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Pipeline Primer
March 15, 2014 4:07 PM   Subscribe

Factcheck: The Keystone XL Project. An evenhanded summary of the controversy around the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
posted by bitmage (75 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Man, the rail thing is an absolute killer. The oil will be produced. The oil will be shipped. Would we rather have it shipped by rail or shipped by pipeline?

Talk about your lesser evil.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:18 PM on March 15 [6 favorites]


When energy gets cheaper, you end up using more of it. (e.g. Jevons paradox) If it gets easier to get all that dirty oil to where people want to burn it, it will be cheaper and we'll use more.

Oil needs to be much more expensive, though tariffs/taxes, and use that money for alternative energy, transit, space based energy, wind, whatever.....

The Titanic has already hit the iceberg, the question is who is going to get a seat in the lifeboat.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 4:29 PM on March 15 [12 favorites]


This is a very comprehensive article, thank you. I have a cousin in Canada who is an engineer and is ardently working with his professional community to provide evidence as to why Keystone and the two proposed BC pipelines might be economically and environmentally unwise.

But this reminds me of the war on drugs mostly. I think it would be more productive to reduce the demand as best we can [notably with mileage requirements for cars and investing in public transportation - but also wind and solar] rather than attempt to eliminate one or another source of petroleum. We're just squeezing the balloon here. As long as there is money to be made and politicians depend on money for re-election pipelines wiill be built somewhere.
posted by vapidave at 4:44 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


Would we rather have it shipped by rail or shipped by pipeline?

Holy false dichotomy Batman!

If you talk to most educated people with concerns around Keystone (and other) pipeline projects the choice they are looking for is "terrible pollution record, complete ambivalence to clean-up or any other enviromental concerns pipeline" vs "a pipeline that those who manage actually give a shit about".

It's insane, literally millions of gallons (MILLIONS!) are spilled annually due to under-monitored, under-maintained and under-built pipelines.

Put real penalties for this negligence in place and watch these millions of gallons spilled disappear.
posted by Cosine at 4:44 PM on March 15 [15 favorites]


The responsible thing to do would be to immediately ban any tar sands oil from entering this country and invest $1 trillion/year in the science, engineering, production, tax incentives, and infrastructure development needed to decarbonize our country as rapidly as possible. Each day that goes by we are committing our planet to ever more apocalyptic climate change. It is long past time for any reasonable person to say "the line must be drawn here. this far, no farther."

Our children will never, ever forgive us for what we have done.
posted by crayz at 4:44 PM on March 15 [18 favorites]


I don't know, I just can't get past the reality that all of the oil is going to come out of the ground and be used, either by rail or pipeline. Harper would probably organize a bucket brigade over the Canadian Rockies if he had to.

I think Obama should approve the pipeline, tax its use, and then put all the proceeds from the tax toward geoengineering research to recapture that carbon. Leaving it in the ground is just not a realistic option at this point.
posted by Aizkolari at 4:47 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


Actually, mr_roboto, there are some who think the economic viability of extracting from the tar sands *is* dependent on KXL being built. Here's a 2012 WSJ article.
posted by pbump at 4:48 PM on March 15 [6 favorites]


It's insane, literally millions of gallons (MILLIONS!) are spilled annually due to under-monitored, under-maintained and under-built pipelines.

Oil in rail cars burned an entire town in Quebec to the ground.
posted by GuyZero at 4:48 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


crayz you are 100% right but that's just not going to happen.

We need to try to research, in a safe, regulated way, the options for seeding the oceans and other ways to store carbon in bulk.

Or maybe someone will figure out nuclear fusion and that will save our butts.
posted by Aizkolari at 4:52 PM on March 15


Oil in rail cars burned an entire town in Quebec to the ground.


Perfect. As I was saying, do you feel the only choice is between the shitty pipelines and shitty rail?
posted by Cosine at 4:53 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


If they want to do a bucket brigade, make them do a god damn bucket brigade. We should be doing everything in our power to make this project as difficult as metaphysically possible to bring to completion - it's literally one of the worst environmental crimes conceived in the history of the world, and rationalizing our way into helping bring it into being makes us accomplices.
posted by crayz at 4:54 PM on March 15 [4 favorites]


Lakota vow: ‘dead or in prison before we allow the KXL pipeline’

This 1,700-mile pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil each day from western Canada through South Dakota en route to Texas. At two points it would even intersect with a pipeline that serves as a main water source for the Sioux Nation, affecting all of the Pine Ridge reservation as well as the nearby Rosebud reservation.

Advocates for the pipeline argue the pipeline is the safest way to transport crude oil. TransCanada, the company in charge of the pipeline, predicted that the first Keystone pipeline, which runs from Alberta to Illinois, would spill once every seven years. During its first year in operation, it spilled 12 times. The Lakota, along with other First Nations, have vowed to use direct action to stop construction of the pipeline.

posted by gorbweaver at 5:02 PM on March 15 [5 favorites]


Perfect. As I was saying, do you feel the only choice is between the shitty pipelines and shitty rail?

