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Keystone XL: The world runs on oil, and pipelines are the best way to transport it

keystone protest
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Keystone XL assures oil from a dependable, friendly source, instead of imports from Venezuela and the Middle East.

President Barack Obama has announced that his decision on the Keystone XL pipeline will be based on “the net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate,” as he called on the United States to lead international efforts to combat global warming.

He now has a detailed study of the global-warming issue from the School of Earth Sciences at Canada’s University of Victoria. Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the study’s calculations showed that retrieving and burning all of the 170 billion barrel economically viable Alberta oil sands reserve would raise global temperature by 0.03C, or one thirtieth of a degree centigrade.

He also has the State Department report that approval or denial of Keystone XL “is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area.” Lack of pipeline capacity simply diverts oil transport to rail or tanker-truck transport with the type of hazard seen in the recent oil train derailment in eastern Canada.

Pulling the president away from Keystone XL approval is political pressure from a large bloc of supporters who regard the Alberta oil sands as the “dirtiest oil” on the planet. The president is caught between his campaign promises to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and concerns about global warming versus the science and economics supporting the pipeline.

Dependable, friendly source

Keystone XL assures oil from a dependable, friendly source, instead of imports from Venezuela and the Middle East. If we don’t take the oil, it will likely go to customers in Asia with no net benefit to the environment. He could also point to thousands of new jobs, which could be an offset for environmentally conscious supporters.

The world runs on oil, whose compounds provide everything from transportation to the asphalt that paves our roads. Petroleum feed stocks provide building materials, fertilizers, pesticides, medicines, plastics and more. Our older domestic oil reservoirs are declining, and there are three major North American sources to fill the gap. There's the oil in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico; the Alberta oil sands; and the oil shale in regions like the Williston Basin’s Bakken field, which require hydraulic fracking.

Of the three, the largest source is in Alberta. It can be pipelined here, or we can use long lines of oil tanks pulled by diesel-burning rail and truck power.

The Ogallala aquifer

Opponents of the pipeline point to threats to the Ogallala aquifer. But a big threat there is from biofuel farming. Millions of tons of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation water are continuously dumped on the soils that drain directly above the aquifer. A study by Professor Sangwon Suh of the University of Minnesota reported that in Kansas and Nebraska, 500 gallons of water are required to grow and process the corn for each gallon of ethanol produced. Much of that water is drawn from the Ogallala.

There are thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines in the United States. They operate with minimal safety problems. Some of those lines are directly above the Ogallala aquifer, which is unaffected. The new Keystone XL pipeline will continuously monitor sensors that register pressure and leak issues. Valves are spaced along the pipeline and are closed from remote centers to limit loss from leaks.

Lacking serious carbon-tax and fuel-conservation measures to drastically reduce fossil-fuel consumption, pipelines are the best way to transport oil, our largest energy fuel source.

Rolf Westgard is a professional member, Geological Society of America. In the fall he will teach the class “#20036 "Minnesota's Geologic History; from Mountain Building to Minerals” for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program. 


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Comments (65)

Minnesota's oil products

Nearly all of our gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc comes from the Pine Bend refinery which gets more than 300,000 barrels/day of Canadian heavy crude via the Alberta Clipper pipeline. A direct pipeline line from Pine Bend to MSP provides the jet fuel for all of the takeoffs from MSP, using that 'dirty oil' from Canada.

Keystone XL causing a price increase for Mid West gasoline

Rolf, currently Alberta oil sands bitumen price (West Canadian Select benchmark) is depressed by some $20-$30/barrel, which benefits the Mid West with lower fuel prices than the rest of the country and higher profits for Minnesota and Illinois refineries which take WCS as their main feedstock.

Since the primary objective of building the Keystone XL is to reduce the cost of bringing Albertan bitumen to tide water, and thus raise WCS closer to world oil pricing, there has been some speculation about what will happen with Mid West gasoline and diesel prices if the Keystone XL is successful in reducing the WCS-WTI margin.

Some studies suggest that the Mid West will pay 10-20 cts more per gallon after the Keystone XL is built,

One recent study even suggests the effect of a reduced WCS-WTI will cost Mid West consumers some 20-40 cts/gallon :

How much do YOU think that fuel cost will go up for Mid West consumers if the Keystone XL is constructed so that the WCS-WTI will start to reduce ? And which study can you refer to for your opinion ?

This is a repeat

Essentially the same piece was published on MinnPost in January 2012.

A lot has happened in a year and a half.

For one thing I got to spend time this month at the TwinMetals Ely site, where a team of geologists is analyzing drill cores from various points on their 40,000 acre concession. There is a surprising amount of gold up there.

Decision imminent

We should have a decision on both proposed projects later this year. Do you have anything of substance to offer on the issues?


Isn't that how truthiness works? You just repeat something over and over again until it gets ingrained and people begin to accept it as "fact"?

That and being the first commenter on the comment thread of your own article . . . . .


Could you be more specific in your comments about the facts and figures in the article?

Oil dependence Red Herring

It is our dependence on oil that puts us in a national security threat on par with terrorism and threats from nation states. This is from the Pentagon who is planning for climate uncertainty on the same level as those other threats.

