Keystone XL: It’s not just a headline, it’s a pipeline — and here’s what you need to know

Nothing grabs our attention like big headlines. During the eras of radio and television, they provided the sound bites we used to sort big events. We all remember some of the more famous ones, like “Man Walks on Moon” (New York Times, July 21, 19, 1969), “Japan Surrenders, End of War” (New York Times, August 15, 1945), or “Shuttle Explodes!” (New York Times January 28, 1986). And who can forget “Dewey Defeats Truman” (Chicago Tribune, November 3, 1948), and “Passengers Safely Moved and Steamer Taken in Tow” (Christian Science Monitor, April 15, 1912)?

We still count on headlines to see not only whether to buy the paper, but also which stories we pay attention to. When we see headlines that say, “800,000 Americans tell Senate to Stop Pipeline,” or “Tar Sands and the Pipeline,” we take notice.  We want to know why .26 percent of the population is openly against something.

What are “tar sands”? And what do we even mean by “the pipeline”?  Here’s my stab at it:

photo courtesy wikimedia

The Keystone XL pipeline is a system of pipelines that will transport crude oil from Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada through the United States to refiners and transportation hubs in Illinois, Oklahoma, and the Gulf of Mexico. That’s over 2,000 miles of pipelines. The Athabasca oil sands, or tar sands, is an oil-rich area of boreal forest and peat bogs. The tar sand may hold around 133,000 million barrels of oil (133,000,000,000 barrels of bitumen crude.)

Bitumen is a sticky, black semisolid also know as asphalt. Bitumen is usually mined from the surface. Then it is broken up, heated with water, and filtered down to just the crude oil. Techniques like steam-assisted gravity drainage can do away with the surface mining and make the bitumen flow like traditional crude. Bitumen-based fuel does contain more greenhouse gasses than conventional crude based fuels; it may contain at least 5 percent more carbon dioxide.

Currently Canada is our largest supplier of foreign crude. They supply us with 2 million barrels of oil per day out of the 19 million we use each day. Once the Keystone XL is finished, Canada would be able to deliver .5 million more barrels a day. That would be 500,000 that the United States would not have to buy from overseas.

The construction of a new pipeline system that large would provide a lot of temporary construction jobs, however no one is sure about the number. Some groups predict 20,000 direct jobs and another 100,000 ancillary ones while others predict only 6,000 jobs. Which one is correct? If you build it, they will come. That may be the only way to figure out how many jobs it will create.

Every time a new pipeline system is proposed for construction, controversy breaks out. People are worried about how it could effect the environment. A large pipeline system that will run across a state, states, or even countries has the potential to alter a large environmental area. It is important to minimize the effect on the environment.  In addition to the usual concerns, the Keystone XL is proposed to go across the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies most of the water for the Midwestern states. If there were a spill, it could contaminate the water source of 4 million people. One of the reasons the pipeline was rejected in January of 2012 was to allow a more complete study of its potential impact and to discuss alternative routes.

Regardless of what the United States decides to do, Canada will develop their natural resource. The United States is not the only nation eager to bring in more oil. China has a huge growth demand for their economy and industry. From 2006 to 2010, China tripled the number of cars inside its borders, and the number will continue to grow. If we don’t buy the crude, China will. Because China and Canada are not physically connected, the trade will have to rely on tankers, so not only will China be using an oil that produces more carbon dioxide, they will have to produce more C02 to get the oil to where it can be used.

With all that, will the pipeline be developed? President Obama did address the pipeline in his June energy speech. The President has said he would only approve the pipeline “if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” How much carbon does it take to exacerbate the environment? The groups that decry the pipeline say that any carbon added to the atmosphere during construction would be too much and groups that support the pipeline say any amount of carbon would be offset by the amount of jobs and energy security it would bring.

What sort of carbon credits could be used by the different construction companies?  We’ll have to wait to see what actual guidelines developed. What do you think?

The Times, they are a Changing

There is an ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” For the past few months that seems to be a motto of the world.

