Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Keystone XL Rube Goldberg Machine

Not so long ago it seemed like the world had woken up to the fact that perpetual growth powered by finite resources on a finite planet was impossible. People spoke of a transition to a green economy in which little bunnies would frolic among solar collector panels while soaring birds would circle wind turbines. Gas prices were skyrocketing, people were talking about peak oil and it was clear that we were inviting ecological, social and economic disaster by continuing our energy policy. No, I'm not talking about this summer or last year, that was 1970 and a conservative into conservation was in the White House - Richard Nixon. He brought the Environmental Protection Agency into existence and along with it a raft of legislation to protect the air, water and land. Well, here we are forty years later facing the same problems again and an American president who promised his election would bring "the moment when the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet will begin to heal..." on the verge of completing our suicidal Rube Goldberg Machine and signing our death sentence by allowing a project which Jim Hansen of NASA, the world's foremost climate scientist, said is "essentially game over" for our planet.

What, you still haven't looked up Rube Goldberg? First, it's known as Heath Robinson in the UK. Still not there? Did you ever play the game Mouse Trap when you were a kid? Too old school? How about The Incredible Machines? Still too '90s? Ok, well maybe you've seen this video:

That's a Rube Goldberg Machine, a a deliberately over-engineered machine that performs a very simple task in a very complex fashion, usually including a chain reaction. With a little imagination it's not hard to see the world's dependence on oil as one giant Rube Goldberg machine whose aim optimistically is to burden us financially for the benefit of a few oil companies, pessimistically to catalyze the burning of the planet. Many had hoped that we'd either save ourselves by developing a new technology to replace oil or that it would simply run out, so called Peak Oil. Our machine is so deviously complex that it even works against both solutions. Despite the enormous wealth oil has created for a few companies (ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, and Shell made $35 billion in profit in the first quarter this year), our governments still give them massive tax breaks (more than $4 billion for that previous group of five from Uncle Sam) and allow them to write the legislation (see Dick Cheney's 2005 energy bill and it's Haliburton Loophole) to keep producing oil and gas thanks to the political influence they can buy in our corpocracy. Worse, instead of technology setting us free, it's further enslaved us in recent years making deep sea drilling, hydraulic fracturing and tar sand extraction feasible and profitable. The games been rigged and the trigger is about to be pulled.

When President Obama got back from vacation at Martha's Vineyard last weekend I wonder if he even saw the hundreds of people in front of the gates waiting to be arrested. A couple of thousand people signed up to be arrested for sitting, singing and holding signs protesting against TransCanada's plans to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Once you get past the 'huh, they can be arrested for that?' moment (you know, it would be embarrassing if the tourist saw them or worse, they could be terrorists) one naturally wonders what could drive people to such an extreme. The answer lies in northern Alberta, the source of the pipelines payload. See, Alberta's oil isn't the conventional kind, it's even got it's own name, tar sands, or if you prefer, oil sands, which is actually vast deposits of bitumen - black, tarlike goo that is mixed with sand, clay, water and oil. There are approximately 2.5 trillion barrels of the stuff, the largest hydrocarbon deposits in the world and in terms of recoverable oil, the 2nd biggest in the world outside of Saudi Arabia. The problem is and has always been turning this crud into crude.

The view over Mordor, er, near Fort McMurray
Unsurprisingly, it was Obama's predecessor(s) who made it all possible. When Dubya's handlers were scouting international locations for him to begin reaping the rewards of his presidential legacy - giving speeches for cash - they found their options to be rather limited thanks to the international crimes he had committed. Fortunately for them, there was one place in the world sure to welcome him being much like Dubya's home state it was more Texas than Texas and all- Alberta, Canada. So, instead of being arrested by the ICC as he disembarked from the plane in Calgary, he only had to deal with a few protestors on his way to a $4,000/plate speech. Yes, Alberta, home of pickup trucks with shotgun racks and oil. Lots and lots of oil. It's been said that the only winner of the invasion of Iraq was Alberta as it played a part in the machine, helping push the price of oil into the triple digits and thus turning Alberta's biggest natural resource from a perennial money loser into the next big thing.

