Lac-Megantic, Quebec. High River, Alberta. Places you may never have heard of and still may not have heard of if you depend on the mainstream media in the U.S. for your news.
Let’s go first to Alberta. In late June of this year, the Bow River, swollen with snowmelt and rain, overflowed its banks and inundated cities and towns up and down that watershed, including the (aptly named) town of High River.
More flooding occurred downstream in the province of Saskatchewan, but the big news was Calgary – Canada’s “energy capital” as Albertans like to call it – which experienced the largest and most devastating flood in its recorded history and the consequent evacuation of most of its downtown and several residential areas for at least five days and in some places a week or longer.
I listen to Canadian public radio every day, so I’m informed about things going on there, and I thought the energy connection — the U.S. imports more oil from Canada than from any other country on the planet — would make for “news” here south of the border.
Alberta – Texas of the north
While there’s a growing amount of windpower in Alberta and some gestures toward solar energy, the big energy play in that province is still the fossil fuels, particularly oil. Alberta is analogous to Texas, an oil-producing giant, and – like Texas – as its conventionally recoverable oil gets sucked up, it is turning to less conventional, harder to extract and much more expensive sources.
In Texas this means fracking – hydraulic fracturing along with horizontal drilling into deep deposits of oil or natural gas locked up in shale. Actually, in Texas, fracking releases more natural gas than oil, but the process is the same: drill down, vertically, then often drill horizontally into the deposit; send a mixture of water along with some nasty (and mostly, thus far, unidentified) chemicals, under pressure, down those drill holes to blast the gas free of the rock so that it can ascend up other drill holes to the surface.
Fracking the extensive Bakken Shale deposits in North Dakota, and a portion of Eastern Montana, results chiefly in oil, not gas – but that’s getting ahead of the story.
In Alberta the difficult and expensive to extract oil is locked up in the Athabasca Tar Sands in the far north of the province (and stretching into northern Saskatchewan). While there’s no rock to blast apart, there is quartz sand to heat up so that the tar it contains will liquefy enough to separate and flow.
Tar sands shallow enough are strip mined, with the heating done by steam from power plants — requiring enormous amounts of both electricity and water; sometimes with deeper deposits the heating is accomplished by inserting electromagnetic devices — requiring less water from external sources but still a lot of electricity.
Where’s the ‘net energy’?
Some of that electricity presumably could come from renewable sources like wind, but in reality it is generated either by natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels, or by coal, the dirtiest. (Canada also has nuclear power plants — another non-renewable source of energy that in the short term releases no greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but in the long term it generates radioactive wastes, and in any event Canada’s nuclear power plants are far from the remote tar sands region.)
Whatever the source of the electricity, this makes many people wonder about “net energy” – does this process ultimately cost more energy than the oil itself contains?
And what about the extensive damage to Northern Boreal forests and waterways, a cost largely unaccounted for?
The flooding of downtown Calgary momentarily inconvenienced only those oil industry executives and office workers in buildings far south of the tar sand extraction sites, but since the U.S. is considering piping tar sand crude via the Keystone XL Pipeline to refineries in Louisiana and Texas, the fact that any segment of the oil industry should be inconvenienced even briefly could have made a headline or two.
But there wasn’t much noise about this in the U.S. media.
‘The fire followed us to the lake’
More media noise arose in the U.S. when a train of 72 cars carrying Bakken shale oil from North Dakota to a refinery in St. Johns, New Brunswick, stopped in a small town called Nantes for a change of crew on the evening of July 5. A small fire reportedly broke out in one of the five engines pulling (or pushing) this train, and perhaps in controlling this fire local firefighters disconnected a brake. At least that is what officials of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway at first alleged.
The firefighters have said, no, we know what we’re doing and we did not tamper with the brake, but whoever is responsible — firefighters, the railway itself, or some saboteur (a criminal investigation was begun after a few days) – sometime after midnight this train began rolling downhill, with no one from the crew aboard, and 71/2 miles down the line, at a turn in the tracks, tanks of Bakken crude began flying off the rails and exploding.
It was a warm and balmy Friday night in Lac-Megantic, a lakeside town of 6,000 people, 155 miles east of Montreal. Many people were downtown dining and drinking. Fireballs obliterated the city center, and so thoroughly consumed buildings that 1,000 people were immediately evacuated, and. three weeks later (as I write this) only 28 dead have been positively identified, with 22 more missing and presumed dead.
According to a Deutsch-Presse-Agentur account published in the July 7 Billings Gazette (page A-8), Yvan Ross told the French language Radio Canada, a public broadcasting network, that he’d just had a drink with friends when he heard the train approaching at too high a rate of speed to make that turn.
“I saw the first car careen and burst into flames and shouted “Run! Run! Run!” He and his friends took refuge behind one building after another, but “the fire followed us everywhere.” They ran to Lake Megantic, he said, “but the fire followed us all the way to the water. It was hell.”
Railroads vs. pipelines
This disaster has brought mayors in railroad towns and cities all over Canada to call for tracks to be moved beyond city centers: an expensive proposition. Railroad safety procedures were quickly increased.
