Between Bodies

An agreement being hailed by some as historic was signed this week between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority.

It has to do with one of the great motivations for both war and peace: Water.

At heart, it’s a desalination project. Water will be taken  from the Red Sea, pumped through a pipeline to a desalination plant in Jordan, with the resulting fresh water distributed to different points in Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. The briny water that remains will be pumped into the Israel’s Dead Sea, which has been losing water at an alarming rate.

From a political perspective, any sign of cooperation has to be seen as a positive step. If parties who are so at odds can agree on this, then perhaps there are other areas for agreement.

From a societal perspective, viable and peaceful solutions for cross-border fresh water supply are always welcome.

From an environmental perspective, well–I guess there always has to be that pesky fly in the ointment.

Environmental groups close to the $200-400 million project are none too pleased that briny processed water from the Red Sea ecosystem is going to be pumped wholesale into the entirely separate Dead Sea ecosystem, even if the Dead Sea water levels are dropping.

Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East, told The Telegraph, “The link to the Dead Sea that’s being proposed here threatens the viability of the project from an environmental and economic perspective. It will bring foreign water into the Dead Sea that would upset its ecosystem, creating Gypum and quite probably algae.”

It’s worth noting that Friends of the Earth Middle East is, itself, an organization which brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists.

Dead Sea Image: Atlas Tours

Dead Sea
Image: Atlas Tours

I find myself usually landing on the side of the pesky fly, and it gives me little pleasure. Time will tell what happens when the waters of these two seas are combined.

Still, I deeply hope that this agreement is both a sign of potential cooperation in other sectors, and a signal that some cross-border water challenges can be solved through cooperation.


Oil Koan

Jensen wheat field, Tesoro oil spill, North Dakota Photo/Credit: Neil Lauron / Greenpeace

Jensen wheat field, Tesoro oil spill, North Dakota
Photo/Credit: Neal Lauron / Greenpeace

Looks small, doesn’t it? Just a black patch in a vast sea of brown soil.

A couple of days ago, a Greenpeace photographer flew over the site of one of the largest onshore oil spills in United States history. It had taken over a week for the Tesoro spill near Tioga, North Dakota, to be reported to the press. And that was only after the farmer who discovered the spill on his land, Steve Jensen, had reported it to the local authorities. Jensen discovered the oil merrily spurting six inches high out of a “perfectly round, quarter-inch hole” with “about 100 pounds pressure,” and “it had been leaking for awhile.”

How long? Long enough for a quarter-inch hole to spout over 800,000 gallons of oil into what used to be a wheat field. Long enough for Jensen to have smelled the scent of oil on the air ‘for days’ ahead of his tour of that particular back field.

Closer view of the Tesoro spill, which covers 7 acres. Photo/Credit: Neil Lauron / Greenpeace

Closer view of the Tesoro spill, which covers 7 acres.
Photo/Credit: Neal Lauron / Greenpeace

I spent quite a bit of time looking at the pictures of this spill before I realized what I wasn’t seeing: The usual pod of television camera set-ups. Thus far, more than two weeks after the spill, the only photos you are likely to find are from Greenpeace.

So, why the lack of interest? Is it because this spill seems to be out in the middle of nowhere, and Tesoro insists that no groundwater has been contaminated, no wildlife harmed? Jensen has said he expects that he will not “be able to farm that land for a few years and there’ll be compensation for sure.” Negotiations with the company have not yet begun. “That is going to come later. We’re looking at a two to three-year cleanup.”

For the moment, the cause of the leak is being blamed on the corrosion of the 20-year-old pipeline. The delay in reporting the incident was first blamed on the government shutdown, but I think blame is more clearly on the fact that in North Dakota, state authorities are not required to report oil spills to the press.

In the United States, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) manages pipeline safety through its aptly named Office of Pipeline Safety. There are 100 inspectors for 2.5 million miles of pipeline, and 1.5 full-time employees to oversee the 450 emergency response plans for 450 facilities nationwide.

Here’s a map of oil and gas pipelines in the United States.

Oil and gas pipelines Source: ProPublica Click here for the interactive version

Oil and gas pipelines
Source: ProPublica
Click here for the interactive version

And here’s an interactive map of major spill or leak events from 1986-2012.

Pipeline events labeled 'significant' by US regulators, 1986-2012 Source: ProPublica Click here for the interactive version

Pipeline events labeled ‘significant’ by US regulators, 1986-2012
Source: ProPublica
Click here for the interactive version

A similar amount of oil to that of the Tesoro spill leaked into the Enbridge Kalamazoo River spill of 2010. That clean-up has been estimated to cost over $1 billion, plus a $3.7 million fine for Enbridge. For some perspective on those amounts, consider that Enbridge filed a revenue of $1.67 billion – for the second quarter of 2013 alone.

What puzzles me is that this energy source is still referred to as good, cheap energy. Cheap for who?

So far, it looks like Tesoro got lucky. This time.

If environmental disaster falls on deaf ears, is it still a disaster?

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.