You see, strip mining the world's largest boreal forest for oil ain't cheap, environmentally or financially. It's kinda like ripping out your lungs while filling your chest with smoke. Loading the world's largest trucks with crud, moving it, heating it with natural gas (28 cubic metres or 1000 cubic feet of natural gas to produce one barrel of oil), mixing with 2.5 to 4 barrels of water, storing the toxic waste in tailing ponds big enough to be seen from space and finally transporting it costs money. With the price of oil stuck around $20/barrel (as low as $12 in 1998/99) it didn't make economic sense for oil companies to do the dirty work, so the government did. For decades the people of Alberta made up the loss in subsidies. A habit they still haven't seemed to shake despite the turnaround, giving more in subsidies to tar sands producers than the entire Environment Canada budget.

Higher oil prices have indeed led to an R&D extravaganza along with profits, but it is squarely focused on figuring out how to get the dirtiest possible oil out of the hardest-to-reach places. Shell, for instance, is working on a "novel thermal recovery process", embedding large electric heaters in the deposits and literally cooking the earth. Thanks to war and insatiable usage, the surge in oil prices allowed the United States Energy Information Administration to "discover" oil in the tar sands. It announced that Alberta - previously thought to have only 5 billion barrels of oil - was actually sitting on at least 174 billion "economically recoverable" barrels. The next year, Canada overtook Saudi Arabia as the leading provider of foreign oil to the United States. Iraq's oil boom wasn't delayed; it was relocated. There is a certain irony there: The United States invaded Iraq at least in part to secure access to its oil. Now, thanks partly to economic blowback from that disastrous decision, it has found the "security" it was looking for right next door.

Click to enlarge
So thank dog it's not Dubya sitting in the Oval Office deciding whether or not to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to cross the border and deliver oil all the way to the Gulf of Mexico via Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Nebraska's Sand Hills, the Yellowstone River and the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground reservoir that supplies two million Americans in the Midwest with water all lie along the path. Especially when the precursor pipeline suffered a dozen leaks in the past year would mean that a larger one in which 1.3 million barrels of bitumen with dozens of poisons needed to act as lubricants is forced at high pressure over 1,711 miles (over 2,750 kms) is bound to suffer a major leak sometime. Or wait, maybe it's the knowledge that it doesn't matter who's sleeping at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that so many people are willing to face arrest to raise awareness of what is being done to us. Faced with a financial crisis caused by too big to fail banks, greed, corruption and out of control inequality, Obama chose to bail out the very same banks and extend the Bush tax cuts which incentivized the greed and blew open the gap between rich and poor. Faced with an out of control health care system which delivers worse results for way more money than any other OECD country, Obama chose to reward the insurance industry that lead to the problems of exclusion and cost. A winning Rube Goldberg Machine takes delicate planning to put everything in place. The oil industry gets preferential access to Canadian Prime Minister Harper, together they lobby against the Europeans banning tar sands to protect the dirty fuel's clean image and a former ambassador to the US gets dispatched to lobby in Washington fueled by the petrodollars at the disposal of Exxon and BP and finding familiar nameplates in the very corridors tasked with shaping the laws and regulations for the industry. No one was surprised to hear Hillary Clinton comment that she was inclined to approve the pipeline months before the State Department or the EPA had even compiled a report. Even less surprisingly, the State Department has since given the KXL project green lights, while receiving red from watchdogs, in all their flawed reports to date.

Tar Sands. Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking). Deep Sea and Arctic Drilling. Mountaintop Removal (MTR). Nuclear Energy. It seems so counter-intuitive when we know the dangers behind each but these are the energy sources that America and the world are turning to when we have alternatives. The oil companies simply play their spin machine to keep us addicted to their crack. Fracking is poisoning watersheds and water tables across America, it's been documented, we've been warned but it'll keep being done and move to to Europe, including the UK with the same dearth of regulation and even here to Poland. The technology that goes into drilling for oil thousands of feet below the sea is impressive so nothing could ever go wrong like it did in the Gulf of Mexico until it did, disastrously with BP last summer. Or just a few weeks ago for Shell in the North Sea and, gosh, ruining their reputation! Following the Gulf of Mexico disaster, Obama gave the OK to expand drilling over 20 million acres in the Gulf and soon probably in the Arctic Ocean. Remember how hard it was to stop the Gulf spill? Now imagine the remote Arctic. But, but, the technology! Let's not even speak of the horrors of blowing the tops off mountains to get at ever more inaccessible coal. We learned the lesson of Fukishima too, right? The Germans may have but not America and certainly not China. Holy shit, thanks again Wikileaks.