It might make us "feel" safer, like taking off our shoes at airports, to have good old Canadian fuel running through Middle America. The reality is that in a global market, continuing to increase fuel use will drive up the profits for our adversaries, as if we had purchased it from Iran or Venezuela. Every dollar fuel goes up for our Canadian fuel, the Iranians will get that same extra dollar when they sell theirs to China.

And speaking of China, how much of the Keystone crude will even end up in the United States?

Keystone crude exports?

All of the oil sands crude ends up in US refineries. Some of the finished product, gasoline, diesel, etc, is exported to Latin America at a good profit for US refineries. This creates good paying US jobs and helps our trade balance, offsetting all that Chinese stuff we buy at Walmart.


US Gulf Coast refineries are operating at or close to capacity. The heavy oil from Alberta will not be refined here, but will be exported.

Assuming, of course, that the pipeline doesn't break and spill it all into the aquifer.

how much of the Keystone crude will even end up in the US?

All of it. Only some of the refined products get exported, creating jobs and profits for US refiners.


This piece doesn't even ask the most basic and important question of all: should we even be pursuing oil? Not to mention that the pipeline doesn't even benefit Americans. If the oil was going to be sold within the states, all it would have to do is reach Minnesota and get distributed from there. The reason they want to go all the way to Texas is to reach export terminals and international markets. While that will help to line the pockets of company executives, it won't do a blessed thing to help the gas price at the pump for your average American.

Oil is already in MN

Our Pine Bend refinery processes more Canadian oil than any other refinery. It arrives via the Alberta Clipper pipeline and a spur at Clearbrook MN. The rest goes to other US refineries. None of that crude is exported from the US.
Because it is heavy sour oil it is cheap, but our world class refineries can process it, helping to keep gas prices down.

Minnesota Oil

Then that negates the need to move the oil down to Texas if the oil is already being refined here at home.

Where to put the Canadian oil

Pine Bend does a little over 300,000 barrels/day. The Alberta oil sands are approaching 2 million barrels/day. Minnesota is full up.


I guess the message is:

This is how it's always been done
The future has to be the same
Nothing else is possible

Wasn't that the argument Republicans used against same-sex marriage? "For 2000 years, marriage has been defined as a union between a man and a woman....."


the right to marry has been extended to all in Minnesota.
On the unrelated issue of transportation fuel, few of us are willing to give up cars, trains, and planes. For surface transport, there is an option - electrified public transport and even electric cars for some of us. To provide reliable electric power without fossil fuels requires nuclear energy with its 90% predictable capacity factor, operating rain or shine, day and night, wind or calm.

A game changer with wind energy

Rolf, you may want to consult the article on Climate Progress entitled 'Game Changer: Next Generation Wind Turbines With Storage Are Cheap, Reliable and Brilliant.

These GE turbines could very well solve the reliability problem.

The article also mentions Spain's 19.9 MW solar plant that had reliable service for 24 hours straight. This was two years ago.

There's no telling how much further we could be with the right mix of government incentives and subsidies.

Rolf not interested

Eric, I don't think Rolf wants to hear about wind energy or any form of alternative energy.
He is too much too busy promoting pipelines that transport Canadian bitumen from the Alberta tar sands.

Going beyond Westgard

Westgard paints a very one-sided picture. Here are some considerations we also need to factor in.

1) When--not if, but when--there is a massive oil spill from this pipeline there is no guarantee that the public won't be left having to pay part of the bill. Oil companies have a notorious history of trying to get out of facing their legal and financial responsibilities. They have a history of trying to cover up damage, lying to the public and regulators, tricking the public to settle before all damages are known, and so on. They do what they can get away with financially. They have no financial incentive to do otherwise. Litigation can go on for years, incurring heavy costs to small businesses and private individuals in the meantime.

Interestingly, politicians advocating strongest for the pipeline are likely those who have or would resist efforts to ensure that oil companies are liable for the damages they cause. In 2010 a bill, since defeated, would have raised oil company liability from $75 million to $10 billion. $75 million is essentially nothing. It's one of those the-government-has-already-been-corrupted-by-oil-money bits of law that has the perverse effect of encouraging more oil company short-cuts and recklessness. Until oil company execs face the prospect of real prison time and their companies stand an actual chance of dissolution from fines due, we'll all being paying for their mistakes.

2) Oil sand extraction is already devastating the Alberta landscape, leaving massive open pools of toxic waste. You can see this using google maps. One estimate is that by 2020 there will be over 200 square kilometers (you read that correctly) of open pools of toxic waste. This trashed natural environment is the legacy we'll be leaving future generations. It's a clear message that we didn't have the foresight, wisdom or self-discipline to make better choices.

Many thousands of migrating birds, mistaking these toxic dumps as water, have landed on them and died. This will continue to happen. It is a cost that's completely excluded from Westgard's analysis. In fact, in current mainstream economic thinking, biodiversity and species of any type do not even have a right to exist. KeystoneXL simply perpetuates this absurd profit-at-all-costs assault on our natural heritage and future.

4) The jobs argument is an appeal to ignorance directed at the part of the public that's incapable of thinking beyond a narrow claim in hand or anything beyond right-now time frames. Westgard is insulting your intelligence by making this argument.

