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.
Grant Cooke: CBR permit denied and new Green Inudstrial Revolution developments impact Benicia
By Grant Cooke, September 22, 2016
History, or at least precedence, was made Tuesday evening when the Benicia City Council denied Valero a land use permit to bring in volatile Bakken and Tar Sands crude oil from North Dakota and Canada by train.
In what appeared to observers to be a stunning change of heart, the council unanimously agreed with the Planning Commission’s earlier recommendation to reject Valero’s project permit.
With other Northern California cities —and San Luis Obispo—watching carefully, the council’s action set a precedent and reaffirmed a city’s right to regulate local land use and protect the health and safety of its citizens.
The decision may have marked the first significant rejection by a California small town of a fossil fuel company’s proposed major business expansion, and probably notes the diminishing power of the industry in local and state politics.
Interestingly enough, the most prominent rejection by a small town of an oil company’s intended expansion occurred in Denton, Texas. Denton, a quiet and prosperous suburb of Dallas, in the middle of America’s oil patch, banned fracking (a method of shale gas extraction that uses large amounts of water pumped at high pressure into channels drilled into rock to release gas) within the city limits in 2014.
Benicia council’s decision has signaled the city’s first steps away from its past dependence on the fossil fuel industry and its Company Town identity, and marks a tentative step toward a new reality. While local, the decision was significant and reflects the growing momentum of the megatrend known as the Green Industrial Revolution, which is replacing carbon dependent economies with those powered by renewable energy.
Despite the decision, and for years to come Benicia’s tax revenue will still be highly dependent on fossil fuel, and so the developments of the Green Industrial Revolution with its twin drivers of carbon emission reduction and non-carbon energy expansion will have enormous consequences. As the Green Industrial Revolution expands, it will lead to the decline of the fossil fuel industries and correspondingly to the reduction of Benicia’s tax base and carbon-dependent economy.
Here are some other recent events furthering this expansion, and while not local, all have a bearing on Benicia’s future.
The first event happened at the recent G20 meeting in Hangzhou, China. The G20 meeting, which occurs annually, brought together the world’s 20 major economies to discuss international problems and potential policies and solutions. Leaders from the U.S., the European Union, China, Japan and Russia among others, came together for the two-day summit. Next year’s meeting is in Germany.
Woodrow Clark, my writing/business partner, is a member of the B20, a G20 subgroup that focuses on international business and economic issues. As a member of the group that delivered a policy report at the Hangzhou meeting, Woody had a front row view of the historic G20 meeting. Among the policy discussions that the meeting generated, there were some remarkable initiatives. One was that Russia agreed to join the US and China, along with the EU in addressing climate change. I imagine that India will also commit to GHG reductions next year at the G20 meeting in Germany.
This is an expansion of the initial US/China agreement from December’s UN Climate Conference in Paris. It increases the pressure on the fossil fuel industry, which is already beset by plunging oil prices, corrupt and chaotic politics, and furthers the rapid development of non-carbon renewable energy. Its impact on Benicia is indirect, unlike a report from Japan’s Eneco Holdings, LTD, which was part of the G20 Executive Talk Series. (Here’s the link to the vertical edition http://g20executivetalkseries.com )
A second development was also part of the G20 meeting and featured the showcasing of a remarkable chemical breakthrough by Eneco Holdings, LTD, from Japan. The company has the potential to be one of Asia’s largest energy companies with their development of a nano-emulsion technology. It appears that the company has succeeded in making a “complete fusion” between water and oil through the ultra-miniaturization of components at the molecular level. In simple terms, they have succeeded, where all others have failed, in mixing water and oil into a combustible fuel. The result is a mixture that is 70 percent water and stable enough to be a used in internal combustion engines. Further, it is safe and environmentally friendly, emitting about half the carbon, nitrous oxide, and sulfur dioxide released in traditional internal combustion gasoline and diesel combustions. Additionally, when produced in large quantities it will be significantly cheaper than conventional gasoline and diesel.
Originally produced for the Japanese market, Eneco’s Plasma Fusion fuel is being tested and used in China and other parts of Asia. With clean emissions levels, it is ideal for the heavily polluted Asian megacities, and should rapidly grow into a viable alternative to conventional gasoline and diesel. Just imagine how healthy West Oakland’s port area would be without its diesel contaminates? Regardless, this emulsion fuel will be a transitional fuel to hydrogen powered vehicles.