It's the only choice currently on the table. There's no way the current Republican House is going to pass any kind of meaningful carbon-reduction legislation and the President does not have the regulatory power to prevent the oil coming into the country by rail. So, yeah, "rail or pipeline" is basically the current choice. Is it worth making this pretty insignificant issue the big "rally the troops!" issue of environmental activism? If we "win" it makes basically no difference, but everyone gets to go home and feel "welp, we solved that problem!" If we "lose" it just makes everyone feel depressed ("game over, man"). I think it was a poor choice for drawing a line in the sand.

(That's not to say that Canadian environmental activists fighting against exploiting the resource at all are wasting their time. They won't get anywhere with the current government, but might with future ones. And more power to their elbows. But it is to say that spinning up a huge campaign in the US specifically to get Obama to exercise his regulatory power to kill the pipeline seems quixotic.)
posted by yoink at 5:07 PM on March 15 [6 favorites]


I work in the oil industry here in Calgary, but not oil sands. Frankly, I'd rather Keystone wasn't built and the oil sands remained in the ground. It's dirty and there's other resources that can be extracted without the damage that oil sands bring. All resources carry a penalty for exploration, but that doesn't mean we have to choose the worst one. I think the pipeline will get built, but let's have some regulations with teeth and the tax revenue invested in cleaner alternatives.
posted by arcticseal at 5:10 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


Keystone XL’s leak detection system would miss spills smaller than half a million gallons a day
Keystone XL’s real time leak detection system has a minimum threshold of 1.5 to 2 percent. Translated for a 830,000 bpd pipeline, this means the KXL can only detect leaks larger than 500,000 to 750,000 gallons per day in real time. This is consistent with recent revelations of industry-wide gaps in leak detection – leak detection systems missing 19 out of 20 spills. State’s review of Keystone XL recognizes the front line role that landowners play in detecting pipeline spills, noting the leaks smaller than 500,000 gallons a day may be identified by direct observations by the public. That’s small comfort for the farmers and ranchers along the proposed route for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
posted by tybeet at 5:10 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


Well if you can think of a better way to transport pipes I'd like to hear it.
posted by angerbot at 5:12 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


Perfect. As I was saying, do you feel the only choice is between the shitty pipelines and shitty rail?

If you have a way to replace the energy content of a few billion gallons of oil I would love to hear it. The US will never regular consumer consumption of a basic staple like oil. That oil is getting shipped. You can't simply tell people "Sorry, no oil."

You must replace the oil with something else (and no, "research" is not a direct replacement for oil) or you have to accept that there will be more rail car explosions & infernos. Or you can build a pipeline.

Keystone XL’s leak detection system would miss spills smaller than half a million gallons a day

How much oil is leaked from rail cars?

And I'm not saying I like oil pipelines. But saying "we're going to choose nothing versus something" is not an option. Maybe for you it is. For the vast majority of Americans it is not.
posted by GuyZero at 5:12 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


The vast majority of Americans waste more carbon on cars built like tanks, junk consumerism and overconsumption of processed food than the average person on earth ever uses. We could have a gradually increasing carbon tax and payout the dividends to encourage people to decarbonize if we gave a shit about anything but our own comfort at the expense of destroying the planet we live on. Don't even try to tell me we "need" this oil.
posted by crayz at 5:16 PM on March 15 [5 favorites]


Nope, Americans don't "need" it. It will get extracted, transported, refined and burned anyway.
posted by GuyZero at 5:17 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


pbump: "Actually, mr_roboto, there are some who think the economic viability of extracting from the tar sands *is* dependent on KXL being built. Here's a 2012 WSJ article."

If that's true, then one might argue that's reason enough to block the Keystone pipeline.

Economically speaking, I assume that if the tar sands isn't economically viable to extract, then the price of oil will go up. If the price of oil goes up, then alternative sources of energy would start to look that much more attractive. If alternative energy is cost-competitive with oil, then that's where investments will flow.

Really, how much longer can we beat the dead horse that is peak oil?
posted by tybeet at 5:20 PM on March 15


If the price of oil goes up, then alternative sources of energy would start to look that much more attractive.

And the outcome of that is that the tar sands look attractive again. Ironically the only way to disincent tar sands development (short of it being nationalized) is by having low global oil prices to make it uneconomic. People have known about the tar sands for 50+ years. Only in the last decade or so did it become economical.
posted by GuyZero at 5:23 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


GuyZero: "Ironically the only way to disincent tar sands development (short of it being nationalized) is by having low global oil prices to make it uneconomic."

Can you explain this?
posted by tybeet at 5:26 PM on March 15


If it costs $50 to per barrel (whatever the cost is, I don't know) to make oil from the tar sands then you have to get more than $50 a barrel when you sell it. If oil is selling globally for $45 a barrel then no one is going to bother extracting oil from tar sands.

As long as oil is expensive, the tar sands are a viable business.