If you read the wrong newspapers or watch nearly any TV (really, people still do) the oil companies myth making machines will be screaming about the jobs these projects while using numbers made up by the industry to create while presenting a false choice between the economy and the environment. Even if true the reality runs something like this - we (as in us, it's our planet) grant oil, coal and nuclear companies access to our land for a minimum fee, while providing them with subsidies and tax incentives so that they can make billions in profit today and we have to pay with our health, lives and cash thanks to the damage that they leave behind. Yeah, sounds fair, kinda like the banking industry. There are better, safer, sustainable ways to spend $7 billion. I'll bet you didn't know that America is actually a $1.9 billion net exporter of solar energy products. I'd say the big problem is that it's not the right people making or saving the money the money when alternative energy is used. BP and Exxon can charge us for the oil for as long as we need it but they can't charge us for the sun and wind.

The Real Slippery Slope
There'll also be the banshee screams of those claiming that oil from Alberta is more ethical than that from places such as Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or Venezuela, countries that are potentially unstable or hostile. Um, yeah, Canadian's farts don't smell either. And the most childish (see what I did there?) spin of all, finger pointing, the old "if we don't do it, someone else will". This one's trumpeted over and over with the tar sands, that if the US doesn't get it, then the Chinese will. The Chinese! Wrong. A devastating new report from Oil Change International shows that Keystone XL will not only allow oil companies to exploit big domestic (read US the biggest kind) tax loopholes but also send most of its oil to export. USA! USA! Not only do you get all the risk of spills but you won't even get taxes to help pay for it. Anyway, a pipeline to the Pacific will be fought in the courts by native tribes and the people of the BC will fight any plan to fill tankers with the gunk off their coast. At the very least it will staunch the flow, time will be bought, time to build alternative energy sources. Fort McMurray, Alberta is a long way from anywhere so killing this pipeline turns the tar sands into a landlocked bomb instead of a nuclear submarine. Tar sand production is set to triple by 2020, stopping this pipeline throws a wrench into those plans. As an oil company economist and vice-president said, "Unless we get increased market access, like with Keystone XL, we’re going to be stuck". Alberta’s Energy Minister, Ron Liepert added "If there was something that kept me up at night, it would be the fear that before too long we’re going to be landlocked in bitumen...We’re not going to be an energy superpower if we can’t get the oil out of Alberta." Exactly.

Back to Richard Nixon. He wasn't really more progressive than Obama when it comes to the environment. It took 20 million people out in the streets for Earth Day in 1970 to get him to finally act. Yes, people power forced him to sign the bills that established the EPA and the landmark Clean Air Act then in 1972 Nixon signed the Coastal Zone Management Act; the Ocean Dumping Act; the Marine Mammal Protection Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungide, Rodenticide Act; and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Nixon's term also saw passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. Somehow we've allowed ourselves to be sent back to the 70's while becoming so apathetic that only a handful are forced to try to defuse the largest carbon bomb on the planet.

Look, I'm not here to try to convince you that climate change is happening. It is, regardless of what your chosen means of indoctrination tell you. Of course this doesn't mean we're causing it regardless of what most climate scientists are telling us. I get it, there's no way to prove it despite the overwhelming evidence. The fact is we might be and whether or not you think volcanoes contribute more CO2 to the atmosphere than human activity (they don't) or that stolen emails showed that scientists manipulated data (they didn't) or that only an benign deity can influence the planet (he/she/it doesn't), carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is steadily climbing. So, as we approach seven billion inhabitants we're allowing the powers that be dictate our continued addiction to oil which will get harder and more dangerous to retrieve. Simultaneously, tar sands not only uses vast amounts of fresh water, it poisons it as part of the production process and carries an elevated risk of contaminating more in transportation. War is a natural consequence of shortages in either oil or water and now we've also learned that it also occurs thanks to warmer weather associated with El Nino. Hmmm, not good if the planet is indeed heating up. Oh, yeah, all part of the Rube Goldberg suicide machine. Tar Sands production is set to triple by 2020 while producing more CO2 than conventional oil both in production and ultimate use, you know, when you burn it in your Godcar going down to Wal-Mart. As most emissions come from burning it, the industry tries to spout figures comparing "well to wheels" (about 15% higher) instead of the more damning "well to tank" figure (up to 300% higher).