First, there are vastly more green jobs to be created than anything Keystone will bring us. We just have to decide this is what we want to do. (This is made massively harder when the GOP leadership consists of climate change denialists and conspiracy theorists. Where are the thinking Republicans? Extinct?) Grants, subsidies, tax breaks, R&D investment, private-public startup partnerships and more, are all capable of producing more and better jobs than Keystone could ever produce.

Second, many green jobs are longer-term jobs. Solar, wind and other forms of renewables will be producing jobs for vastly longer than oil jobs, since oil is, of course, a very finite resource.

Third, once oil jobs become obsolete, these workers will need to shift careers. Retraining will be a cost partly picked up by the public. Training workers for green jobs now will very likely produce many more economic benefits over time in terms of diffusion of efficiency-making knowledge and skills, and green startups.

Fourth, every new oil job now contributes in some way to reducing the earth's livability, and reducing the ability of the economy to work for everyone in the future as the effects of climate change worsen. Taking this kind of long-term perspective is not in the interest of the oil companies or their cheerleaders, or the politicians who depend on their dirty oil money contributions. But if we're going to be even minimally intelligent about the future we have to take into account the medium and long-term future consequences of our actions as best we can.

5) Keystone will and has "required" use of eminent domain to seize (steal?) private property. Imagine a buying a house on a piece of property. You hope to set down roots and build a life. But not if an oil company wants your property to expand their business and enhance profits. Then, you may be facing "legal" seizure of your property, enforced by the police, whether you like it or not. In most states you have no right to even contest the decision to seize your land. You can only haggle a little over the "compensation" you get.

6) The Ogallala aquifer. There remain a number of unknowns here as well as risks. A small-ish spill might only travel a thousand feet, but would you want to be near that? What about the trade-secret chemicals that will be used? Have these been tested for as well?

7) A "friendly" source? What does that mean anyway? When is being friendly a prerequisite for buying and selling oil? If we're going to play this silly rhetorical game of friendly versus unfriendly, then let's at least broaden the context a little. According to Foreign Affairs, a journal of conventional wisdom if there ever was one, Canada has been corrupted by oil, tarring and destroying many things that have made it our admirable neighbor to the north:

"The good neighbor has banked its economy on the cursed elixir of political dysfunction — oil. Flush with visions of becoming a global energy superpower, Canada’s government has taken up with pipeline evangelists, petroleum bullies, and climate change skeptics. Turns out the Boy Scout’s not just hooked on junk crude — he’s become a pusher. And that’s not even the worst of it.

With oil and gas now accounting for approximately a quarter of its export revenue, Canada has lost its famous politeness. Since the Conservative Party won a majority in Parliament in 2011, the federal government has eviscerated conservationists, indigenous nations, European commissioners, and just about anyone opposing unfettered oil production as unpatriotic radicals. It has muzzled climate change scientists, killed funding for environmental science of every stripe, and in a recent pair of unprecedented omnibus bills, systematically dismantled the country’s most significant long-cherished environmental laws."

8) Westgard points out the U of Victoria study, but only mentioning this study is misleading. (We should wait for a further analysis of this study before trumpeting it as the definitive answer Obama can use to make his decision.) There's already ton of research on how climate change will negatively impact all of our lives even if we stopped burning fossil fuels now. The tar sands will now make a minimal contribution to climate change--if only according to this one study. However, the tar sands is only one of a number of plans for expansion of oil production and use. Put together they make for a much less rosy picture. Business as usual is unacceptable if we want to minimize climate change destruction.

Having said all this I'm not married to the idea of opposing Keystone. However, if we're going to have a serious debate on this issue we have to move well beyond Westgard's piece, taking into a broader and more accurate picture



Thanks for your additional input on the subject. It's exactly these details that are needed in the debate so we can make an informed decision. Presenting one side, as Rolf does, doesn't give us all the data we need as we wrestle with the issue of not just the pipeline, but which direction we want to take the country.

Devastating Alberta

The residents of Alberta love their lands and waters, and they are capable of preserving those assets without the help of amateurs from south of the border.
Alberta’s government monitors all aspects of oil sands production. The province of Alberta has 147,000 square miles of boreal forest. A total area of 1,950 square miles is set aside for oil sands surface mining. About 400 square miles have so far been disturbed. Producers are required to restore disturbed land and make deposits to a fund guaranteeing restoration. That fund now totals over $900 million.  Water usage is limited by a law requiring that existing and approved oil projects may not use more than a total of 3 percent of the annual average flow of the Athabasca River, the primary area water source. Water in the region is continually monitored to assure that it meets Alberta's strong standards for toxins.
Wind and solar are not scams. They are heavily subsidized, intermittent sources of about 1% of our total energy use. We need to continue research on those technologies. But at the moment instead of decorating your roof with solar panels, just paint it white or some other light reflective color. IMO you will do more to cool the earth.

Albertans are capable people, but oil money corrupts

There's no doubt the residents of Alberta are capable of handling their affairs. But, if we're going to be realistic about this we need to sidestep rhetorical ploys and also consider things like the following:

-First, let's not kid ourselves. Let's be honest about how political systems actually work when confronted with corrupting amounts of money. Countless political jurisdictions over time have shot themselves in the foot at the prospect of short term gold and glory. This is an impossible-to-miss lesson from history. It happens all the time, and the only question is why we would think that this wouldn't have a corrupting effect on Alberta.