Back in the good old days of $20 a barrel crude, tar sands development was all just theoretical as it was cost-prohibitive. But the existence of the reserves and the process to extract them was no secret.
posted by GuyZero at 5:29 PM on March 15 [4 favorites]


Pipelines are dangerous, but tanker cars are more so. Rail accidents spilled more oil in the U.S. last year than in all the previous years on record combined. And in Canada, 47 people died in one fiery tanker-train disaster in Quebec last year.
This argument seems misleading. If rail spills last year were greater than all previous years on record, then last year was not representative of rail spillage. It would therefore be disingenuous to use that year as a benchmark for comparison with pipeline spillage.

The only data I can find to challenge this criticism of mine comes from later in the article where it discusses the State Department's report.
If Keystone XL is built as planned, according to the study, it would likely spill an average of just over 500 barrels per year, with a leak occurring once every two years. Under the most optimistic scenario involving rail, however, nearly 300 spills would occur per year, with over 1,200 barrels released in total, according to estimates provided in the report.
But later the FactCheck article acknowledges that the State Department's report has been criticized for being biased...
Foes of the pipeline say the State Department report reflects a pro-industry bias because of an alleged conflict of interest by a firm hired to assist in its preparation. The Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth accused the consultant, Environmental Resources Management, of having ties to the oil industry and hiding a previous connection to TransCanada.
So I'm not convinced that its data can be trusted to adjudicate rail-vs-pipeline risks.
posted by tybeet at 5:31 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


This argument seems misleading. If rail spills last year were greater than all previous years on record, then last year was not representative of rail spillage. It would therefore be disingenuous to use that year as a benchmark for comparison with pipeline spillage.

I suspect they're describing it on an absolute basis. Hard to say whether the spillage-per-barrel-shipped is any higher or lower. But the volume of crude shipped by rail has exploded in the last year (pardon the pun).
posted by GuyZero at 5:34 PM on March 15


tybeet: "If rail spills last year were greater than all previous years on record, then last year was not representative of rail spillage. "

It's hard to make a meaningful sound bite out of this data (at least as it applies to keystone) because oil sands oil transport by rail has went from negligible to nearly 200,000 bpd in just a couple years. If keystone doesn't go ahead then that number will continue to increase to somewhere around 2-5x. This would result in more spills and likely more expensive spills and explosions than the pipeline option.
posted by Mitheral at 5:41 PM on March 15


Mitheral,

A meaningful comparison would divide spillage by BPD to get a measure of spillage per barrel. From what I recall when skimming it, this is how the State Department report presents it, but like I said I'm not sure I trust its data.
posted by tybeet at 5:50 PM on March 15


This 1,700-mile pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil each day from western Canada through South Dakota en route to Texas.

Why are we even doing this in the first place? Because the oil is "owned" mostly by American companies, and they want to see that oil refined and marketed through their facilities in Texas, and that's where most of the permanent jobs will be created once the pipeline is built. Meanwhile, the Canadian and Alberta governments have also invested heavily in the development of the tar sands as an economically viable extraction process, so we need to do something with it. Because there are Profits to be had, and Alberta has low taxes and doesn't ask much in the way of royalty payments. It would make more sense, and be an order of magnitude safer, to refine it here (in Ft McMurray or Edmonton*) and distribute the finished products via ports in Canada.


*I know, the capacity just isn't there. Bit of a shame, really - nothing we can do about it.
posted by sneebler at 5:51 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it's a bit of a scam that the refining happens elsewhere. Hewers of wood & drawers of water and all that. I suspect the issue is that crude is easier to transport vs refined gasoline. Plus there's some regional variation in gasoline depending on the weather but I don't know if that's a big enough deal - refineries in Alberta could produce Teaxs-blend gas as easily as refineries in Texas.

On the other side, refining is a terribly messy business and I'm not surprised that the western provinces are in no hurry to build refineries.
posted by GuyZero at 5:59 PM on March 15


the question is who is going to get a seat in the lifeboat.

Don't be silly. We know exactly who is getting a seat in the lifeboat, and I doubt that very many of them deign to be members of Metafiler.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:28 PM on March 15 [5 favorites]


If you're spending your Saturday evening reading about and commenting on the Keystone pipeline, you'll probably enjoy Pulitzer-winner Tony Horwitz's new ebook, BOOM:
Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever. A Long, Strange Journey Along the Keystone XL Pipeline.
. It's a self-link from Byliner, but I've unlocked it for 24 hours. It's good reading.
posted by Scoop at 6:28 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


sneebler: " It would make more sense, and be an order of magnitude safer, to refine it here (in Ft McMurray or Edmonton*) and distribute the finished products via ports in Canada."