The third development that will have a significant impact on the fossil fuel industries is the continual plunge in the price of solar panels. Last week at a meeting, a solar developer told me that panel prices are now the lowest they have ever been in California, plus they are functioning at their highest levels of efficiency.
Driven by the economic principle of Zero Cost Margins—once the equipment is paid for, the rest of the energy is free—solar and renewable energy are expanding at the rate of Moore’s Law, or doubling about every 18 months. Developing and developed nations are rapidly adopting renewable energy, mostly wind and solar, as a replacement for fossil fuels. In about 20 areas in the world, particularly in Asia, solar and renewable energy are less expensive than fossil fuel. Even Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are developing large solar power generation sites.
Because of Russian aggression and threats of shutting off the natural gas supply, Europe has accelerated its transition from fossil fuel and atomic energy to wind and solar. Germany is a major user of solar energy despite the northern climate, and the United Kingdom is building the world’s biggest offshore wind farm called Hornsea off the Yorkshire coast. Hornsea will be the world’s first offshore wind farm to exceed 1 GW in capacity and will produce enough energy to power well over 1 million homes.
Closer to home, the United States’ Pacific coastline has enough wind and tidal resources to power most of the nation’s needs, and by adding solar to the mix, the U.S. could easily generate enough electricity for centuries to come. Roughly speaking, wind power costs about 2 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour and solar about 5 to 6 cents. PG&E charges around 22 to 24 cents per kilowatt hour, so it’s just a matter of time before on-site or distributive energy overtakes traditional energy delivery.
Further, the carbon industries and the large central utilities have flawed business models that are dependent on ever increasing growth and they cannot adapt to the lower prices available from renewable energy, or the increasing efficiency of vehicles and buildings. This is why Clark and I have written extensively on energy cost deflation and the shrinkage and decline of the carbon industries and the large central utilities.
Finally, we come to Sept. 8’s monumental signing by Gov. Jerry Brown of Senate Bill 32, the legislation that has catapulted California into a leadership role of the international efforts to slow global warming. SB 32 will force the state’s trillion-dollar economy, one of the biggest in the world, into a much smaller carbon footprint. In fact, the legislation requires the state to slash greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, a much more ambitious target than the previous goal of hitting 1990 levels by 2020. Cutting emissions will affect nearly all aspects of our lives, accelerating the growth of renewable energy, prodding people into buying electric autos, and pushing developers into building denser communities connected to mass transit. (Details: http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-jerry-brown-signs-climate-laws-20160908-snap-story.html ).
One other key element to California’s pursuit of clean air and reduced greenhouse gases is the state’s cap-and-trade program. The program requires the state’s heavy polluters to buy carbon offsets, or credits, to release emissions into the atmosphere, creating an additional operating cost for the oil and utility industries.
SB 32 and the expansion of cap-and-trade will have dramatic impacts on the state’s fossil fuel industries. Likely many of us are driving our last conventional gasoline powered vehicle, with the next one probably powered by electricity or hydrogen. It’s not hard to predict that since the Bay Area’s refineries are the heaviest of the area’s polluters, that the combination of reduced revenue from shrinking demand and increased costs of production and operation will eventually lead to refinery closings.
The fossil fuel industries won’t give up easily, there’s trillions of dollars at stake. Many of the industries leaders and the more prescient investment bankers know that the fossil fuel era has peaked and started to decline, which is why Russia overran the Crimea and is poised to take over Ukraine. Which is why the U.S. and Canada are being besieged by the fossil fuel interests to ignore or eliminate environmental and safety protections that hamper production.
Which is why Valero pushed so hard to transport volatile Bakken crude by rail cars through the densely populated Sacramento corridor and cram the trains into Benicia and a refinery that is not designed or equipped to deal with them. The industries, the refineries and all connected to the fossil fuel era, know that the incredibly lucrative period when oil was king and black gold flowed from the sand is coming to an end.
Bringing this back to Benicia, we see a city that is dependent on Valero for tax revenue and its governing process glimpsing a new reality. Small cities like Benicia that have been so dependent on the fossil fuel industries for so much and for so long, struggle to change. Other cities like those in the deindustrialized Midwest that have suffered sudden collapses of their major companies and tax bases have had to reinvent their economic drivers or just blow away. But it’s hard for a city like Benicia with its apparent prosperity and ease of living to understand that its fossil fuel base is in decline and that the future is elsewhere.