To stop it we need a change, not just in energy production, transportation and exploitation, but in our way of thinking, behaving and advancing. Regardless, you don't have to believe in climate change, anthropogenic or not, to believe in the increasing cancer rates caused around Fort Chipewyan by tar sands extraction and the destruction wreaked by the run off of arsenic, lead and mercury into the Athabasca River flowing into and thus endangering the Peace-Athabasca Delta. More than just mutant fish I'm afraid. Alberta won't stop it, decades of pro tar sands cheerleading have ensured the population is completely misinformed by what was just recently revealed to be pure propaganda as a federal report released in December accused the authorities of not having anywhere near the proper monitoring and controls in place.

To be fair, as the Economist pointed out, the report also indicated that environmentalist's claims that the tar sands are the "most environmentally destructive project on Earth" were "not accurate". Via the Globe and Mail on the same report, it "notes that scientific data shows air pollution is minimal, water pollution a potential concern but is having no immediate impact, that there's no correlation between oil sands pollution and an elevated cancer rate in Fort Chipewyan". All this of course without saying what is more destructive or much data thanks to the lack of monitoring. You might remember the preferred method of regulation and oversight in the Alberta oil industry from the financial industry a couple years ago. Ironically, the one man who can bring a change is the same who promised he'd bring it a few years ago, Barack Obama. As it crosses an international border, Obama and no one else gets to decide if the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico goes forward or not.
View of the Athabasca-Peace Delta
There's a lot of things that I just can't seem to wrap my head around. There are Christians who profess to follow the teachings of the world's most famous socialist, Jesus Christ, yet whose true system of belief is based on a greed that makes them believe the best way to allocate scarce resources is a corrupt, oligarchical system they call the free market or capitalism. Haven't they even read the bible? Don't they even listen to the pope? Even sillier are those who believe in a democracy in which two (or maybe even three) corporate financed and thus controlled parties conspire to determine who maybe half of the population will choose between. America is of course where economics, politics and religion meet head on. It's the only place in the world where batshit crazy wackos such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry could be considered for the presidency. Thanks to folks like them monopolizing the media, the tandem of natural disasters that hit Washington DC in the last couple of weeks are more likely to be seen as acts of god warning the American people to cut spending in the words of Bachmann (please, don't look into her eyes) than independent events. Perry can extol the wonders of Texas schools teaching creationism alongside evolution to children in a land where most of the population believes that a bearded man in the sky created the Earth in six days around 6,000 years ago to once again drown out the lesson that could be learned of preparation and conservation by screaming like the monkeys they really evolved from.

Ah, Rube Goldberg again, keep the people stupid, feed them garbage and keep degrading the science that tells us that our actions aren't necessarily creating the climate but almost definitely making it worse. How else could Americans not connect the dots from April, when a series of killer tornadoes tore up the South to May, when floods ravaged the entire Mississippi River basin, through July, when killer heat waves seared the Midwest and Northeast to August, when Texas officially passed its worst one-year drought on record and finally to the warmer ocean pulling Hurrican Irene northward last weekend? The same way as last year. And the previous decade. By framing the issue with their media cohorts by asking the wrong question - "What caused these events?" - instead of "What's making them worse?". Despite 595 people (and counting) - from regular folks from Nebraska to event organizer and founder Bill McKibben and Daryl Hannah - being arrested in front of his bedroom, it's clear the Faux sound machine and the petro-interests have made sure President Obama has heard the wrong question on this issue as they have on all the others. We're this close to getting him to hear the message but there's only a few more days in Washington (then September 26th in Ottawa) so stand up, sit down, sign up, help out and call out the right answer to the right question - US!

Additional links (cause you can just never have enough!):
- Stop the Pipeline!
- "Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands" (only available in Canada)
- Top 10 Tar Sands Facts
- Is There a Cancer Threat from the Oil Sands Industry?
- Slow Motion Oil Spill
- Ten Years After 9/11 - Canada's True Cost of Oil (great pics)