-The boreal forest in Canada may be located within the borders of Canada, but it is a treasure for all of humanity. The birds that die en masse in Alberta's toxic waters are not Canadian property but are the responsibility of Canada, and by extension the responsibility of all of us. Who gave oil companies the right to destroy all this wildlife?

-Hundreds of black bears are being killed due to incursions on their territories and because they're attracted to tar sands oil camps and facilities, looking for food. There are under 700 bears left in the province. We're already facing massive die-off of species around the globe. In fact, according to the best evidence we're in a new period of mass extinction, to which the tar sands operations are adding their push.

-Woodland Caribou habitat, and as a consequence, caribou, are being destroyed at an accelerated rate.

-Fox, deer, no doubt many creatures are being killed and having their habitats destroyed by tar sands operations, with massive lakes of toxic pollution left in its wake. (Dear reader, do a google image search on Canadian tar sands pollution.)

-The tar sands operation has been described by some as the largest and most destructive environmental industrial operation in history. It has nearly the highest rate of clear-cut deforestation on the planet. The tar sands operation often digs vastly deeper than the rare, rich peat moss it's destroying, making it highly unlikely that anything approaching the old growth forest in all of its beautiful particularities will ever return in our lifetimes, or for many, many to come.

So, when one hears language like "Producers are required to restore disturbed land and make deposits to a fund guaranteeing restoration" it's difficult to take this at face value.

What gets counted as 'disturbed'?
What gets counted as 'restored'?
How much critical habitat has been rendered unrestorable by toxic pollution?
How many animal populations will be critically reduced from already low levels?
Is bear-killing classified as 'disturbed'?
How much money does it take to create new bears?
Will the restoration fund handle that?
How many endangered plants and fungi have we now lost to extinction because of the tar sands? Does anyone know? Certainly the oil companies are not concerned with this question, nor are the cheerleaders for big oil.

Unless one was born yesterday, when one reads "Producers are required to restore..." how can you not suspect that this is precisely the kind of legalese historically used to batter down opposition, to assuage the ambivalent and those with dollar signs in their eyes or political campaigns to run? Do we seriously believe this language is much more than the rhetorical legal grease needed to speed oil corporations to dirty profits before anyone asks too many troubling questions about who actually gains and who loses?

What kind of restoration will be possible after this is anyone's guess. I wouldn't want to discount the possibility that some land could be restored to some kind of better condition. But it won't be the forest or the animals as they were. How do you take a landscape that's been dug into sometimes down hundreds of feet, washed with toxic waste and spills, completely denuded of trees and plants, and then make it well again? How much b.s. has the public been fed about this? How much of this restoration will simply be a minimal job, done to a vague letter of the law, but no more, leaving a blasted moonscape in its place and tied with a 'nature will fix it eventually' bow?

Second that...

Thank you Eric, your overview is much more comprehensive than Rolf's biased presentation.
If I may some more arguments that Rolf did not address either, but are already known facts about the Keystone XL :

We already know that this pipeline will increase the price of West Canadian crude, which will lead to increased gasoline prices in the Mid West.

We already know that this pipeline will create an additional 500,000 ton PER DAY of toxic sludge be pumped into unlined "tailing ponds" the size of Washington DC, which leak toxins into the Athabasca river system, killing wildlife and is increasing cancer rates in down stream First Nation communities up to 10 times the Canadian average.

We already know that this pipeline will enable a 50 % increase of the largest industrial project on the planet which is on track to turn pristine Boreal forest the size of Florida into bitumen extraction facilities and open pit mines.

We already know that the Canadian government wants to triple tar sand development over the next 15 years, and has issued leases for 93,000 square kilometres of pristine Boreal forest to oil and gas companies without A SINGLE environmental impact study.

And we aleady know that we currently EXPORT 3 mbpd in refined products, while we IMPORT only 2.8 mbpd from all OPEC countries combined, so we already know that we are ALREADY "energy independent" from OPEC.

We already know that this pipeline will leak, and that the substance is diluted bitumen, which we already know from the Kalamazoo river spill is much harder to clean up, and much more toxic than regular crude, and that we have the benefit of having our essential aquifiers contaminated with this stuff.

We already know that a foreign corporation is using the argument of "eminent domain" to violate property right of US land owners.

And we already know that this project will create only 35 permanent jobs for Americans, and not more than a few thousand temporary US jobs (about 0.002 % of the US work force for one year), and decidedly NOT the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even up to a million jobs that our politicians have been handwaving about.

And I did not even talk about climate change impacts yet...

So, now that we know that right-wing politicians and the fossil fuel industry have deceived the American people in every possible way, can we take a step back and assess again :

Exactly WHAT about the Keystone XL is in the "national interest" of our nation ?

Rolf, any comments to Eric's or my arguments ?

New report - Tar sands rife with thousands of law violations

Great points, Rob--a substantive contribution to the discussion.

Readers may want to google Greenpeace Canada's article Alberta: : where we only prosecute tarsands violations 1% of the time.