No one wants to build new refineries because of peak oil.
posted by Mitheral at 6:30 PM on March 15


Most of the time it isn't practical to refine the crude locally and distribute it across Canada or to other countries. Crude oil isn't nearly as flammable as gasoline or diesel. That's why you send it to refineries elsewhere and they turn it into products for use in the area. For example, the Co-Op Refinery in Saskatchewan actually provides most of the liquid fuels in SK and somewhat to AB and MB, etc. They wouldn't be in a hurry to build new refineries because they are very expensive. High temperatures, high pressures, or vacuum vessels, lots of chemical and explosion hazards, even more regulations. There would have to be local market capacity to make it worthwhile.

Recently in the news it was discovered that the rail industry has been under-reporting their incidents. And the prairie farmers have been complaining that their grain isn't making it to market because the railways don't have the capacity to ship it for them - whether this is some kind of fallout from this being the first year without the Canadian Wheat Board to organize things for farmers or not, I don't know. But regardless, two more things to add to the pile of concerns about rail transport.
posted by lizbunny at 6:41 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


GuyZero, part of my point is that we do have a whole strip of refineries on the east side of Edmonton, and there's other refining capacity in Western Canada, as Lizbunny points out. But the argument is that no way we can refine this tar sands oil in Alberta, because the capacity just isn't there; plus there's huge capacity in Texas (and OK?) that's underutilized at the moment.

I don't have an estimate of the amount of public money that's been poured into developing the tar sands in the last 60 years, but it seems like I've been hearing about it from the Alberta government since I was a kid in Edmonton. It's hard to say how the original planners of the tar sands as an energy development saw this working out, but my guess is that the current governments in Alberta and Ottawa saw big dollars in selling chunks of this resource to the highest bidder. They (and Canadian vendors, of course) get money, and a ready-made excuse that now the foreign owners make the decisions about how and where the product gets refined. It's out of our hands.
posted by sneebler at 6:51 PM on March 15


"Don't even try to tell me we "need" this oil."

This is my larger point - which I tried and perhaps failed to make above.

We should be working more to reduce the need and inefficiencies - on energy in general and petroleum in particular - than to stop any one source or conveyance.
posted by vapidave at 6:51 PM on March 15


Don't be silly. We know exactly who is getting a seat in the lifeboat, and I doubt that very many of them deign to be members of Metafiler.

But I'm sure they pay minions to post for them.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 7:10 PM on March 15


Senate Committee Debates Whether Keystone XL Is In The U.S. National Interest
posted by homunculus at 7:25 PM on March 15


Bill McKibben: All talk–little action–on climate change

Previously.
posted by homunculus at 7:27 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


Oil in rail cars burned an entire town in Quebec to the ground. Advocates for the pipeline argue the pipeline is the safest way to transport crude oil.

In other words, "Let us build the pipeline or we will burn you alive."

Nice.
posted by JackFlash at 7:47 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]


That lifeboat better have wifi so we can get Metafilter.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:03 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


What an impressively incoherent and uninformed thread so far!

I'm anti-tar sands. Should have remained untapped until we had better extraction technology. Stupid to sell it so cheap now, instead of at a premium in the future.

But that's all neither here nor there. The simple fact is that it is being extracted and will be sold. It will not be refined locally.

The grim reality is that tar sands crude is going to be sold to either America or China. If it is sold to China, there will be a pipeline and it will traverse pristine BC wilderness to a terminus in a dangerous, narrow fjord. If it is sold to America, it will travel by rail or pipeline — and pipeline is by far the least dangerous option.

There are no alternative realities. Sorry. Outright civil war is not going to happen, and this means shipping tar sands crude is going to happen.

Welcome to petro Real Politik. It's terrible, it's wrong, and it's what is going to happen. There is literally fuck-all you can do about it, just as our predecessors could do fuck-all about Kissinger's war crimes committed in the name of fighting communism.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:36 PM on March 15 [5 favorites]


But the argument is that no way we can refine this tar sands oil in Alberta, because the capacity just isn't there; plus there's huge capacity in Texas (and OK?) that's underutilized at the moment.

Counterpoint - the money is there for a fucking transcontinental oil pipeline. One would think refineries would be cheaper, and tying into existing gasoline pipelines also cheaper (there's a few running right up to the AB border), than putting hot and cold running toxic sludge overtop the US's largest agricultural aquifer?
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:07 PM on March 15


I live in Nebraska, where the biggest unanswered questions about the future of the Keystone XL lie. I have a lot of loosely related thoughts on the topic.

First, pipelines are probably safer than rail, but pipelines aren't safe and this one certainly won't be. I'm glad someone mentioned the leak capacities above, because even a pretty massive spill could go undetected. Furthermore, they project an average of 1 spill every year or two, but the first Keystone pipeline had about a dozen spills of various sizes in its first year of operation. I really don't want to take TransCanada's word for what the environmental impact of the pipeline will be. I don't think their picture is the most realistic one.

Second, it's interesting that the article didn't mention any of the recent happenings here in Nebraska. A court ruling struck down the (state) pipeline siting law that had allowed the governor (not the public service commission) to approve pipeline routes, allowing the the XL to go forward with it's current route. There are a number of landowners on the proposed route who don't want the pipeline to be built on their land, and they had brought suit, arguing that the law violated the state constitution. The judge agreed, and as of now, pending an appeal to the state supreme court, the Keystone XL does not have an approved route through Nebraska.