The unrest in Libya that started with protest has now proceeded into a full civil war. The group of protesters formed a National Council on Feb 26th to give course to the now rebels. It took less than a month for the new national council to become recognized as the legitimate authority in Libya by both a western nation France (which was the first to recognize another regime change in another county, Go France!) and the Arab League, an organization of Arab nations that stretch from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. A few days after that, the UN passed a resolution to establish a no fly zone in Libyan airspace. This means that UN air forces (United States, France, Britain, Quarter, etc) will take any and all action to help protect civilians in the country. This has led to a cease fire which both sides have mostly observed.

Colorful Old Oil Barrels
Creative Commons License photo credit: L.C.Nøttaasen

All this has led not only to tragedy, but also to a sharp decrease in crude oil production. Libya’s production is down from 1,400,000 barrels a day to 400,000 barrels a day. Remember that the world consumes 80,000,000,000 barrels each day and the amount we use goes up by 2% annually.

Is Libya the only reason that energy prices are going up?

No, our times are far too interesting to have just one event going on.

In addition to the ongoing protests in Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, Mother Nature has added her own 2 cents.

On March 11th an earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale occurred off the eastern coast of Japan followed closely by a tsunami. The earthquake was the most powerful to hit Japan and the tsunami crested at 33 feet inside Japan (by the time it reached Chili the waves where down to 6 feet). The damage has caused tens of billions of dollars in damages and tens of thousands of casualties. It also caused major damage to the Fukushima I and II Nuclear Power Plants.

Vogtle nuclear power plant, Georgia, USA
Creative Commons License photo credit: BlatantWorld.com

A fission reactor works by having fuel rods made of uranium, which radiate neutrons and photons. Neutrons bombarding the fuel also helps to accelerate the reaction. Control rods are made of neutron absorbing elements like cadmium. Lowering the control rods closer to the fuel rods slows down the reaction. One type of energy given off by the reaction is heat. Water is used to control the reaction and to transfer the heat to another system to create steam which turns the turbine. The water inside the reactor is kept under pressure to raise its boiling point. If the water, or other coolant/moderator, can not transfer the heat away, it will eventual boil into steam. If the rods are no longer being cooled, then a meltdown (or a core melt accident) can occur. If the core is breached, radioactive steam can be emitted into the atmosphere, where it will be spread by the winds.

All nuclear power plants have back ups to power the cooling cycle. However, the tsunami washed away the emergency diesel generators at Fukushima I and II Nuclear Power Plants. Reactors at Fukushima I have undergone a partial melt down.

So how does all this affect you? (I’m glad you asked)

All the instability and stoppage of crude oil makes the price go up (less supply, more demand). In the short term the price of crude oil has gone down a little because of the disaster in Japan. Japan used its nuclear power plants to generate 11 Gigawatts of electricity (a third of their electricity) so in the near future it will have to import more coal and natural gas to make up the shortfall.

The disaster has also had repercussions around the world. It has caused the United States to put on hold some nuclear plans and reevaluate others. Other countries are also reevaluating their nuclear plans. The Germans have decided to accelerate the decommissioning of their nuclear plants.

So what can you do about it?

The first step, as always to understand the situation, which is one of the reasons you read this blog (the other of course being my good looks and charming personality). The next step is action which you can do by creating an energy plan for your self (what do you leave plugged in, what do you leave on, etc.). There are also innumerable places to help with disaster relief in Japan. Some of which can be found here.

Changes in the World and Their Effect on Energy

Everywhere we look things are always changing.  Now that winter is leaving, spring has sprung.  In Houston we’re back up to the mid 70’s and we hope that lasts a long time.  While we may not be able to see some of the changes, like the movement of the stars, the changing face of the planet, or the shrinking of my book collection as I slowly switch everything over to the Kindle, other things are more apparent.  The birth of a baby bird or the emptying of a glass of a pleasant draught on a warm winter day, or the regime change of a country are all easy to see.

Lots has happened recently throughout the world.  Southern Sudan has seceded from the rest of the country.  Egypt and Libya have experienced popular uprisings, and other countries in the region are holding their breath to see what happens next.

You might be asking yourself, “why is he talking about this in an energy blog?” or “how can it possibly affect me?” This is a perfect time to talk about how events in other countries can affect the energy polices at home.

