pipelines aren’t all evil

I can’t put together a lot of analysis this week, but I can point you to some people who have.  In this case, we’re talking about pipelines for oil and gas delivery across the US.  I’ve mentioned some of the issues related to leak detection in the context of the Enbridge spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan before.  You might be surprised to know that there are already some 2.5 million miles of pipelines across the US for oil and gas delivery, and the number is going up with every new shale gas deposit or oil sands site.  ProPublica has compared the risk of pipeline failures vs. the risk of trucking oil/gas, using the analogy of travel by air vs. travel by car.  Yes, it’s risky (is anything truly risk-free?) but it’s less risky than the major alternative.

Apparently many of the leaking pipes are old, and were grandfathered in when regulations came out, just to avoid the excessive cost of digging up miles and miles of pipeline to check for their integrity.  I’d like to think that new pipelines could meet higher standards, such as in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline that Obama will evaluate in the next 4 years.  The National Academy of Sciences is also working on a scientific review of the risk to pipelines from carrying diluted bitumen, an especially corrosive form of crude oil; that report to advise government and industry is due out next year, and will probably play a significant role in the acceptance or rejection of the Keystone XL plans.

Let’s keep in mind that the oil and gas boom in the US and Canada is boosting our economy, and natural gas prices in the US are cheap enough now (sometimes 30-50% the cost in Europe and Asia) that factories may be able to offset our higher labor costs with lower energy costs, and relocate back to the US.  Let’s also keep in mind that there are environmental benefits to keeping oil and gas production subject to American/Canadian laws rather than in places we might consider more likely to cut corners.  Enbridge is in big trouble with regulators over the spill in Michigan.  It’s a big deal in Canada that scientists have found oil sands contaminants in snow and rain nearby to the mines and not been able to fully disclose their results.  Our two nations have an active population that is keeping an eye on these things.  Better to mine/refine/deliver oil and gas with much oversight and supervision, and to challenge our regulators to hold these companies to account, than to punt on development and send jobs abroad, in my mind.

Whose backyard is best?

There’s a huge market at the moment for rare earth elements that are prolific in our favorite electronic devices.  Most of these are mined in the developing world, with significant proportions in China or Malaysia.  This not only means that these countries are making a killing on our insatiable need for new iPhones, it also means that the elements are extracted with their health and safety standards, and their environmental regulations.  Compared to ours in the US, these are all far less stringent.

So imagine how nice it would be to have some of these things mined in our territory, under our regulations.  Mining companies are dreaming big, especially in Alaska.  High prices of these rare earths have made formerly marginal ore into a serious investment, and in particular, mining companies are dying to extract some 2 billion tons in Pebble Mine.  However, our environmental groups are appropriately skeptical and the pushback has already begun.  Some EPA regulators in Region 10, which serves Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and 267 Indian Tribes, published a guidance document about the potential environmental hazards of mining in this pristine area, concluding that the risk is too high to even consider a true mining permit application from the Pebble Mine companies.

The only problem with this document is that it sets a fairly broad precedent for stifling private development in privately held land without even giving the parties a chance to describe their intended operations or mitigation measures.  Pebble Mine claims that its will implement the most environmentally friendly mining techniques ever used (quite the claim, but perhaps not that difficult given the haphazard approach often taken in the past and in other locations).  Don’t they deserve to have EPA at least evaluate their proposal?  For example, the Cadiz EIR was full of suspect science — it should become obvious if that’s the case in Pebble Mine, too.

The other issue is the idea of global environmental protection.  If this mine is rejected, we further rely on rare earth sources with lax (by our standards) regulations in foreign countries we don’t necessarily want to support.  I caution any true environmentalist against rejection of American industry and manufacturing on the basis of environmental impacts, without at least considering where those displaced activities will relocate.  Is preservation of our local environment a higher good than preservation of a local environment in another part of the world?  That’s a tough question.

you and what water?

Apparently Utah sits on a large reserve of tar sands, especially in the northeastern part of the state near Dinosaur National Monument.  A Canadian company has leased about 32,000 acres to open a pit mine.  The process would be similar to that in Alberta, Canada, but would be less water-intense and would not rely on strip-mining.  Rather, it would rely on deep, salty groundwater (~2500 feet below the ground surface) and a relatively non-toxic compound called limonene to extract the oil.  Water recycling in the pits would ensure that no wastewater ponds sit onsite and potentially harm local ecology.  It does sound like an improvement on Alberta’s methods, but I have to admit that my ears perk up at the thought of mining tar sands in Utah.  You should see the satellite image of the area north of Ft. McMurray in Alberta – that’s a massive mining operation.  I’ve traveled a lot in southern Utah and appreciate its remote and inhospitable scenery.  I start to feel like an environmentalist: “Protect the wilderness from all encroachment!!”

Sometimes, though, nature solves its own problems.  There is very little rain or surface water in northeastern Utah, and apparently the aquifer 2500 feet below ground isn’t quite as productive as the mining company expected:

But records on file with the Utah Division of Water Rights hint U.S. Oil Sands may be struggling to find the deep water. The company drilled three dry wells before finding water somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 feet in a fourth well, according to Dennis Sorensen, with the Utah Division of Water Rights. In June the company requested a drilling permit for a fifth well.

Ok, well, that will settle things, then, won’t it?  Hard to get the oil off the sands if you don’t have any water.  And drilling wells 2500 feet deep is expensive, not to mention pumping salty water out of those wells from those depths.  I’d say that if this company figures out how to make profit with that water source and without contaminating the local area or strip mining, they’ll have fully earned their money.