I don't agree with the notion that "There is literally fuck-all you can do about it." This article about the ruling notes that "TransCanada, which has complained it's been losing money as the pipeline equipment sits idle, had been hoping to start building during this year's construction season." I agree that it's a long shot to think that the pipeline won't be built, and an even longer shot to think that the tar sands oil won't get to refineries.

Still, my opinion is that if you're concerned about climate change, you ought to fight the Keystone XL pipeline. I think we should make large scale fossil fuel development projects harder for companies to build with louder, more public fights about whose interests are being served.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 10:12 PM on March 15 [11 favorites]


Second, it's interesting that the article didn't mention any of the recent happenings here in Nebraska. A court ruling struck down the (state) pipeline siting law that had allowed the governor (not the public service commission) to approve pipeline routes, allowing the the XL to go forward with it's current route.

Indeed, I wonder how many of the libertarian and conservative types who were outraged at the Kelo decision are now outraged that the State wasn't allowed to steal land from homeowners to benefit a (foreign!) private company.
posted by dirigibleman at 10:44 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


One would think refineries would be cheaper

Or one could go look at Wikipedia and discover they're about the same cost. And that the existing refineries are underutilized. Which makes the pipeline the better economic choice.

This has been a ridiculously poorly-informed thread. What an embarrassment. Get yourselves informed. Be anti-tar sands, yes, but do it with some intelligence.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:03 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


There are also existing crude pipelines... I'm not sure why you'd assume existing non-crude pipelines aren't at capacity like the crude oil ones are.

Also refineries are funny things. They've shut down several in canada over the years and as I said, they're a bear to run. I'm sure that Texas is much more lax with regulation of refineries vs Alberta or Manitoba.

And I know this sounds crazy given that refineries always seem running full-bore, but no one wants to build new ones for a bunch of reasons. If Texas refining capacity is underutilized who can blame those guys for wanting to improve utilization?

Also, how would a massive gasoline spill from a pipeline be any better than a crude oil spill?

The basic issue of how much crude to burn may be irreconcilable but the people building these pipelines make a basic good-faith effort to do the most reasonable thing. It's just basic economic sense to ship crude in the way that loses the least of it even before you get to environmental damage.

The issue of what seems like eminent domain to run the pipeline is what amazes me. It's basically free land which strikes me as totally crazy. I say let them run the pipeline on whatever land they can afford to buy outright.
posted by GuyZero at 12:42 AM on March 16


Surprised that no one has mentioned divestment yet - an excellent reason to delay the pipeline as long as possible. If you read finance news you'll know that this is already happening with coal and power utility investment - not from any ethical reason but because it doesn't make financial sense. More and more markets are picking this up and reacting to the carbon bubble, and damn straight it is going to affect the incredibly inefficient tar sands.

And when it's uneconomical, you know who is going to be making up the difference? Your governments with tax breaks and subsidies.

Delay as long as possible. Harper will go down in history as a quisling to the carbon lobby, and a blackguard besides.
posted by smoke at 1:39 AM on March 16 [4 favorites]


smoke: I'm not really certain what divestment your referring to above, but if it's Morgan Stanley's (et al.) massive commodities divestments (c.f. TransMontaigne or the various Heidmar pools), that was court ordered, and the grace period is running out.

I'm against shale and fracking, but the former is a done deal and the latter is too attractive to not continue despite the obvious damage. They are even considering ramping fracking up in Western Europe for god sake.

However there is a tiny bright side to this: energy independence. We can just hope that the damage shale and fracking do disincentives the USA to meddle in the Middle East and other places. Europe being hostage to Russian natgas has left the EU with few real options in the current Crimean crisis, for example.
posted by digitalprimate at 2:00 AM on March 16 [2 favorites]


You can't simply tell people "Sorry, no oil."

I agree that this is the practical reality, but I just want to say that it is totally fucked up that on our side of the border, at least, we've structured things so that it's entirely manageable to say "Sorry, no health care" and force vast swathes of citizens into far more costly alternatives—costly in both financial terms and mortality—but the same is not possible with "Sorry, no oil."

Delay to allow time for practical alternatives to come online and for accounting for negative externalities to be enforced sounds good if a "no" is not possible, though I'm not familiar with the details that smoke mentions.
posted by XMLicious at 2:03 AM on March 16 [3 favorites]


here are some examples of what I mean. Sorry I'm on my phone or< would get more. Banks are waking up to this, as I say today it's coal and power plants in the west, but tar sands will be very very soon.
posted by smoke at 2:17 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


I agree that this is the practical reality, but I just want to say that it is totally fucked up that on our side of the border, at least, we've structured things so that it's entirely manageable to say "Sorry, no health care" and force vast swathes of citizens into far more costly alternatives—costly in both financial terms and mortality—but the same is not possible with "Sorry, no oil."