Points from the article:

-Violations of the law and environmental incidents likely exceed 10,000
-"...oil companies are not improving their practices. The study shows that the contraventions were chronic, repetitive and indicated little progress towards better management practices."
-Unless pressured by the public, the government apparently does little to nothing about violations--a key piece of evidence to substantiate the suspicion that oil corrupts governments.
-The article links to another article that mentions the outrageous fact that the latest oil spill is still going as of July 20, and has been for 6 weeks.

Once again

Alberta doesn't need a bunch of amateurs who have never been north of Bemidji.


The folks in Alberta are shipping the oil across the US. This oil is to be exported from the US.

Why are the Canadians not piping it to their own ports for export? Do they know something we amateurs do not (or do not care to)?

A little education

NO Canadian crude is being exported from the US. Canada would like to export directly, but they don't have pipelines to the sea for that purpose. There is a plan to ship to Asia from Kitimat in B.C., but that pipeline is a long way from reality.

No Canadian crude is being exported from the US ?

How do you know that, Rolf ?
After all, US Gulf Coast refineries are ALREADY exporting 60 % of their gasoline and 40 % of their diesel abroad.

What do you think they will do with the additional 830,000 bpd from a completed Keystone XL ?

US petroleum exports

Those are refined products. Our world class refineries can refine that heavy sulfur laden oil, which is why others need to buy our gasoline, jet fuel, etc. It is good business creating jobs and profits for US companies. It also balances import costs from all those Asian products you are buying at Walmart and Target.
This is what advanced countries do. They import raw materials, add value, and export the results. That's how they have higher living standards. That is what will happen to some of those 830,000 barrels. The rest will replace other imports helping to lower world oil prices.

Lowering world oil prices

You say that increased availability will lower prices assumes demand will remain stable at the current levels. Why would you think that? Demand for petroleum is inelastic, in that there is a floor below which it will not go. The potential for increased demand is almost limitless. Consider what has happened in recent years as the increased affluence of Asian consumers has led to an increase in motor vehicle usage.

Increased production and consumption is also going to mean increased greenhouse gases being emitted, but that's another story.

What is ours ?

Rolf said

"Our world class refineries can refine that heavy sulfur laden oil, which is why others need to buy our gasoline, jet fuel, etc."

5 of the 6 refineries in the Gulf that have committed to Keystone XL dilbit are FOREIGN owned companies and all 6 of them operate in a tax-free export zones in the Houston area.

So, it's not OUR oil, it's not OUR world class refineries, and it's not OUR gasoline, jet fuel etc either, and neither are the refinery profits (of using a lower cost feedstock) ours.

The only thing that is OURS in this Keystone XL pipeline is our land, which incidentally gets taken away from us by "eminent domain" by a foreign corporation.

And of course what is also ours is the price increase that Mid West consumers will pay for fuel.

You are entitled to your own opinion. But the rest of us may ask what about this project is in the "national interest" of the US...

US petroleum exports

Incidentally, as an example of the bizarre effects of what happens when the world starts to use really, really bad quality bitumen and calls it "oil", here is a fact few know about :

OUR own oil, extracted from the Bakken play in North Dakota is directly EXPORTED, by rail, to Canada of all countries !

Remember the horrible rail accident in Lac-Megantic, which was transporting North Dakota crude to New Brunswick ?

There may even be rail tracks in North Dakota transporting OUR oil North, next to the Keystone pipeline that transports bitumen in OPPOSITE direction, bound for export after refining in the Gulf.

Tell you what : Why don't the Canadian build a pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick, and we pump our own crude from the Bakken to US refineries via the Keystone.

That way, BOTH our countries will increase their "energy independence", no rail transport accidents will happen, no presidential permit necessary, and we reduce current inefficiencies that come with running two oil streams in OPPOSITE direction....

Very clever

No Canadian crude is now being exported from the US. Will that change with the Keystone? Or will the exports continue to be of refined products (which will come from which refineries?)?

Fossil fuel resource

The world has approximately 50-60 years of proven and probable reserves of oil and natural gas. Coal reserves are a little more than 100 years. This suggests that during the latter part of the century we will be making liquid fuel from coal in order for planes to fly. Obviously burning all that coal will have serious environmental consequences.
What happens in the next century, we can all try a guess. Speculation is invited.

Renewable resources are infinate.

50 years sound impressive until you consider that fact that the sun will last another few billion years.

Picking cherries

"A study by Professor Sangwon Suh of the University of Minnesota reported that in Kansas and Nebraska, 500 gallons of water are required to grow and process the corn for each gallon of ethanol produced."

The US average is 142:1.

So the data point presented overstates the normal level by a factor of 3.5.

Actual study:

Plus, it's not really a real insight that agriculture in the US is water-intensive. So is nuclear power.

withdrawal vs. consumption

No it isn't water intensive. Big power plants like nuclear withdraw lots of water. Then they return it.

Thermoelectric generation is 3x more water-intensive than E85

In 2005, US thermoelectric net generation was 5,332 gallons per million BTU. By contrast, ethanol is 1,740.

sources (in addition to the previous referenced bioethanol study):

Agricultural water is returned as well. A very small amount to the plant, and the rest to the aquifer, the air, and surface water. Another non-sequitur.

