In a finding that should resonate strongly for Canadian decision-makers charged with meeting the country’s climate targets, new research reveals that the carbon footprint of a litre of synthetic crude extracted from tar sands/oil sands bitumen is more than 23% greater than previously estimated.
The elevated figure, reported by InsideClimate News, is based on an assessment conducted by the U.S. State Department in the course of its consideration of a still-pending application by Calgary’s Enbridge Inc. to expand its Alberta Clipper pipeline to deliver synthetic tar sands/oil sands crude to Wisconsin. It updates an earlier finding produced by the same agency in 2014, during its consideration of TransCanada Corporation’s Keystone XL pipeline.
That assessment, ICN recalls, determined that “compared to other sources of oil that American refineries might use, the tar sands would be about 17% more polluting on average.” The calculation contributed to then-President Barack Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL proposal, a decision recently reversed by his pro-fossil successor.
A more recent review of Enbridge’s proposed line, however, produced “a gloomier picture of emissions.”
Employing “the most up-to-date studies and tools, including a model known as GREET, developed by the federal Argonne National Laboratory, which calls it the ‘gold standard’ for this kind of calculation,” the latest assay found that on a comprehensive “well-to-wheels” basis, “tar sands crude would have a carbon footprint of 632 kilograms per barrel, compared to an average U.S. refinery mix of 521 kilograms per barrel of carbon dioxide emissions. The difference is 111 kilograms per barrel—21 percent dirtier, not 17 percent.”
The four percentage-point difference in the new calculation means the full carbon footprint of tar sands/oil sands production, distribution, and use is 23.5% heavier than previously thought.
Wis. Tanker Derailments Revive Debate Over Safest Way To Transport Crude
Some worry the Obama administration’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline will lead to a significant increase in the amount of crude being shipped by rail. It can also be shipped by truck.
Who are these “some” that “worry” exactly? Apparently, based on this report, just NPR employees and the oil industry lobbyist quoted in the piece. It also would appear the only one “reviving the debate” about the safest way to transport crude oil is NPR.
The radio piece is introduced with NPR host Steve Inskeep saying that they are following a story on “the flipside of rejecting the Keystone pipeline,” even though the story has nothing to do with that.
He then goes on to talk about how oil is moving from Canada by rail. And it is. However, the two trains that derailed were 1) not coming from Canada, 2) not carrying Canadian oil, and 3) not headed to the Gulf Coast. So, a completely misleading setup, but one that pushes the industry talking point that all pipelines should be approved because they are safer than rail transport.
This false argument ignores the reality that the most common destinations for Bakken crude shipments are U.S. East Coast refineries that can only be accessed by rail.
Building the Keystone XL pipeline — which would’ve run from Alberta across the US border south to connect with an existing pipeline system in Nebraska and then either to Illinois refineries or to Cushing, Oklahoma to continue south to the Gulf Coast refineries and export terminals — does nothing to change that fact.
The Tank Cars
The NPR piece then moves on to the notorious oil tank cars and notes how “safety advocates” are concerned about these tank cars. Reporter David Schaper notes that the new oil-by-rail regulations require that “Within a couple of years [the tank cars] be strengthened,” giving an unrealistic picture of how soon this issue will be addressed.
The regulations allow versions of the DOT-111 tank cars to remain on the rails carrying crude oil — like the oil involved in Lac-Megantic — until 2023. So unless a “couple” now means eight, this wasn’t even close to accurate.
The piece also quotes Karl Alexy of the Federal Railroad Administration explaining how — if the first accident in Wisconsin involved the new updated CPC-1232 cars instead of the DOT-111s — the spill may have been prevented.
This ignores the fact that there have been seven oil train accidents this year that have resulted in spills, and in five of those, also massive fires. They all involved the newer CPC-1232 cars.
Modern Brakes and Myth Making
The current braking technology on oil trains was invented in the late 1800s. The new regulations announced in May require modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems on certain oil trains by 2021 and all by 2023.
When the new regulations were announced, regulators included the following language: “This important, service-proven technology has been operated successfully for years in certain services in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere.”
The industry has argued the ECP braking technology is “unproven,” which David Schaper repeats in this piece despite the regulators having described it as a “proven technology.”
Earlier this year, DeSmog contacted the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to clarify the agency’s position on ECPbrakes. And FRA was quite clear in its response.
“ECP brakes are a proven technology that will reduce the number of train derailments and keep more tank cars on the track if a train does derail. Delaying the adoption of ECP brakes seriously jeopardizes the citizens and communities along our nation’s freight network,” FRA communications director Matt Lehner told DeSmog.
A decade ago, the FRA commissioned consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton to study the benefits and costs of ECPbrakes for the U.S. freight-rail industry. Released in 2006, the firm’s report (PDF) stated that the brakes are a “tested technology” that offers “major benefits” and could “significantly enhance” rail safety.
And yet, NPR repeats the industry talking point that the technology is unproven.
NPR also describes the braking systems as “expensive,” which is technically true. An Association of American Railroads piece opposing ECP brakes estimates a cost of $1.7 billion. That’s a lot of money, until you consider the cost of say, rebuilding downtown Lac-Megantic, which was just one oil-by-rail accident that could have been prevented byECP brakes.
Finally, NPR’s Schaper notes that because the industry says ECP brakes are unproven, this adds “uncertainty over the future of the oil train safety rules.”