Do you really think that poor people (in particular) don't drive less and keep their houses colder and generally consume less when oil prices go up?
posted by Etrigan at 7:14 AM on March 16


"Divestment" does not work -- it simply makes assets cheaper for people with fewer scruples. People think that the South Africa divestment movement ended Apartheid, but in fact it was the end of the Cold War which did it, as it made the ANC's Communist affiliations irrelevant in the West's calculus of South African politics.

What does work is substitution and, quite simply, banning things. The decline in coal in the U.S. is a result of both things. Abundant cheap natural gas in sufficient quantity and reliability starts to substitute for coal-fired baseload. Also, there is a de-facto ban on new unscrubbed coal plants, which is starting to become retroactive, and that's lowering the substitution bar even farther.
posted by MattD at 7:18 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


On their way to Lac Megantic, those rail cars passed about 40 feet outside my bedroom window (and the windows of the other 1500 people who live in my building), over a section of track that has already seen two minor derailments in the 3 years I've lived here. As you can imagine, I'm keenly interested in seeing less oil being transported by rail and none of it ever being transported in DOT111 cars.

I don't know enough about pipeline safety to know if it's a better choice, but god I hope there's something out there that's a better choice.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:59 AM on March 16


Do you really think that poor people (in particular) don't drive less and keep their houses colder and generally consume less when oil prices go up?

I'm not quite sure how you got that out of what I said. I didn't say anything like poor people should freeze to death in unheated homes; I'm saying that it's perverse that the hardships that are associated with our government not facilitating the extraction and exploitation of oil or even just not using military force to facilitate it seem to be made into an insurmountable obstacle by our political system, whereas the hardships associated with not facilitating everyone getting adequate health care—despite such hardships much more frequently involving actual death, at least death on the part of the people suffering without—are made very easy to swallow and are a molehill in comparison or practically a speed bump.

It's just perverse that this dichotomy exists in a society founded on the interest of ensuring "certain unalienable Rights... among these... Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". It's understandable insofar as how it happened, certainly as something that has developed in the course of centuries here compared to democracies architected more recently than the late 1700s, just as understandable as how the founding of a democracy with those articulated ideals could occur involving compromises such that formal and explicit slavery existed for almost a century afterwards and simply publishing pamphlets saying slavery's not such a great thing or handing out such pamphlets could be a crime punishable by death in some places, but it's still perverse.

Unless when you write it like "Happineſs" it specifically refers to fun things involving petroleum products that you can enjoy even with an untreated debilitating illness, maybe, and that's why ensuring access to oil is more politically expedient than ensuring access to health care.

By all means poor people should be able to have sufficient shelter and freedom to travel as much as anyone else, and amen for the government being able to facilitate that sometimes, it's just that there's one or two other things it should be difficult to deny them—even if government-sponsored avoidance of health problems and health expenses is not as lucrative for some people as government-sponsored avoidance of high oil prices.
posted by XMLicious at 8:33 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


Port Arthur, Texas is a Tax Free Export Zone. What a convenient and serendipitous coincidence. Obviously, God wants this.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:45 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


a molehill in comparison or practically a speed bump

Er, a molehill is smaller than a speed bump come to think of it, so switch those around.
posted by XMLicious at 8:47 AM on March 16


Do you really think that poor people (in particular) don't drive less and keep their houses colder and generally consume less when oil prices go up?

I'm not quite sure how you got that out of what I said. I didn't say anything like poor people should freeze to death in unheated homes...


You said (and I quoted):
I agree that this is the practical reality, but I just want to say that it is totally fucked up that on our side of the border, at least, we've structured things so that it's entirely manageable to say "Sorry, no health care" and force vast swathes of citizens into far more costly alternatives—costly in both financial terms and mortality—but the same is not possible with "Sorry, no oil."
We do say "Sorry, no oil" to mostly the same people to whom we say "Sorry, no health care."
posted by Etrigan at 8:49 AM on March 16


From the US side: We get zero oil, a finite number of temporary jobs, zero taxes, and all the environmental liability. What's the upside? I don't see it.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:28 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


People keep casting this as "pipelines or oil". I'm not that hopeful: the answer will be both.

Amazing figure in TMFA. There was almost no oil being shipped by rail five years ago. Last year the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin shipped nearly 180000 bpd, and IHS estimates nearly 450000 bpd by the end of 2014 (this figure almost certainly includes the Bakken crudes, not part of the WCSB). I moved to Calgary in 2009, and live right next to the CP railyard. I've watched with interest as the number and mix of railcars varies according to season and direction (lots of empty containers headed West, full containers going East, huge trains of grain in the late summer, an eerie four days of quiet when CP had its strike....). Every month it seems the number and proportion of rail cars increases. A Lac Magantic disaster here at the Alyth Yard could lead to a death toll in the thousands, and my own house is uncomfortably close.

