Tar sands crude oil (bitumen) is a corrosive mixture of sand, clay, water and crude oil which can be refined into useful petroleum products. It is produced in the Canadian province of Alberta, but Canadian provinces to the east and west don’t want it piped through their territories because of fears of pipe ruptures and environmental damage. Instead tar sands crude is piped southward through the Great Plains to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. There have been two pipeline ruptures already this year in the USA, in Michigan and in Arkansas
In order to be economically feasible, TransCanada, the major tar sands producer, wants to expand the pipelines crossing the USA and build supplemental pipelines. Part of the project involves a new border crossing, which is subject to approval or disapproval by President Obama. The President hasn’t made his decision yet, but the U.S. State Department issued a favorable report on the project.
The word may be on the brink of a new era of cheap natural gas, made possible by hydraulic fracturing and development of a new fuel methane hydrate, according to Charles C. Mann in this month’s issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Methane hydrate is a product of organic decay trapped in ice crystals, and is found in potentially enormous quantities in the ocean’s depths. View the video for a better explanation. Click on What If We Never Run Out of Oil?to read Mann’s article, which I highly recommend.
What Mann reported is interesting and significant, and his prediction may be correct. But then again, maybe not.
“Never run out” means something different to economists from what it means to me and probably to you. In a free-market, capitalistic economy, you never run out of anything. What happens is that the scarce resource becomes increasingly more expensive, people use less of it, and eventually a substitute is found. The question is just what that substitute is—an equivalent resource, a more expensive resource or acceptance of doing without.
I long thought that the rising price of fossil fuels would result in a transition to solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy. Over time, I reasoned, the cost of nonrenewable resources are goes up, while the cost of technology goes down. Sooner or later, I believed, these two lines must cross.
I still believe that this will happen someday. but in the short run, just the opposite is happening. The petroleum industry has found ways to extract fossil fuels that never were dreamed of when King Hubbert made his predictions about peak oil. Methane hydrate may or may not emerge as an important energy source. I wouldn’t bet against it. But even if it doesn’t, hydraulic fracturing has already transformed the world market for natural gas. Melting of the polar ice cap will open the Arctic to oil exploration and development. Someday these sources, too, may peak but not anytime soon.
The question about hydraulic fracturing is how low it will last. Oil wells in Texas and Saudi Arabia produced oil for decades. How long will the hydrofracking wells produce? My guess is that their usefulness will be relatively short-lived, while leaving behind a long-term mess for local communities to clean up.
Experts quoted by Mann say that methane hydrate could provide fuel to keep our industrial civilization going for centuries and perhaps indefinitely. These predictions usually come with a footnote, which says “at current rates of use.” No matter how abundant a resource is, it will be quickly exhausted if you use it up at a steadily increasing rate. I don’t see energy use stabilizing until the world’s population stabilizes, and a majority of the world’s population are not in poverty. What is poverty? At a minimum, it is having enough to sustain life and health and, beyond that, it is whatever people think it is.
Then there is the question of global climate change. Natural gas (methane) is a clean-burning fuel, but in its natural state is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In theory, natural gas can be extracted in such a way that it is not released into the atmosphere. In practice, it might not be.
The more fossil fuels we burn up, the more fragile our civilization becomes. We depend on increasingly complex systems that are increasingly vulnerable to failure. I realize this every time there is a severe ice storm that causes electric power failures here in Rochester. As I sit in the dark, I wonder what I would do if the failure were universal rather than local, and lasted indefinitely rather than a few days or weeks.
Back in 1954, Harrison S. Brown wrote in The Challenge of Man’s Future about how our industrialization was made possible by the availability of coal and oil, and of metal ores that were easy to process. If for some reason industrial civilization should collapse, it would not be possible to rebuild it using the methods by which the original industrial civilization was created. The resources would not be there. That is still true, and the more nonrenewable resources we use up, the more true it becomes.
This is a list of Hydrofracking activity outside of around the USA (out side of NYS), and the World. Contact Joe Hoff (Jhoffefact@aol.com) to get on the email list, or to sent information from your area.
Pittsburgh adopts the first-in-the-nation community rights ordinance which elevates the right of the community to decide, and the rights of nature over the “rights” associated with corporate personhood.
Joe Hoff, Chairman of Keuka Citizens Against Hydrofracking, keeps track of the Hydrofracking Legislation, Court Cases and similar activities. He occasionally sends out a summary. The list below is his notes from New York State. I will post his list of other states and countries at another date. To get on his mailing list, (or to update him on local happenings) just contact him at: Jhoffefact@aol.com…
Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times in Hong Kong writes about what he calls “Pipelineistan”—the region in the heartland of the Eurasian continent where China, Russia, the USA and other powers are jockeying for control of oil and gas resources and pipeline routes. I like maps, and spent a couple of hours yesterday doing Google Image searches of maps of the region, and here is what I found.
The first map shows the recently-opened 5,400-mile natural gas pipeline, connecting China’s resource-rich, majority-Muslim Xinjiang western region with its manufacturing centers in the east. It is the longest natural gas pipeline in the world.
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Next is a map of China’s oil and gas pipelines reaching into Central Asia. The longest is 1,100 miles, and their combined reach is 2,000 miles. Notice the extension to the border of Iran.
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While China’s economic expansion in the post-Mao era has been mostly peaceful, the Chinese in Central Asia work with some of the most vicious tyrannies on the planet, as do the governments of Russia and the USA. Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, for example, is a killer and torturer on a scale exceeding Saddam Hussein.
Next is a map showing China’s land and sea access to energy resources, which shows why the Chinese government prefers pipelines to vulnerable sea routes.
