NORMAN — “Game on” was the cry from the industry. “Game over” was the cry from the environmentalists, as they expressed their feelings over the Keystone pipeline construction. The true story lies somewhere between.
Some media commentators describe an abrasive arrogance that emanates publicly from various figures in the oil patch. To them, this arrogance reflects an insulation coming from a lack of communication with the non-oil types and the environmentalist groups derisively believed to be a bunch of ignorant, angry tree huggers.
On the other side, the so-called tree huggers exhibit a pernicious and pervasive polarity in their attitudes to the big oil “polluters.” This includes a congenital hatred of anything big, anything they do not understand and, in some cases, a primordial fear of progress itself. The extremes of these two groups are stubbornly obstinate, and their inabilities to see past the rhetoric leads to a dead-end of intransigence, stagnation, diminished opportunity and lost jobs.
Some would argue that the Canadian developers went about their project backwards. Instead of a branded multi-million dollar, upfront public effort to inform, shape and educate the public, they front-loaded their approach by budgeting tens of millions of dollars to pay for lawyers, lobbyists and experts to push this project through the local court systems — a bonanza for the legal profession and experts like myself. Some, however, would call this a good-business decision.
The pipeline should be a shoo-in. For anyone who is willing to approach the situation with an open mind, there are at least 10 pros that overshadow every single con.
In the first place, today, there are more than a 100 pipelines that crisscross the same region contemplated by this new pipeline. The map looks like a spaghetti plot overlying the 174,000-square-mile Ogallala aquifer. These lines are not only carrying oil of generally better flow quality but also lighter oil products which — to the learned, concerned individual — are more environmentally dangerous in the event of a spill than the tar sand crude.
The tar sand oil is more viscous and flows slowly, it has to be upgraded and blended to be pumped. In the event of an oil spill, it is readily visible on the surface and in the water, where it would literally stay put, with little oil migrating away from the spill point. It would look ugly, but it could be easily cleaned by existing means. In this case, ugly is good.
On the other hand, the gasoline, naphtha, jet fuel and on other product lines that flow through this region, when ruptured, provide a type of fluid that is invisible, percolates quickly through the earth, wets the aquifer and forms migrating plumes in the water table that can only be removed by years of “sparging,” literally sucking the stuff back with a set of shallow wells. The ugly looking Canadian crude would do none of this.
Another existing, egregious problem in the Ogallala aquifer region, unrecognized or un-criticized by the environmental groups and created by bad industry management, is LUST. These are the more than 50,000 Leaking Underground Storage Tanks that, over the last 50 years, have been slowly rusting and leaking gasoline, diesel and other destructive products into the aquifer. To some, these dispersed releases create a larger problem than the potential localized pipeline spill. It only takes 10 gallons of gasoline to pollute 12 million gallons of water, primarily due to the benzene in gasoline.
Now, there is no such thing as a good oil spill, but if there were a choice, I would go for a viscous, gooey mess rather than an invisible and environmentally unmanageable hydrocarbon spill.
Over the years, the extractive process in the Canadian oil sands has been a fruitful target of environmentalists. It has been called a climate change and ecological nightmare. In a lot of cases, it has been justifiable.
The original strip-mining process from decades past, transplanted without good engineering oversight from the coal mining industry, has left a veritable moonscape of destruction across the tar sands landscape. The current extractive technology driven by public outcry, better economics, research and advanced technology provides a pathway for Canada to develop this massive oil reserve with a suite of better, cheaper, more effective technologies.
Multiple patents — from Shell’s fire and ice to SAGD, some developed in Oklahoma — are now being implemented in Canada to minimize the ecological problems and maintain the productive capacity in the tar sands. Extraction is being upgraded, and the industry is on notice that the old ways are no longer appropriate for a 21st century industry.
Today, as compared to yesteryear, pipelines will have to be built with sensing technology that rivals a well-designed airplane. Like an airplane, safety is job one and pipelines need the same commitment to safety by critical reviews of their ongoing programs.
Recent instances of pipeline ruptures and explosions that have been listed are illustrative of the core problems in pipeline work. Bad bookkeeping, poor design, limited oversight and belated response to crises all seem to be major precursors to problems. In the recent West Coast San Bruno pipeline fire and explosion, it took the operator 90 minutes to locate the shut-off valve. These have a single common denominator: They are stupid human problems.
On the question of jobs, frankly, the idea proposed by the pipeline industry that this pipeline will create 27,000 jobs is unintelligently shortsighted. No doubt, the pipeline has to be built with the help of thousands of workers, maybe 27,000. As far as jobs are concerned, this claim is not a mirage, but it is not focusing on the true extent and the real job situation in this country of 307 million people.
We all know that oil price, whether we believe that it is real or fabricated, literally drives our country, our industry, the 27 million small businesses and their hundreds of millions of employees across the nation. Any incremental change in national employment, which we know can be directly related to oil price fluctuation, dwarfs the pittance in employment that the pipeline construction will provide.
This is the real jobs picture; it affects the nation, not just a narrow corridor running from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Furthermore, there is a reason for the strategic oil reserve. In today’s economic climate, the pipeline becomes a default reserve; it is a physical manifestation of a strategic oil reserve.
For the US, the Canadian crude can be regarded as a built-in safety valve for energy security. Every day, this 1 million barrels of oil source is enough to make the previously unbalanced supply side of oil even better. The ability to store oil makes it a worthwhile asset to be implemented.
Green jobs are here — they are up-and-coming — but, today, the country has to face the fact that in the laboratory of economic democracy, the globe is now a level playing field. This oil — with very little nudging — could wind up in China, Taiwan, Japan or Korea.
No green solution provides us with the ability to respond to an energy embargo. Imagine the size of the battery needed to supply a city with 30 days’ supply of solar- or wind-driven electricity. Green energy has to fit into the energy model; it cannot completely disrupt or supplant the current model without creating havoc. The Keystone pipeline has merit, and it deserves to be built.
Dr. Henry Crichlow is a petroleum consultant who has researched and worked on heavy oil recovery processes since 1971.