Water use

Your reference are for withdrawals, not consumption. Have you measured the Ogallala lately? Corn ethanol is a scam.

Consumption vs. withdrawl

Dude, ALL water is returned to the biosphere one way or another, it's closed system. Water doesn't just disappear no matter how you use it. A Geologist should know that.

today's weather

Cloudy with little wind. If you are in an elevator or using a computer or other electric appliance, be thankful for Prairie Island as there has been very little from so-called renewables since yesterday. Legislative decrees notwithstanding.

The topic is an oil pipeline, not nuclear and wind electricity

But since you mentioned it, the "low" level of wind generation in the MISO area between 9 am and 10 am was 300.76 MWh, or the equivalent of 1.2 average US coal plants going full blast. It's also enough to power 1,546,766 houses that consume the same amount of electricity as my house on a cool day like today. Thank you, wind.

Winds capacity factor

Much of time wind power won't power any homes.

Wind vs fossil fuel electricity

Erratic wind is never the equivalent of a base load plant. Wind has not replaced a base load plant anywhere on earth despite countless subsidies. That's why we don't have sailing ships for freight.

300.76 MWh wind energy not baseload but still very usefull

Rolf, you are placing a straw man.
Nobody claims that wind replaces base load power plants.
Also nobody claims that wind is the silver bullet and the end to all means.

Compare the what you call "erratic" wind power to consumers "erratic" behavior in switching electric devices on or off. So that "erratic" wind power production compares to "erratic" power reduction by consumers.

And that the kWh's are what counts.

Wasted oil - US cars and trucks use 94x the energy necessary

Household vehicles in the US average 31.3 mph and move the average person 25.0 miles/day.

To do this, those vehicles use 3,898 BTU per passenger-mile.

By contrast, moving the average 180 pound American adult in a 100 pound vehicle with a drag coefficient of 0.3 and a 6 square foot frontal area requires 41 BTU per passenger-mile. That's just 1% of the energy that's actually used by light duty vehicles (LDVs).

The cost of gasoline to move US LDVs is $350 billion annually. To move a light electric vehicle that requires 41 BTU per passenger-mile at 31 mph, one needs about 103 watts of solar PV in Minneapolis, factoring in for a conservative charge efficiency of 80%. If our vehicles worked at that efficient level as opposed to the massively wasteful level they do now of oil, it would cost $3.6 billion per year in solar power to move them. Also, just 1% of what we spend on gasoline.

Part of the inefficiency of vehicles is also poor roadway design, with frequent stops, as well as congestion. All of these can and will be mitigated as technology evolves. So this notion that we need to keep consuming egregious quantities of fossil fuels to move around is fallacious.

That doesn't even address the wastefulness of the institution of personal ownership of LDVs. In the US, there are only 0.89 licensed drivers per LDV, meaning, more cars than drivers. By contrast, there are 73.5 carsharing members per carsharing vehicle in the US. This is a factor 82 difference in wastefulness.

And none of that accounts for the extreme amount of distances we're covering every day, most of which is not necessary with better options and design.

Think about these data points the next time you keep thinking it's necessary for the US to consume 229 billion gallons of crude oil in a year.

229 billion gals not necessary, just very useful

Oil's product are high density light weight fuels without equal. they are why airplanes can fly. Petroleum feed stocks are the source for hundreds of important products including building materials, medicines, plastic, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.
Carbon taxes would assure that those products are used efficiently. They are going to be with us for a long time.

Do we need tar sands at all ?

J Willemssen,
Thanks for a nice overview of what's needed for transport.
On a similar note, what has been largely shoved under the rug by tar sand operators and pro-Keystone XL advocates, is the the tremendous about of natural gas needed to extract, upgrade and refine tar sand bitumen to something like gasoline and diesel.

In fact, it appears that in-sito extraction of 1 barrel of bitumen requires something like 15 % of the energy recovered if you burn that barrel of bitumen. Upgrading and refining adds another 15 %, so well-to-tank we already lost 30 % of the energy that the refined products (gasoline, diesel, and also pet-coke) will provide in energy. Most of that 30 % in energy is currently provided by natural gas.

Since the energy efficiency of ICE vehicles is something like 20 %, it seems that tar sand bitumen as a fuel is requires 3 parts natural gas to obtain less than 6 parts gasoline, which will provide 1.2 parts of work.

I was wondering if we use these 3 parts of natural gas, and fire it in a dual-stage Rankine turbine power plant with 50 % efficiency, we will create 1.5 parts of electricity, which, as recharge efficiency of 80 % would also create 1.2 parts of work in an electric vehicle.

Did I do that right ?

If so, it appears that we can simply use the natural gas that currently goes to tar sand extraction, upgrading and refining, and we can power the same amount of vehicles.

Meanwhile leaving the bitumen where they belong : IN THE GROUND, and save an staggering amount of greenhouse gas emissions along the way...

Why do people make things up and wish to be taken seriously?

Why do people make things up and wish to be taken seriously?

"Much of time wind power won't power any homes."

Over the past 2.5+ years, MISO measured wind generation in its region every hour for 22,441 hours. Do you know how many hours there actually were when there was no wind generation? That would be exactly zero hours.