My friend Hal Bauer, a long-time and committed environmental activist and organic farmer, e-mailed me this graphic. As a resident of the city of Rochester, N.Y., I get my drinking water from the pristine Hemlock and Canadice lakes 28 miles to my south—unlike my suburban neighbors, who drink mostly treated water from Lake Ontario supplied by the Monroe County Water Authority.
Hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas is a process that involves fracturing deep underground strata of shale with explosives, and forcing out the trapped oil and gas by means of a high-pressure mixture of water and detergent chemicals. The chemicals as well as some of the toxic underground metals could be dangerous if they got into the water table, and the DEC takes that danger seriously enough to protect the watersheds of the New York City and Syracuse water supplies. Why, then, do I not deserve the same protection?
The DEC leases public lands to oil and gas drillers. Historically the DEC has charged significantly less than the drillers pay private land-owners. I bet this is still true, although I don’t know it for a fact.
Above is a report by American investigative reporter Greg Palast was broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corp. on May 13, 2002 about the short-lived attempted military coup against Chavez in 2002. Below is a report by Palast for the BBC on April 3, 2006, which explains why the oil wealth of Venezuela is important to the United States.
The most important fact about Venezuela, so far as the United States is concerned, is not that it is a major supplier of oil to this country. It is that Venezuela potentially has the world’s largest known reserves of oil, much more than Saudi Arabia. Most of Venezuela’s oil is a thick gunk called heavy crude oil, which is too expensive to refine as long as oil prices are low. Greg Palast said in his 2006 broadcast that heavy crude would be economically viable if world oil prices were $50 a barrel. He now reports Venezuela’s export price is $100 a barrel. What do we want—Venezuela’s heavy crude or Canada’s tar sands oil?
While the United States looks to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas for energy independence, our northern neighbor Canada looks to an even more problematic and dirtier energy source—tar sands.
Tar sands are a mixture of clay, sand, water and a tarry substance called bitumen, which can be processed into crude oil. Bitumen can’t be pumped. It has to be mined. Then it has to be cooked in order to separate it from the sands and mixed with chemicals to make it liquid enough to be piped to a refinery.
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Canada is the only country with an important tar sands industry. The Canadian province of Alberta has one of the world’s two largest known deposits of tar sands (the other is in Venezuela). They underlie an area as large as the state of Florida or the nation of England. If all the tar sands were usable as oil, Canada could in theory be an oil producer equal to Saudi Arabia.
Tar sands are pumped into the United States partly through Keystone pipeline, which became operational in June, 2010. The pipeline extends from Hardisty, Alberta, to Cushing, Oklahoma, and Patoka, Illinois. Now the TransCanada, the pipeline owner, wants to make extensions of the Keystone pipeline—the Keystone XL pipelines—which would take the tar sands crude from Cushing to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas, and create a more direct route from Hardisty across the Great Plains.
Canada is the largest source of U.S. oil imports, and a large fraction of that is tar sands oil. Enbridge, another Canadian tar sands company, also operates pipelines in the United States and also looks to expand.
Environmentalists have valid objections to tar sands generally and to the Keystone XL plan in particular. Alberta’s tar sands are extracted through surface mining, one of the most destructive extraction practices in existence. Tar sands mining contributes to global warming by releasing underground carbon, increasing carbon emissions, and destruction of forest land. Environmentalists say tar sands mining and processing uses four times as much energy as it makes available.
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Processing of tar sands bitumen requires corrosive chemicals to make it liquid enough to pump. The chemicals can corrode pipes and create the danger of spills. Whistleblowers say that TransCanada doesn’t properly inspect its pipelines. There were 12 spills during the first year of the Keystone pipeline’s operation, admittedly all relatively minor, and a more serious spill in Michigan by Enbridge.
TransCanada says it already has the necessary approvals for the southern Keystone XL through Texas, but President Obama has authority to disapprove the northern Keystone XL because it would cross the U.S. border at a new point. That extension would take the tar sands pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground water reservoir which supplies irrigation water for 20 percent of U.S. farm production and drinking water for many communities. A spill or leak could contaminate this water. If President Obama can’t bring himself to disapprove the pipeline altogether, he should insist that it be rerouted around the aquifer.
No matter what he decides, tar sands will reamin as a presence in the United States and as an issue.
I have to admire the oil industry’s enterprise and ingenuity. It is amazing to me that techniques such as deep water ocean drilling, horizontal hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, and conversion of tar sands to usable petroleum are even possible. I think the environmentalists’ objections to tar sands are all valid. But I want gasoline for my car and that gasoline has to come from some source, dirty or clean.
I wish the intelligence, hard work and capital investment that is going into developing dirty energy can be redirected into developing clean energy. The oil industry probably would say the latter isn’t economically feasible. I can’t prove this is wrong, but if it is, industrial civilization doesn’t have a future.
This chart from a New York Times article last year shows one of the costs of hydraulic fracturing, a technique for extracting natural gas tightly locked in shale strata by means of fracturing the shale and forcing out the gas with a mixture of water, chemicals and sand. Even when this is done properly, there remains the problem of disposing of the waste water, which contains not only the hydrofracking chemicals but sometimes underground toxic metals and radioactive elements.
Some benefits of hydrofracking are shown in the charts below. The technique increases the supply of natural gas, which drives down the price, and the increased use of clean-burning natural gas lessens greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrofracking isn’t the sole reason for either lower prices or lower carbon emissions, but it is a big contributor.
Natural gas prices in inflation-adjusted dollars are the lowest since 1976. Carbon dioxide emissions are the lowest since 1994. But before we in upstate New York join in the hydrofracking boom, we should ask ourselves—which will be more permanent, the benefits or the costs? It seems to me that we will still be dealing with the costs long after the boom is over.