And, predictably, the airwaves quickly filled with calls to build more pipelines – which advocates claim are far safer than railroads – to haul all this crude oil, from tar sands or shale, hither and yon.
Pipeline detractors question pipeline safety, pointing to disastrous leaks, such as the March 29, 2013, rupture of the Exxon-Mobil Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower, a suburban community outside Little Rock, Ark.
This event sent 5,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen, combined with volatile and toxic petrochemicals that help this heavy oil to flow, into lawns and streets. Eighty-three people were evacuated, and according to the federal pipeline safety agency incident report (see http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/05/02/1952171/exxon-spills-tar-sands-oil-again-in-missouri-cant-find-126000-gallons-spilled-in-arkansas/), 2,000 barrels of oil (about 84,000 gallons) reached waterways.
The Arkansas spill prompted actor, film director and environmental activist Robert Redford to argue against pipeline transport (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-redford/arkansas-oil-spill-keystone-pipeline_b_3038269.html): “When it comes to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would take Canadian tar sands crude across America’s breadbasket to the Gulf Coast where much of it would be exported overseas, the Pegasus rupture in Arkansas is another red flag.”
Redford pointed to “the devastation of one of the last great places on Earth in the devastation to Canada’s Boreal forest” and damage to “the homes and health of First Nations communities who live near the tar sands,” along with health concerns raised by residents of tar sands refining communities.
“We’ve seen how the energy intensive tar sands production has meant a rapid increase in climate pollution in Canada,” Redford said. “We’ve seen the worsening effects of climate change in droughts, floods and violent storms.”
After more than a dozen spills from the first segments of the “so-called ‘state-of-the-art’ Keystone pipeline” Redford called this “the latest drumbeat in a series of reminders that tar sands crude is different and dangerous.”
Bakken crude likely would need some of those same volatile and toxic petrochemical additives to help it flow through pipelines as well.
Oil spill in the Yellowstone
Two years ago, Montanans were coping with not only record-high floods but also a major oil spill. Two surges down the Musselshell River Valley, in late May and early June, rose two feet higher than any flood previously recorded; for many days highway travel out of Roundup (where I live) was impossible in all directions but north. Then, to the south, Yellowstone River flooding likely caused a rupture of Exxon’s Silvertip Pipeline under the riverbed near Laurel on July 1, 2011.
Laurel, incidentally, is a railroad town like Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and is about the same size, some 6,000 people. But the pipeline rupture at Laurel killed only ducks, fish, frogs and other aquatic life - no human beings.
Before the pipeline was shut down, 1,509 barrels (about 63,000 gallons) of crude oil poured into the river. Exxon claimed at first that 10 miles of fish and wildlife habitat, riverfront farmland and pastures were affected, but later evidence indicates that contamination stretched as far as 70 miles downstream.
Only 10 barrels of the 1,509 barrels that entered the river were ultimately recovered. Exxon (which runs one of the three oil refineries in the Billings area) says it spent $135 million on the recovery and mitigation effort, and it buried the repaired pipeline much deeper under the Yellowstone River.
After a protracted investigation, PHMSA, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation, charged that Exxon had failed to take effective steps to protect this 12-inch pipeline from erosion caused by seasonal flooding and other natural disasters, and had failed to close an upstream safety valve promptly. PHMSA assessed the company a fine of $1.7 million.
On May 13, Exxon Mobil countered that the company had taken proper precautions and announced it would challenge the fine.
On the two-year anniversary of this pipeline rupture – July 1, 2013 – citizens rallied at Coulson Park, along the river, to demand that Exxon Mobil Corp. pay the full $1.7 million.
“It is in the best interest of all Montanans and the American public to ensure that our pipeline systems are as safe as possible,” said Alexis Bonogofsky of the National Wildlife Federation. “Operators, in this case Exxon, must be held accountable if they do not adhere to national safety standards.”
On July 17, at a closed door PHMSA hearing in Denver, Exxon Mobil formally requested a reduction in the fine. A ruling is expected within six months.
The Deeper Question
It is probably not feasible to transport massive amounts of tar sands or shale oil by railroad. But there is strong resistance to pipelines, not only in the U.S. but in eastern Canadian provinces and in British Columbia in the West.
This Canadian opposition makes completing the proposed U.S. portion of the Keystone XL pipeline so vital to the future of the tar sands industry (in which U.S. companies are heavily invested). Canada, with its U.S. partners, aspires to export tar sands crude not only to the U.S. but – after refining it in Texas and Louisiana – to send it overseas.
Finally, the pipeline-vs.-railroad debate, in both Canadian and U.S. news reports, has brought forth green energy advocates. These green energy proponents raise a deeper question: Is the extraction, processing and shipping of tar sands or shale oil (on either railroads or pipelines) worth the cost?
Using local energy resources locally, they point out, reduces the need for long distance shipping of fuel or transmission of electricity. So why not shift our priorities to investing in solar, wind, small hydropower and geothermal energy systems, and sustainably produced biofuels?
Let us seize this moment, green energy advocates say, to move to clean, renewable alternatives to the fossil fuels.