"Much of the time" is therefore beyond absurd, having no empirical basis in reality whatsoever. What possible motivation could someone have to make such an outrageous claim that is easily falsifiable within minutes?

Here is the data:

Wayward winds

Britain is a world leader in wind, with a subsidized program to take advantage of the windiest conditions in Europe. But in winter when temperatures fall and electric power demand soars, electricity production at Britain’s 3,100 wind turbines can drop from an average of 8.6% of Britain’s electricity mix to about 2%. Jeremy Nicholson, director of the U.K. Energy Intensive Users Group, said, “What is worrying is that these sorts of figures are not a one-off. We can cope at the moment because there is still not that much power generated by wind. What happens when we are dependent on wind turbines for more of our power, and there is suddenly a period when the wind does not blow and there is high demand?”
There is a role for wind and solar in our energy mix, but they require substantial direct subsidies and start/stop operation from backup fossil fuel generators. In 2012, wind had a US capacity factor of 29%, versus 90% for nuclear. And the nuclear power is predictable.


Rolf, you claim that wind requires direct subsidies, a statement made presumably because you wish to cast doubt on the financial viability of wind power. But then, it's well known that nuclear power requires very substantial subsidies. Why didn't you mention that?

The Union of Concerned Scientists published a report in 2011, 'Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable without Subsidies', on the subsidies nuclear power receives. From their website:

"Government subsidies to the nuclear power industry over the past fifty years have been so large in proportion to the value of the energy produced that in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy kilowatts on the open market and give them away, according to a February 2011 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists."

"Subsidies were originally intended to provide temporary support for the fledgling nuclear power industry, but the promised day when the industry could prosper without them and power from nuclear reactors would be “too cheap to meter” has yet to arrive. It is unlikely to arrive any time soon, as cost estimates for new reactors continue to escalate and the nuclear power lobby demands even more support from taxpayers. Piling new subsidies on top of existing ones will provide the industry with little incentive to rework its business model to internalize its considerable costs and risks."

"Nuclear subsidies effectively separate risk from reward, shifting the burden of possible losses onto the public and encouraging speculative investment. By masking the true cost of nuclear power, subsidies also allow the industry to exaggerate its economic competitiveness; consequently, they diminish or delay support for more economical and less risky alternatives like energy efficiency and renewable energy."

EIA subsidy data

EIA reports that on a barrel of energy produced, total subsidies to oil and gas are $0.28 cents; nuclear $1.79; wind $32.59; and solar a whopping $63. If you gave the direct PTC to nuclear, Excel would get well over $200 million/year in direct handouts for its two nuke plants.
Nuclear plants are cheap to run and don't need direct subsidies. Take away the PTC, and those wind turbines would go as quiet as the wind on a muggy summer day when all ACs run, and there isn't a 'breath of air'.
I am still grateful that we saved those eagles in Goodhue County.

Problems with analysis

One of the problems with measuring subsidies is determining what to count and not to count.

For instance, with oil, do we include the cost of U.S. military aggression in the Middle East to secure oil supplies? With coal-fired power plants do we count the cost of increased morbidity, increased child asthma and deaths, etc., due to coal pollution? (I'm counting this externalization of cost onto the public as a subsidy. Should we?) With nuclear, do we include the cost of public uranium mine clean-ups? What about the great expenses of storing spent fuel and the decommissioning costs of nuclear power plants? Do we include how much the public is shortchanged with the dirt-cheap leases of public land to mining companies?

I'm not an energy policy expert, but I assume a priori based on background knowledge that the EIA's estimates are subject to the same methodological selection biases as any other. Thus, we should take EIA's numbers with a grain of salt. Other numbers exist as well. For everyone reading this, as well as the contributors, we'd have to really nerd-out on policy details to get a sounder grasp on this complex subsidy question.

Many excellent points, Eric

The author of this opinion piece cribs without attribution and references almost all of his energy talking points from the Institute for Energy Research, headed and founded by Robert Bradley, Ken Lay's former speech writer and director of public policy analysis at Enron. He is a paelolibertarian, one of the few PhD students of Murray Rothbard. He also draws salary from Cato and the CEI, with Cato of course founded, funded, and still run by the Koch brothers. If you don't know about Rothbard, feel free to consult his views on the duty of parents to their children.

Its president, Thomas Pyle, is a former lobbyist for Koch Industries and policy analyst for convicted felon and former US congressman Tom DeLay.

One of their chief "scholars", Robert Murphy, was a student of Arthur Laffer, is also a Rothbardian/Von Mises adherent, and is published by Regnery (the "Swift Boat" publisher).

The author of this MinnPost piece comments frequently on Mr. Bradley's blog, MasterResource.

Poke around their website and you'll notice all the same themes and many of the same talking points, data points, and narratives.

This cherry picking distortion of the EIA report is no different. The report itself details many of the subsidies it does not quantify, including the very low liability limits for nuclear operator in the case of a major event like a meltdown. The one in Japan in 2011 has cost hundreds of billions of dollars so far.

On top of that, the this MinnPost opinion piece writer is seemingly taking subsidies in a given fiscal year and dividing it by net generation for that same year, then putting it in BOE terms, which the EIA does not use in its study.