Egypt has a long history.  It has kept our imagination for centuries. From Herodotus to Sadat, from Alexander to Cleopatra, the great names associated with Egypt are innumerable.  The entire world can identify the famous objects from the land of the Nile (even when they’re in other countries).

Suez Canal as seen from Earth’s orbit

Modern Egypt produces about 660 thousand barrels of oil a day. In recent years it has grown its natural gas industry and has the third largest reserve of natural gas in Africa. Egypt is very important in the energy field for a different reason, the Suez Canal. While the largest hydrocarbon tankers are too large to pass through, 20% of the shipping that goes through the canal is hydrocarbon transportation.  If the canal were to shut down it would add a week or two to time to transport the hydrocarbons to their destination.  If that happen the increased transportation cost would make the cost of crude oil rise.  That’s why I’m talking about Egypt in an energy blog.

Libya has always been at the center of trade.  Under both the Phoenician and the Romans it prospered.  It was a major and power trade location in the 19th century as well.  It was an Italian colony during World War I and administer by the British after World War II.  After gaining independence in 1951, its current government came to power in 1969.  Currently there are large protests occurring across the country.

Again you may ask, “how does this affect me?’

Libya is a member of OPEC and has the largest oil reserves in Africa (44.3 billion barrels).  They produce about 1.4 million barrels a day.  The profit of the oil exports accounts for 80% of their revenue.  If all oil production in Libya stopped, Saudi Arabia might be able to use its excess capacity to keep global oil production levels stable.  But that’s assuming nothing else happens.   And the longer Libya is not producing, the more likely something else would happen.  In any of these events, the price of crude oil would climb, and with that the cost of gasoline and other petro products would go up (the cost of crude oil has leapt up to $99 over the past couple of days as a response to the protests).

back alley
Creative Commons License photo credit: tvol

As you can see, events throughout the world can affect you.  Therefore you should pay attention to what’s going on around you (if you walk with your head down you might run into that new shelves they have at Half Price Books).  Thankfully not all of it is as confusing as complexity theory.

Deepwater Update

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill unfortunately is still leaking crude oil into the environment. Despite the best effort of several companies, our government and individuals, the oil spill has yet to be stopped.

The “top kill“, a method where a drilling solution (called “mud”) was pumped down into the well to overpower the pressure of the crude oil, was tried 3 times before it was considered a failure. It is the same effect as using water to stop Coca-Cola from coming out of a shaken bottle. If the water has enough pressure it can overcome the pressure of the Coca-Cola, and keep the soda in the bottle.

screensh33
Creative Commons License photo credit: pppspics

Then the cap containment system was tried. It involves removing the damaged pipes above the blow out preventer. A new pipe can then be connected to the old pipe allowing the oil to be collected by the Drillship Discoverer Enterprise (no not that one, or that one either). All the pipe cutting, sealing, and maneuvering is being done under water and using Remotely Operated Vehicles (check out my previous blog). They first tried to cut the pipe using ROVs with a diamond tipped saw. Unfortunately the saw became snagged and they had to use a shear, a large device that come form the top to grip down on the pipe, tear away the rest of the pipe, making a jagged edge. The more jagged the edge the harder it is to fit the new pipe so that no oil leaks out. This cap has been placed and it has been taking away some of the crude oil. Every day it takes more and more up to Discoverer Enterprise, but it has not fully contained the leak.

Relief wells are still being drilled on two sides of the well. These will open up a different path for the pressure to take, hopefully allowing the main well to be sealed. While this is still the mostly likely way to stop any oil from leaking into the ocean, it will take 2 more months to complete.

Louisiana is creating artificial sand bars to stop the oil from washing up into the wetlands. There has been some controversy over these. They will move massive amounts of sand to form small artificial sandbars and prevent the oil from coming into the wetlands. The oil would wash up on the artificial sandbars and then could be collected and removed from the area. Scientist are concerned that there may be unforeseen environmental damage done by creating these artificial sandbars. They do not want to act too rashly in the short term and cause more environmental damage in the long run, like the environmental damage done by dispersants that were used in the clean up of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

How can you help? There are a number of different national and state organizations have geared up meet this challenge. Here are few.