This growth will happen with or without pipeline expansion: new rail loading terminals are already being commisioned and built, and from what I've seen of their planning documents, these are expected to be fully utilized with or without pipeline expansions. Much of the rail transport of crude is for North Dakota crude from the Bakken, in any case, which is a completely different set of fields and refineries.
posted by bumpkin at 9:29 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


fff: This has been a ridiculously poorly-informed thread. What an embarrassment.

I agree with you, and I'm one of the poorly-informed. Part of the issue is that reliable information is hard to come by, so we're left with a raft of questionable statements from a never-ending lineup of biased pundits, politicians and corporate propagandists, and very few actual facts. Did I mention the Alberta government?

My personal assessment is that oil sands oil represents a huge overhead in per-barrel carbon emissions. The pipeline, rail transport and ocean transport are just another large set of risks our governments are prepared to gloss over in order to bring in more money. I'd say they're incompetent in the face of all those dollars, but I'm pretty sure they're incompetent in general.
posted by sneebler at 9:32 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


And lower (much lower) oil prices will absolutely decrease the amount of bitumen being extracted from Alberta. But to get there, you have to hit the problem on the demand side, not the supply side, by making alternatives cheaper and more attractive.
posted by bumpkin at 9:33 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


We do say "Sorry, no oil" to mostly the same people to whom we say "Sorry, no health care."

I was interpreting You can't simply tell people "Sorry, no oil." to mean our government refraining from measures to ensure the availability of oil and minimize its pricing volatility and supply volatility, like constructing the XL pipeline which this thread is about or other pipelines, or providing subsidies for oil exploration and extraction and putting assets like federally-owned mineral rights in private hands, or re-authorizing offshore oil extraction in the Gulf of Mexico after it was suspended due to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I could be crazy, but it seems like any of those things have been much easier to accomplish politically than, say, HIPAA or Obamacare, far be it any measure that would result in the level of healthcare availability in other democracies near the U.S.'s level of prosperity and the corresponding better health statistics.
posted by XMLicious at 9:34 AM on March 16


bumpkin, do you think CP has any alternatives to running loaded crude trains through the Alyth yards? I know that at CN we talked about alternate routes for dangerous goods trains (whether they actually changed the route, I don't know). It seems to me that some of the cars on the flood-damaged bridge last year contained crude, so probably "no".
posted by sneebler at 9:37 AM on March 16


Everything becomes much easier to understand once you realize that government in particular and civilization in general we're originally constituted and continue to exist primarily (almost exclusively) to advance and safeguard the interests of the propertied powerful.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:40 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


smoke: You're right that that type of divestment is a different kettle of fish, but Chinese and Indian demand is not going away, not for at least twenty years. I doubt Glencore, et al are really getting out of supplying that demand regardless of what the banks do. In fact, one interesting trend the last 15 years has been private equity buying up massive, just massive amount of energy infrastructure. Outside of (shoddily enforced) environmental laws, PE has zero accountability to anyone other than the equity holders themselves. The banks, on the other hand, allowed themselves to be brought to heel on commodities investment, largely as a gimme in lieu of any real fiduciary oversight by an SEC with teeth or additional legislation.

sneebler: You're correct that very exact information is hard to come by (for example I know that Indian and Chinese demand for coal will not abate because of the number of Capesize or even larger "Valemax" vessels being built now, often built at and financed in...China). But I'm an industry insider, and very few people outside industry would understand the massive capex commitment that represents and what the implications of that investment are. This is about coal, not crude, but coal was what smoke's links were about.

But the bigger problem is not that the type of people who post on metafilter - who are a self-selecting above average informed population - do not know the inside baseball. The bigger problem is resource allocation, or if you will "outrage allocation." There's absolutely nothing going to stop the pipeline and rails or the shale extraction or the fracking. They are done deals. The focus now should be on harm reduction via pushing for legislation that really holds corporate entities accountable for their environmental impact, both in terms of safety on the ground (like not blowing up towns with badly maintained and routed rail cars) and in terms of long-range impact, like forcing them to become involved in carbon sequestering.
posted by digitalprimate at 9:54 AM on March 16 [3 favorites]


Re exporting crude vs Alberta refineries - my cousin was a bigwig at one of the biggest players in tarsands, and he told me that pipeline made the most sense because North America already had excess refining capability.

fff and pipeline is by far the least dangerous option.

Well, the linked report says that the fatalities and spills would be cut by ...about half. Seriously. It really is "shitty rail or shitty pipeline".

I don't understand this, personally. I'm a bit of a railroad nut. I know the Lac Megantic disaster was a direct result of relaxing standards, an accident that wouldn't have been nearly as possible 20 years ago. The governments could mandate 3-man crews, restricted speeds and a caboose on oil trains. Just saying.

Same with the pipeline - raise the fucking bar. Show us a pipeline that won't leak one tenth as much as current pipelines.

[digitalprimate is bang on]

As a Canadian, I'm saddened and perplexed by the whole situation. I understand that cheap energy is propping up the US and Canadian economies, but our federal government continues to blow smoke up our asses about "ethical oil" etc etc, while collecting absurdly low royalties so that the US can buy this more expensive-to-produce oil at substantially below market prices.