Grant Cooke is a longtime Benicia resident and CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is also an author and has written several books on the Green Industrial Revolution. His newest is “Smart Green Cities” by Routledge.
Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country
By Kurtis Alexander, 9/21/16 5:11pm
Benicia’s rejection of plans to bring trains filled with crude oil to Valero Corp.’s big refinery in the city was hailed Wednesday by critics of the country’s expanding oil-by-rail operations, who hope the flexing of local power will reverberate across the Bay Area and the nation.
Of particular interest to environmentalists and local opponents, who for years have argued that Valero’s proposal brought the danger of a catastrophic spill or fire, was a last-minute decision by U.S. officials that Benicia’s elected leaders — not the federal government — had the final say in the matter.
Word of that decision arrived just before the City Council, in a unanimous vote late Tuesday, dismissed Valero’s proposal for a new $70 million rail depot along the Carquinez Strait off Interstate 680. Valero had said the project would not only be safe but bring local jobs, tax revenue and lower gas prices.
“We’re pleased with the decision and the implications it will have across the country,” said Jackie Prange, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several groups opposed to the project. “This issue is live in a number of sites across the country. This is definitely a decision that I think cities in other states will be looking to.”
As oil production has boomed across North America, so has the need to send crude via railroad. The uptick in tanker trains, though, has been accompanied by a spate of accidents in recent years, including a 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in which a 72-car train exploded and killed more than 40 people.
The authority of communities to limit oil trains has been clouded by the assertion of some in the petroleum industry that local officials don’t have jurisdiction to get in the way. Companies like Valero have contended that railroad issues are matter of interstate commerce — and hence are the purview of the federal government.
Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, however, Benicia officials received a letter from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which wrote that Valero, based in Texas, was not a railroad company and that the proposed rail terminal fell under city jurisdiction.
“It’s what I was waiting for to help me make my vote more defensible,” said Councilman Alan Schwartzman at the meeting.
Earlier this year, Valero had asked the Surface Transportation Board for “preemption” protection for the project after Benicia’s Planning Commission rejected the proposal. The plan proceeded to the City Council upon appeal.
The plan called for oil deliveries from up to two 50-car trains a day, many passing through several Northern California communities en route from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Those trains would carry as many as 70,000 barrels of oil.
The company billed the project as a way to keep gasoline prices low in the absence of a major oil pipeline serving the West Coast. Crude is currently brought to the Bay Area mostly by boat or through smaller pipelines.
On Wednesday, Valero officials expressed frustration at the city’s decision.
“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” spokeswoman Lillian Riojas wrote in an email. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”
The vote directly hit the city’s pocketbook. Nearly 25 percent of Benicia’s budget comes from taxes on the oil giant, and the city coffers stood to grow with more crude. The refinery employs about 500 people, according to city records.
But the city’s environmental study showed that oil trains presented a hazard. The document concluded that an accident was possible on the nearly 70 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and the refinery, though the likelihood was only one event every 111 years.
The document also suggested that much of the crude coming to the Bay Area from North Dakota, as well as from tar sands in Canada, was more flammable than most.
Several cities in the Bay Area and Sacramento area joined environmental groups in calling for rejection of the project.
“The council’s vote is a tremendous victory for the community and communities all throughout California,” said Ethan Buckner of the opposition group Stand, who was among more than 100 people who turned out for the council’s verdict. “At a time when oil consumption in California is going down, projects like this are unnecessary.”
At least two other plans are in the works for oil delivery by rail elsewhere in the region — in Richmond and Pittsburg. A handful of other proposals have been put forth in other parts of California, including the expansion of a rail spur at a Phillips 66 refinery in San Luis Obispo County, which is scheduled to be heard by the county planning board Thursday.
Prange, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this week’s finding by the Surface Transportation Board gives cities the confidence to reject the proposed oil trains, if they wish to do so.
“It reaffirms the power of local government to protect their citizens from these dangerous projects,” she said.
U.S. oil deliveries by rail have grown quickly, from 20 million barrels in 2010 to 323 million in 2015, according to government estimates. In response, federal transportation officials have worked to improve the safety of oil-carrying cars with new regulations.
But over the past year, rail deliveries nationwide have slowed, in part because of the stricter rules as well as local opposition, falling crude prices and new pipelines.
Critics have complained that the tightened rules have fallen short, pointing to incidents like a June train derailment in Mosier, Ore., which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Columbia River. Leaders in Oregon are discussing a statewide ban on crude trains.
Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.