The Sticky Truth About Oil Spills and Tar Sands

Friday, 14 January 2011 10:27 By Sarah Laskow, The Media Consortium | News Analysis | name.

The National Oil Spill Commission released its report on last year's BP oil spill this week. The report laid out the blame for the spill, tagging each of the three companies working on the Deepwater Horizon at the time, Halliburton, Transocean and BP, and also offered prescriptions for avoiding similar disasters in the future.

As Mother Jones' Kate Sheppard notes, it's unlikely the recommendations will impact policy going forward.

"I think the recommendations are pretty tepid given the severity of the crisis," Jackie Savitz, director of pollution campaigns at the advocacy group Oceana, told Sheppard. "Even the small things they're suggesting, I think it's going to be hard to convince Congress to make those changes."

No Transparency for You!

Last summer, after the spill, the Obama administration tried hard to look like it was pushing back against the oil industry, even though just weeks before the spill, the president had promised to open new areas of the East Coast to offshore drilling.

This week brought new evidence that, despite some posturing to the contrary, the administration is not exactly unfriendly to the energy industry. One of the key decisions the administration faces about the country's energy future is whether to support the Keystone XL, a pipeline that would pump oil from tar sands in Canada down to Texas refineries. And one of the key lobbyists for TransCanada, the company intending to build the pipeline, is a former staffer for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, filed a Freedom of Information requesting correspondence between the lobbyist, Paul Elliott, and his former boss, but the State Department denied the request.

“We do not believe that the State Department has legitimate legal grounds to deny our FOIA request, and assert that the agency is ignoring its own written guidance regarding FOIA requests and the release of public information,” said Marcie Keever, the group's legal director, The Michigan Messenger's Ed Brayton reports. “This is the type of delay tactic we would have expected from the Bush administration, not the Obama administration, which has touted its efforts to usher in a new era of transparency in government, including elevated standards in dealing with lobbyists.”

Tar Sands' Black Mark

What are the consequences if the government approves the pipeline? As Care2's Beth Buczynski writes, "Communities along the Keystone XL pipeline's proposed path would face increased risk of spills, and, at the pipeline's end, the health of those living near Texas refineries would suffer, as tar sands oil spews higher levels of dangerous pollutants into the air when processed."

What's more, the tar sands extraction process has already brought environmental devastation to the areas like Alberta, Canada, where tar sands mining occurs. Earth Island Journal's Jason Mark recently visited the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, which he calls "impressively forthright" in its discussion of the environmental issues brought on by oil sands. (The museum is run by Alberta's provincial government.) Mark reports:

The section on habitat fragmentation was especially good. As one panel put it, “Increasingly, Alberta’s remaining forested areas resemble islands of trees in a larger network of cut lines, well sites, mine, pipeline corridors, plant sites, and human settlements. … Forest disturbances can also encourage increased predation and put some plants and animals at risk.”

Not Renewable, Just New

The museum that Mark visited also made clear that extracting and refining oil from tar sands is a labor-intensive practice. He writes:

Mining, we learn, is just the start. Then the tar has to be “upgraded" into synthetic petroleum via a process that involves “conditioning,” “separation” into a bitumen froth, then “deaeration” to take out gases, and finally injection into a dual-system centrifuge that removes the last of the solids. Next comes distillation, thermal conversion, catalytic conversion, and hydrotreating. At that point the recombined petroleum is ready to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. It all felt like a flashback to high school chemistry.

Why bother with this at all? In short, because with easily accessible sources of oil largely tapped out, techniques like tar sands mining and deepwater drilling are the only fonts of oil available. This problem is going to get worse, as The Nation is explaining over the next few weeks in its video series on peak oil.

Energy and the Economy

Traditional ideas about energy dictate that even as the world uses up limited resources like oil, technology will create access to new sources, find ways to use limited resources more efficiently, or find ways to consume new sources of energy. These advances will head off any problems with consumption rates. The peak oil theory, on the contrary, argues that it is possible to use up a resource like oil, that there's a peak in supply.

Once the peak has been passed, the consequences, particularly the economic consequences, become dire, as Richard Heinberg, senior fellow with the Post Carbon Institute explains. "If the amount of energy we can use is declining, we may be seeing the end of economic growth as we define it right now," he told The Nation. Watch more below:

Light Green

Part of the problem is that the energy resources that could replace fossil fuels like oil—wind and solar energy, for instance—likely won't be in place before the oil wells run dry. And as Monica Potts reports at The American Prospect, our new green economy is getting off to a slow start.

Although the administration has talked incessantly about supporting green jobs, Potts writes that the federal government hasn't even finalized what count as a "green job" yet. The working definition, which is currently under review, asserts that green jobs are in industries that "benefit the environment or conserve national resources" or entails work to green a company's "production process." But what does that actually mean?

"That definition was rightly criticized as overly broad," Potts writes. She continues:

While nearly everyone would include installing solar panels as a green job, what about an architect who designs a green house? (Under the proposed definition, both would count.) ... Another problem comes in weighing green purposes against green execution: We could count, for example, public-transit train operators as green workers. But how do we break down transportation as an industry more broadly? Most would probably agree that truckers who drive tractor-trailers running on diesel fuel wouldn't count as green workers even if they're transporting wind-turbine parts. And many of the jobs we would count as green already exist.

It doesn't exactly inspire confidence that the country is moving swiftly toward a bright green future.

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Last modified on Friday, 14 January 2011 10:27