Pipelines currently bear the brunt of the attack, because everyone likes a dopey villain. People in British Columbia swear they will put their lives at risk to stop construction of any oil pipeline. Their sad enthusiasm is built on the work of anti-pipeline pseudo-academics, of which there are many, who for example love to talk about “worst case scenarios” of pipelines. Here’s an excellent example of the drivel they come up with. This gentleman hides behind a PhD to assess the potential risks of the Keystone XL pipeline, concluding that there would likely be between 11 and 91 major spills if it was to proceed. This of course gets picked up in other fear-mongering pieces as “the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would result in 91 major spills over the 50 year life of the pipeline.” The original report is an eighth-grade exercise in imagination as the science-less author statistically projects what a “worst case scenario” would look like. The same exercise could be applied to anything – a tornado, a forest fire, a spill from a rare-earth processing facility, an infinite number of chemical spills/fires/industrial accidents, etc., but only pipelines are singled out for such scrutiny. The author even makes this insane speculation: “In addition to toxicity effects, benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and the light molecular weight fractions of the oil could create explosive conditions as they volatilize from the spilled oil.” Now heavy oil is explosive too, despite the fact countless lightning strikes have yet to ignite the millions of barrels of oil at or near surface over 140,000 square kilometers in Alberta.
Of course the point here isn’t to try to provide counter points to these theses. But it is worth commenting on two aspects. The first being the sheer palpable hypocrisy of those who enjoy the benefits of pipelines, and second to ask why such scrutiny isn’t offered to green energy infrastructure.
It is not difficult to find the term hypocrite appropriate. Our standard of living in the western world, or pretty much anywhere that rises above the average, is at some point connected to a pipeline of one stripe or another. Pipelines are clearly the safest way of moving fluids over long distances. At the same time, people have no idea just how many products are made from petroleum, the removal of which from our society would eliminate most reasonably priced objects including wind turbines and solar panels.
Let’s try an apparently unique thought experiment about potential problems associated with green energy infrastructure, the very thought of which is like sunlight to a vampire for anti-pipeline people. Consider hydroelectric power, the largest source of renewable energy accounting for an estimated 7 percent of global power and half of all renewable (green) energy. For anyone who can grasp the concept of irony, it is mystifying how someone can find time to speculate about the “worst case” of a pipeline spill without considering the worst case of a hydroelectric dam failure. A pipeline spill might significantly dirty a river; a hydroelectric dam failure would clog that river with people, cars, buildings and, finally, indeterminable amounts of toxic chemicals like gravy over the whole mess. Hmm, few studies available on that…
How about a clean burning fuel, like natural gas? The propagandist quoted above found the Keystone XL objectionable because a spill from it could, in some imaginative circumstance, be flammable. Would these same people like to be near a natural gas pipeline when it does become flammable? Where would you like to land, sir? Odds are it would be miles from your home built on this “safer” alternative.
Ok ok, I can hear the indignation; natural gas is still a fossil fuel (sometimes) and anti-pipeliners want to be rid of all fossil fuels. That leaves one alternative – electricity. And how does electricity move, by unicorn? Nope, there is another beast involved that the Movement refuses to critically study. Or rather not just refuse to study but to even consider a simple question: would you rather live under a high voltage transmission line, or over an oil pipeline? You could live overan oil pipeline for 50 years and not even know it. Many people do. From an environmental standpoint, in the true sense of the word environment, NO ONE wants to live under a high voltage power line.
That fact alone should reduce the anti-pipeline movement to shreds, if pipeline people had the gumption to stand up and say something about it. Green energy is irrefutably and absolutely intertwined with electrical power generation and transmission, yet the weirdest moss-eating fossil-fuel hating troglodyte wouldn’t live under one of the lines. That aspect alone highlights the hypocrisy of anti-pipeline analysis. As icing on the cake, from a local source even, a British Columbia medical journal had this to say about living near power lines: “Using current BC leukemia rates and assuming similar proportions of the population live near high voltage lines, on a statistical basis, there may be one additional leukemia in BC every 2 years. To eliminate this risk, one would need to achieve a separation distance of 600 m between every high voltage power line and the nearest residence.”
Clearly anti-pipeline people have some other more coherent argument against oil pipelines than the safety of the pipeline itself. And we all know what that is – an attempt to strangle oil sands production because it is “dirty oil” that is going to warm the earth. Once again, let’s demolish that argument: oil sands oil is only marginally more energy intensive than other forms of oil, but to play devil’s advocate let’s say it creates 25 percent more greenhouse gases. If oil sands production doubled to 6 million barrels per day, it would only account for about 6 percent of global production. That’s oil production, not greenhouse gas emissions. So under those overly pessimistic (for environmentalists) assumptions, the additional oil from the oil sands would increase GHGs from global oil production by less than 2 percent, and oil production produces only a fraction of global GHGs. So the ultimate GHG impact of doubling oil sands production would be too small to measure.
And even if it’s redundant, it’s timely to circle back to hypocrisy again. The Canadian oil sands (and energy production in general) are responsible for Canada’s staggeringly high standard of living, and, more importantly to environmentalists, help provide the funds and cheap energy required to move to greener energy sources. A wind turbine can never generate enough power to create the components that go into a wind turbine, ever. Cheap energy is required for that efficiently priced steel, to make the components, and to develop the technology in the first place, which comes from fossil fuels. Some cheap power does come from hydroelectric sources, but we can’t dam every river, and who supposes that those things have no environmental footprint? Another fact no one likes talking about.
Part of the responsibility for the one-sided debate lies with the odd silence of pipeline companies, who for some reason are incapable of eloquently defending themselves. The people who work there are neither more evil nor anti-environment than any other group of humans. They do a lot of good work that never makes the news, and as Nassim Taleb often points out people seldom get rewarded for preventing an incident that didn’t take place. Also, it’s not easy crafting a message that doesn’t come across as self-serving. But for crying out loud give it a try at least. Without some sort of effort, the same charlatans that have wreaked havoc for centuries by capitalizing on human fear to further their agendas, the lowest of the low, will win yet again.
Hydroelectric dams, power transmission lines, pipelines, and renewable energy are all irreplaceable components of our energy landscape. Over time the composition of the whole changes, and we are inevitably moving to a greener future as cheap hydrocarbon sources become exhausted. Time would be better spent utilizing every molecule of cheap energy we currently have to create that greener future, rather than spending all our energy trying to scare children about wild hypothetical dangers that take some serious delusions to even come up with.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here