The Concerned Mom
The one Wisconsin resident interviewed for the piece is Sarah Zarling. While not mentioned in the piece, Zarling became an oil train activist earlier this year over her concerns about the risks of the trains that ran so close to her home. Her concerns were obviously validated by this recent incident.
DeSmog contacted Zarling to comment on the NPR segment.
“I can’t even begin to talk about what they left out, honestly. I was so excited because he asked really good questions. He really does his homework,” Zarling explained. “So I really thought that this was going to be an opportunity to finally have a side of this story that is not told in the mainstream [media] finally be told and talked about. So the fact that I just came off as a mom cooking in her kitchen and heard this derailment is very disappointing.”
Reviving Debates, Delaying Safety
Sarah Zarling noted that she was impressed with David Schaper’s knowledge of the oil-by-rail issue and that he had “really done his homework.”
And yet the result is a segment pushing many of the top industry talking points, including setting the expectation that there is “uncertainty” that the new regulations will ever be implemented. Left out were any actual concerns or viewpoints from concerned citizen activists.
As trains full of volatile Bakken oil continue to derail and the implementation of new safety regulations are many years away, the reality that at some point there will be “a high enough body count” becomes ever more likely.
Repost from The New Yorker [Editor: Significant quote: “No one’s argued with the math, and that math indicates that the business plans of the fossil-fuel giants are no longer sane. Word is spreading: portfolios and endowments worth a total of $2.6 trillion in assets have begun to divest from fossil fuels. The smart money is heading elsewhere.” – RS]
Exxon, Keystone, and the Turn Against Fossil Fuels
By Bill McKibben, November 6, 2015
The fossil-fuel industry—which, for two centuries, underwrote our civilization and then became its greatest threat—has started to take serious hits. At noon today, President Obama rejected the Keystone Pipeline, becoming the first world leader to turn down a major project on climate grounds. Eighteen hours earlier, New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he’d issued subpoenas to Exxon, the richest and most profitable energy company in history, after substantial evidence emerged that it had deceived the world about climate change.
These moves don’t come out of the blue. They result from three things.
The first is a global movement that has multiplied many times in the past six years. Battling Keystone seemed utterly quixotic at first—when activists first launched a civil-disobedience campaign against the project, in the summer of 2011, more than ninety per cent of “energy insiders” in D.C. told a National Journal survey that they believed that President Obama would grant Transcanada a permit for the construction. But the conventional wisdom was upended by a relentless campaign carried on by hundreds of groups and millions of individual people (including 350.org, the international climate-advocacy group I founded). It seemed that the President didn’t give a speech in those years without at least a small group waiting outside the hall to greet him with banners demanding that he reject the pipeline. And the Keystone rallying cry quickly spread to protests against other fossil-fuel projects. One industry executive summed it up nicely this spring, when he told a conference of his peers that they had to figure out how to stop the “Keystone-ization” of all their plans.
The second, related, cause is the relentless spread of a new logic about the planet—that we have five times as much carbon in our reserves as we can safely burn. While President Obama said today that Keystone was not “the express lane to climate disaster,” he also said that “we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them.” This reflects an idea I wrote about in Rolling Stone three years ago; back then, it was new and a little bit fringe. But, this fall, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, speaking to members of the insurance industry at Lloyds of London, used precisely the same language to tell them that they faced a “huge risk” from “unburnable carbon” that would become “stranded assets.” No one’s argued with the math, and that math indicates that the business plans of the fossil-fuel giants are no longer sane. Word is spreading: portfolios and endowments worth a total of $2.6 trillion in assets have begun to divest from fossil fuels. The smart money is heading elsewhere.
Which brings us to the third cause. There is, now, an elsewhere to head. In the past six years, the price of a solar panel has fallen by eighty per cent. For years, the fossil-fuel industry has labored to sell the idea that a transition to renewable energy would necessarily be painfully slow—that it would take decades before anything fundamental started to shift. Inevitability was their shield, but no longer. If we wanted to transform our energy supply, we clearly could, though it would require an enormous global effort.
The fossil-fuel industry will, of course, do everything it can to slow that effort down; even if the tide has begun to turn, that industry remains an enormously powerful force, armed with the almost infinite cash that has accumulated in its centuries of growth. The Koch brothers will spend nine hundred million dollars on the next election; the coal-fired utilities are scurrying to make it hard to put solar panels on roofs; a new Republican President would likely resurrect Keystone. Even now, Congress contemplates lifting the oil-export ban, which would result in another spasm of new drilling. We’ll need a much larger citizen’s movement yet, if we’re going to catch up with the physics of the climate.
We won’t close that gap between politics and physics at the global climate talks next month in Paris. The proposed agreement for the talks reflects some of the political shift that’s happened in years since the failed negotiations at Copenhagen, but it doesn’t fully register the latest developments—almost no nation is stretching. So Paris will be a way station in this fight, not a terminus.
In many ways, the developments of the past two days are more important than any pledges and promises for the future, because they show the ways in which political and economic power has already started to shift. If we can accelerate that shift, we have a chance. It’s impossible, in the hottest year that humans have ever measured, to feel optimistic. But it’s also impossible to miss the real shift in this battle.
Bill McKibben, a former New Yorker staff writer, is the founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College.