Conservation, Keystone XL and Oil Trains

Published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Link below.

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Applied to the debate over the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, we’re in the violent opposition phase.

Briefly, Keystone XL would route a 36-inch pipeline 1,179 miles from tar sands deposits under the boreal forests of Alberta in Canada, diagonally across Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska to join the existing, 30-inch, 2,147-mile Keystone 1 pipeline at Steele City, Neb.

XL proponents argue that the project would create jobs, be safer than oil trains, bolster energy independence for the United States and prevent Canada from exporting crude oil to Asian markets.

Opponents of XL point out probable damage to the environment, particularly to the sand hills of Nebraska and its underlying Ogallala Aquifer, the strong probability of undetected, underground leaks and evidence that unearthing tar sands oil releases global warming methane.

If for the moment we allow that both sides speak contrasting versions of the truth, we can focus on the subject that neither brings to the debate: the need for energy conservation. Nobody is stepping back to say conservation would reverse the dominoes of demand and supply. Through conservation, XL becomes exactly what it should be: just another scrapped bad plan.

Pipelines such as XL pose threats because they are monitored thousands of miles away from a leak site and their operators are slow to respond to the disaster. In July 2010, when the Enbridge pipeline spilled 877,000 gallons of tar sands oil into Michigan’s Talmadge Creek and Kalamazoo River, the control room in Edmonton, Alberta, noted an event. But it took nearly a day for workers to find the spill.

By contrast, in July 2013, when an oil train derailed, caught fire, killed 47 people and destroyed a significant part of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the disaster was obvious and damage control applied immediately. Tragic as it was, the event nevertheless illustrates an important safety distinction between XL and oil trains. Quick response more often than not mitigates a disaster.

Pipelines and oil trains are the devils we know. Of the two, XL is the greater evil because it would transport dilbit.

Dilbit is short for “diluted bitumen,” a cocktail of thick, Alberta tar sands crude mixed with natural gas condensate to produce a corrosive fluid that can flow through pipelines and into rail cars. When dilbit escapes from its confines, as in a train wreck or ruptured pipe, the condensate evaporates and the remaining thick crude sinks and is difficult to recover, particularly from waters such as the Kalamazoo River. However, if dilbit leaks undetected underground, it flows down to aquifers.

When oil trains wreck, the spilled dilbit or crude either burns or remains on the surface where it can more easily be recovered. The wild card is an oil train spilling into a river such as the Mississippi or the Wisconsin.

What of those XL jobs and Canadian oil to Asia? The jobs XL proponents extol are largely transient and construction-related. A flowing pipeline requires minimal labor.

Oil to Asia? Enbridge, the creator of the Kalamazoo River disaster, is moving forward with plans for parallel pipelines from Alberta to the deepwater port at Kitimat, British Columbia, where a $25 billion refinery is planned. Dilbit would flow west, natural gas concentrate back east, to be reused. XL or no, refined Canadian petroleum products will sail to Asia.

We don’t need XL or oil trains to be energy independent. For starters, we need only to drive the speed limit, turn down our thermostats and bring heavy trucks into meaningful fuel economy and emissions compliance.

Until conservation becomes the accepted truth, if forced to choose, I’d take oil trains over pipelines, simply because that’s the enemy I can keep closer.


Link to the essay in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

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