Perhaps if the author would link directly to the sources of his claims, people could discern the reality more readily, but I think that seems to be the point.

Here is the source report:

You are totally correct about externalities and other expenditures which change markets. One thing with oil, for example, that few think about is the cost of building things like roads without the assistance of government eminent domain powers, oddly overlooked by supposed paleolibertarians. Imagine trying to negotiate with every property owner in given pathways, especially in areas where other routing is not possible. The time alone would be prohibitively expensive. This is a massive subsidy for petroleum, on top of the $111 billion in government expenditures on roads in FY2011 not covered by user fees.

Thank you!

Illuminating comments and links--thank you.

Enron, Ken Lay, the Koch brothers, Cato--quite the crew. Practitioners and exponents of market fundamentalism, one of the ideological holdovers of the 20th century we're better off without.

Wind is 20% cheaper than nuclear, 13% cheaper than coal

And that is *without* subsidies.

Straight from the EIA's 2013 Annual Energy Outlook:

And yet

I have to pay extra for windpower (Wellspring) while the rest of the power comes from nuclear and coal.

Difference between price and costs

Tom, there is a difference between the price Great River chooses to charge its customers for more wind in its mix and the cost of adding new wind generation capacity. The EIA document I linked to is has to do with the levelized cost of adding new capacity, comparing different forms of generation. It doesn't address the residential price a utility charges its customers.

If Wellspring is like Xcel's Windsource, they basically charge you a monthly extra set amount per kWh (for Windsource, $.0353), but credit you back for the fuel cost charge. Over the past 12 months, the differential on my bills between the Windsource charge and the fuel cost charge has been 6/10 of a penny, which ends up costing me 4 cents per day and $1.13 per month.

Because Great River and Xcel have different fuel mixes (Great River is 70% coal, 11% hydro, 10% wind, 3% natural gas, 6% other; Xcel is 46% coal, 24% natural gas, 12% wind, 12% nuclear, 4% hydro, 2% other), their cost of fuel is going to be different as well.

For example, when there was the big run-up in natural gas prices in 2008, my August bill had a negative net Windsource charge.

Regardless, the price we pay as residential customers is different from the cost of new generation capacity.

Hope that clarifies things.

95% of refined petroleum in the US goes to combustion

re "229 billion gals not necessary, just very useful"

Another 2% goes to roads that carry massive petroleum-fueled vehicles.

Much of the remaining 3% gets incinerated after one-time use.

There are also a variety of non-petroleum substitutes for that 3%.

By mid century,

oil and NG supplies will start to tighten. We will be making liquid fuels from coal with serious environment consequences. What is left is nuclear energy.


"The 'Renewable Electricity Futures Study' shows that 80% of all U.S. electricity demand can be met with *currently commercially available renewable energy technologies* at the hourly level every day of the year."

3% to 80%

Pipe dream.

Renewable share of US net generation was 12.2% in 2012

But, hey, you only missed it by over a factor of 4.

Things change all the time. Cars, cell phones, television, computers, jets, etc - going from very small shares to ubiquity in short periods of time. The economics are there, the technology is there, the need is there, the will is there. The NREL report does a good job showing how. It will happen, despite your protestations.


Kochs and Keystone


The ideology of those orgs is cover for amassing great wealth

The Koch brothers had combined wealth of $6.2 billion in 2000, which would have ranked them 39th on the list of 400 richest Americans. Now, together they're worth a staggering $68 billion, more than Bill Gates (who tops the Forbes 400) and second to and only $5 billion behind the world's richest person, Carlos Slim. It's the greatest change in wealth in the world for two people in that period.

Their private company is involved in the oil and gas industry in many aspects, particularly with the Canadian tar sands.

First, they hold several hundred thousand acres of oil and natural gas leases in the Athabasca tar sands area of Alberta. Second, they are a major pipeline shipper of oil from those fields to the US, the primary destination being Flint Hills in Rosemount, which they also own. Flint Hills holds an 80% market share for refining in Minnesota, which naturally gives it pricing power in the state. Motor fuels in Minnesota are only barely cheaper than the national average, even though the oil from Canada and shipping it by pipeline to Minnesota is much lower cost than many alternatives. They make a killing off of it, and hence the great increase in wealth coinciding with the run-up in oil prices since 1999.

They also actually speculate in oil prices, if you can believe that. Textbook moral hazard.

So despite their ongoing rhetoric and vast network of "think tanks" and associated messaging mechanisms, they didn't become extremely wealthy and powerful via "free markets", but rather by eliminating competition and engaging governments to get favorable policy outcomes to protect and grow their interests. They also inherited their company from their father (so not self-made heroes), who, when the company was on the brink during the Depression, drummed up business building 15 cracking units for Josef Stalin. So much for love of freedom and markets.

What the Keystone pipeline would do for them specifically is raise the price of tar sand oil (helping their leases) and feed their Texas refinery with cheaper oil, which they can turn around and sell refined products at "market" prices, making another killing.

Bottom line is that organizations like IER (and Americans for Prosperity etc) exist to help promote the ideas, interests, and wealth accumulation of the Kochs. It's also the reason the Kochs have battled with others at Cato for control, as Cato often hasn't been consistently "on message" on energy.