and spills more likely.  Michigan State University professor Stephen Hamilton thinks more regulation is needed because of the many ways that a tar sands spill can be more harmful to the environment and people than a conventional oil spill. Another example he cited is that tar sands oil is a lot stickier than conventional crude, so everything it touches, even rocks, cannot be cleaned and needs to be thrown away.

“The consequences and the costs of the cleanup, once it gets into surface water systems as we’ve seen in the case of the Kalamazoo River, are incredibly high,” he says. “And, you know, we’ll never get it all out.”

The presidential decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is currently under consideration, and is due in the summer or fall of this year.

If you haven’t already seen it, here’s what a land-based, casual oil spill looks like:

Ebb & Flow

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

The slow meltback of all the snow we’ve had over the past couple of months is advancing day-by-day. No rain, not much wind, chilly temperatures, and yet the thick snow pulls back to reveal the ground beneath. The ground is no longer solid with winter ice; it’s softer, a bit muddied, undecided. This dry creek bed near our house will be a fat torrent in just a few weeks, but for now the water remains frozen in ponds, higher up in the mountains, on the pastures. We might even get a late snowfall. Ebb and flow. It wouldn’t be the first time, and ‘Spring’ is officially still almost three weeks away. We’ve had heavy snows as late as April, when the apple trees were in full blossom.

Last week, Shell suspended oil exploration activities in Alaska – after eight years and $5 billion in preparation, the 2012 season was a slow stream of mechanical failure and breakdowns in harsh weather. Ships became unmoored and drifted, oil containment facilities were crushed, an oil rig ran aground. Environmental groups praise Shell’s shut-down as a period during which the entire concept of Arctic drilling can be reassessed, a window for further discussion of alternatives. Shell remains firm in its commitment to continue exploration for Arctic oil.

Also last week, the U.S. State Department released the results of its analysis regarding the safety of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, an energy infrastructure project that would carry  830,000 barrels a day of tar sands fuel and oil from shale rock formations located in Alberta, Canada down across the U.S.-Canada border, across six Great Plains states and into refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma and, in later phases, in Texas. Those supporting the pipeline say it will add jobs, increase energy security and lower fuel prices. Opponents argue against the pipeline on a variety of fronts: environmental, political, financial, and cultural in that pipeline traverses areas important to no fewer that 150 Native American groups.  The State Department’s report concludes that the pipeline project would be ‘environmentally sound’ and that its completion wouldn’t significantly alter climate change. President Obama’s administration has committed itself to a focus on confronting climate change by fostering sustainable energy sources, particularly following the impact of climate change forerunners like Hurricane Sandy. On the day of a major anti-pipeline rally in Washington DC, President Obama was golfing in Florida with oil executives from Texas and Oklahoma.

There are long-term commitments to reducing reliance on carbon-based fuel. There are long-term commitments to supporting a reliance on carbon-based fuel.

The ground feels muddy, like it could thaw and welcome spring, or freeze over again in a last gasp of winter.