Energy, Keystone and climate change

Now that everyone in the world is striving to own a car, a television, at least one computer, air conditioners, electric lighting and other energy using devices we need to develop more, cheaper and better sources of energy.  President Obama says we need to move away from carbon based fuel sources but still may approve the Keystone XL pipeline project.

I used to be opposed to the pipeline because of the environmental damage caused by the actual building through the midwest, through farms and endangered dunes and prairies.

Oil swirls in the Yellowstone river after an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured near Billings, Montana.

Oil swirls in the Yellowstone river after an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured near Billings, Montana.

And then came the various ruptures of the existing pipeline in the Yellowstone River in 2011 and recently in an Arkansas neighborhood.  The New York Times reported

On Tuesday [April 2], vacuum trucks and crews were still working to clean up the accident, which the Environmental Protection Agency called a “major spill.” While it was unclear how much oil had leaked, Exxon Mobil said it had recovered thousands of gallons of oil mixed with water and had prepared for a spill as large as 420,000 gallons, though it said it believed that the amount released was smaller.

“Our focus is on the safety of the people in the community and restoring the environment as soon as we possibly can,” said Alan Jeffers, an Exxon Mobil spokesman. “We’re committed to the cleanup and will stay until it’s done.”

The spill appears to be the largest accident involving heavy crude since an Enbridge Energy pipeline spill in 2010 that dumped more than 840,000 gallons near Marshall, Mich., soiling a 39-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River.

Somehow I can’t imagine what the interiors of the homes smell like.  The odor of the oil can permeate everything including furniture, rugs and bedding.

In addition to pipeline safety, I am learning more about the process of extracting the oil from the sand in Alberta.  Extraction of the oil releases CO2, uses water and by some estimates uses more energy to extract the oil than the oil produces.  So if our ultimate objective is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and reduce green house emissions, extracting oil from the tar sands does not seem to be the answer.  The Scientific American has a long and interesting article on the subject.

TAR SANDS: At least 170 billion barrels of oil could be extracted from Alberta's oil sands deposits with today's technology. Image: © David Biello

TAR SANDS: At least 170 billion barrels of oil could be extracted from Alberta’s oil sands deposits with today’s technology. Image: © David Biello

If I understand the article, carbon is emitted twice:  once during the extraction and then, a will all oil, during the refining process which turns the oil into gas or heating oil.

The greenhouse gas emissions of mining and upgrading tar sands is roughly 79 kilograms per barrel of oil presently, whereas melting out the bitumen in place requires burning a lot of natural gas—boosting emissions to more than 116 kilograms per barrel, according to oil industry consultants IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. All told, producing and processing tar sands oil results in roughly 14 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average oil used in the U.S. And greenhouse gas emissions per barrel have stopped improving and started increasing slightly, thanks to increasing development of greenhouse gas–intensive melting-in-place projects. “Emissions have doubled since 1990 and will double again by 2020,” says Jennifer Grant, director of oil sands research at environmental group Pembina Institute in Canada.

In the U.S. State Department’s review of the potential environmental impacts of the Keystone project, consultants EnSys Energy suggested that building the pipeline would not have “any significant impact” on greenhouse gas emissions, largely because Canada’s tar sands would likely be developed anyway. But the Keystone pipeline represents the ability to carry away an additional 830,000 barrels per day—and the Albertan tar sands are already bumping up against constraints in the ability to move their product. That has led some to begin shipping the oil by train, truck and barge—further increasing the greenhouse gas emissions—and there is a proposal to build a new rail line, capable of carrying five million barrels of oil per year from Fort McMurray to Alaska’s Valdez oil terminal.

Then there’s the carbon hidden in the bitumen itself. Either near oil sands mines in the mini-refineries known as upgraders or farther south after the bitumen has reached Midwestern or Gulf Coast refineries, its long, tarry hydrocarbon chains are cracked into the shorter, lighter hydrocarbons used as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. The residue of this process is a nearly pure black carbon known as petroleum (pet) coke that, if it builds up, has to be blasted loose, as if mining for coal in industrial equipment. The coke is, in fact, a kind of coal and is often burned in the dirtiest fossil fuel’s stead. Canadian tar sands upgraders produce roughly 10 million metric tons of the stuff annually, whereas U.S. refineries pump out more than 61 million metric tons per year.

Scientific American continues

In other words, tar sands are just a part of the fossil-fuel addiction—but still an important part. Projects either approved or under construction would expand tar sands production to over five million barrels per day by 2030. “Any expansion of an energy system that relies on the atmosphere to be its waste dump is bad news, whereas expansion of safe, affordable and environmentally acceptable energy technologies is good news,” Carnegie’s Caldeira says.

There’s a lot of bad news these days then, from fracking shale for gas and oil in the U.S. to new coal mines in China. Oxford’s Allen calculates that the world needs to begin reducing emissions by roughly 2.5 percent per year, starting now, in order to hit the trillion metric ton target by 2050. Instead emissions hit a new record this past year, increasing 3 percent to 34.7 billion metric tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

If we are serious about climate change and serious about carbon emissions, we will not build the pipeline.  We can’t do much about what is going on in Canada, but we can not build terminals in Washington State and Alaska and stop pumping tar sands crude though existing pipelines.  It will be argued that gas at the pump is too expensive.  That is costs too much to heat one’s home in the winter and run air conditioning in the summer, but price is not determined solely by availability in the United States.  Energy is now a worldwide demand.  I hope President Obama does the right thing.

Photograph of the Yellowstone Larry Mayer/AP

One thought on “Energy, Keystone and climate change

  1. Pingback: Computer Science Project Topics » Blog Archive » Energy, Keystone and climate change

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