Meanwhile, other Canadian industries languish or fold up as manufacturing jobs continue to flee Ontario to Mexico or de-unionized US states. Eastern Canada is staring down the barrel of a 40% increase in the price of natural gas FROM THE US. Nice.

So I recognize the necessity of extracting and selling tarsands oil. Just wish it didn't mean rewinding Canada back to the 1950s.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:58 AM on March 16 [4 favorites]


I know the Lac Megantic disaster was a direct result of relaxing standards, an accident that wouldn't have been nearly as possible 20 years ago. The governments could mandate 3-man crews, restricted speeds and a caboose on oil trains. Just saying.

Same with the pipeline - raise the fucking bar. Show us a pipeline that won't leak one tenth as much as current pipelines.


This x2. I work in safety, and we're headed to the same situation as the US, where governments talk big and wave legislation around but don't actually enforce existing rules, or allow corporations to define their own exemptions because they claim the regulations are too expensive to implement.

I firmly believe that we can operate massive and complicated industrial facilities in a safe and responsible manner. That we don't is a choice someone has made along the way.
posted by sneebler at 10:27 AM on March 16 [4 favorites]


sneebler: "do you think CP has any alternatives to running loaded crude trains through the Alyth yards?"

I don't know about Alyth but I live within a mile of both CN and CP mainlines and they don't have much in the way of options to mitigate that. If the BC pipelines fail to go through I fully expect my exposure to disaster from this oil to increase greatly.
posted by Mitheral at 1:12 PM on March 16


I confess I don't really know if CP could run crude without passing through Calgary and Alyth Yards. I do know that they aren't willing to explore the idea, and nobody is going to compell them too.

My impression is that the way rail is regulated in Canada (strictly Federal only), the outcome has been that the two big rail companies have no interest or incentive with accommodating the communiites in which they operate. For instance, with respect to the cars filled with crude derailing on the semi-collapsing bridge after the floods, I remember Mayor Nenshi expressing his frustration that while the rail company could and did draw on the city's resources -- first responders and such like -- there wasn't any leverage at all the city could bring on the rails. The community of Inglewood has been running into this stone wall for a few years with respect to noise and emissions from Alyth yards, and this was also a theme that came out of the fallout from Lac Megantic.

So if not municipalities or the provinces to provide regulatory oversight and persuasion, that just leaves Transport Canada. Regulatory capture is a thing that exists.
posted by bumpkin at 1:52 PM on March 16 [1 favorite]


> So if not municipalities or the provinces to provide regulatory oversight and persuasion, that just leaves Transport Canada.

And the railroads operating in Canada will just point to the US, and moan that if they are subject to different, higher regulations in Canada then they will be at a competitive disadvantage, the poor dears.

> Regulatory capture is a thing that exists.

So it would seem.
posted by Artful Codger at 2:04 PM on March 16


Hmm. I don't think this is "regulatory capture" in the sense that Industry has gamed the system to allow CN & CP to do whatever they want. It's more that the Transport Canada rail people have limited budgets and their hands full dealing with a free-market Conservative government. I'm still at the stage of "never attribute to malice that which is due to incompetence", but I might be naive about that, too.

And the two big rail companies see themselves as North American operators rather than strictly Canadian (because they're not), which creates a separation between them and local regulatory/emergency services agencies. Yes, companies have lobbied to implement automated safety systems and crew size reductions for normal train operations, but that's in line with a whole series of cost-cutting measures they've implemented since the 1980s. Whether the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway should have been allowed to carry crude under those same rules is an important question, and calls into question the safety of the entire system.

I have a friend who is a rail safety guy in Ottawa - I'll send him this thread and see if he wants to comment on the regulatory capture question.

(If it's any consolation, when I worked for CN Rail 30 years ago we spent a lot of time in small towns and seemed to have pretty good relations with the people who lived there. I remember there being a standing directive to avoid blocking level crossings during rush hour and lunch time, for example. I seriously question their judgement when I see CP switching across three or more consecutive crossings in Inglewood at 4:30 pm. When I were a lad in Edmonton we lived right next to the CN mainline - 100 feet from our house. I remember watching whole trains full of propane go by, but we were too busy protesting against nuclear weapons to worry about rail safety.)
posted by sneebler at 3:26 PM on March 16 [1 favorite]


Everyone wants energy, preferably cheap energy. No problem, as long as our energy providers are responsible, conscientious and accountable. Are they: Nope. Not as long as The Harper Government seems to be an Oil Patch branch office.
posted by ovvl at 3:50 PM on March 16 [2 favorites]


Petropolis is on Netflix.
posted by ovvl at 3:54 PM on March 16


Can't put "the environment" into my gas tank. Oh wait, yes I can.
posted by telstar at 9:11 PM on March 16


5 Recent Underreported Environmental Disasters: Devastating toxic events are the new normal
posted by homunculus at 10:54 AM on April 8


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