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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