As thousands of people circled the White House to make known their objections to the multibillion dollar Keystone XL Project, I was again reminded of a comment by Jack Kornfield: “Ours is a society of denial that conditions us to protect ourselves from any direct difficulty and discomfort. We expend enormous energy denying our insecurity, fighting pain, death, and loss, and hiding from the basic truths of the natural world and of our own nature.”
The dedicated activists who gathered to communicate their views to the President and many others are trying to alert the world’s population to a critical basic truth about the Earth: fossil fuels are an exhaustible resource whose extraction is a perilous and foolhardy enterprise. What’s more, they are trying to wake us up to the fact that in our pursuit of energy sources, greed prevents us from acting skillfully.
The Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion (Keystone XL), operated by Calgary-based TransCanada, is the southernmost geographical component of the Keystone Project that will carry crude oil derived from Alberta, Canada tar sands through Saskatchewan, across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to southern Texas where it will be refined along the Gulf of Mexico. In a recent interview TransCanada CEO Russ Girling commented “We never expected to be the lightning rod for the development of the Canadian oil sands. At the end of the day we build a conduit from A to B.” What’s wrong with this attitude? The idea that this complex enterprise can be reduced to as simple a notion as connecting two points by a line can only arise from a profoundly confused mind. Here’s some geoscience in the service of clarity.
“Tar sand” is a generic term used to describe petroleum-bearing rocks exposed at the Earth’s surface. Because petroleum is hydrocarbon its combustion for energy contributes significantly to well-established global warming. Geologists know tar sands as natural bitumen which means basically that it is a very viscous (sticky) petroleum. This stickiness distinguishes it from heavy crude oil, another type of petroleum. Tar sand is more like a flowy (if you will) solid whereas crude oil looks more familiarly like a liquid. It’s the stickiness that makes tar sands particularly problematic as technically recoverable resources.
Two different methods are used to produce oil from tar sands – surface mining and in-situ (in place) production. Only about 20 percent of all tar sand resources are recovered via surface mining. The rest is obtained through the later technique of in-situ processing which involves pumping steam underground through a horizontal well to liquefy the bitumen and pump it to the surface. Despite publicity about Canadian oil sands from the American Petroleum Institute intended to inform and assure those with well-founded worry about pipeline leaks and water contamination of western aquifers, such processing may be simple but it’s not easy. We need only look at the Deepwater Horizon fiasco to see how difficult it can be to stop simple flow from a pipe. (And the mind of this New Yorker not only is tempted to go to the past but also to project into the future concerns about hydrofracking in the Marcellus shale for another type of petroleum–natural gas). But let me stay in the present.
The Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion which has attracted so much attention will involve among other components construction of new pipeline in Oklahoma (Keystone Phase III — 435 miles from Oklahoma through Texas). Okay, pay attention. On Saturday November 5, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake was centered six miles southeast of Sparks, Oklahoma. I’ll reframe this geographically: the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma struck about 40 miles south of Cushing, Oklahoma which is the point of origin for Keystone XL’s phase III.
The recent earthquake and its continued aftershocks occurred on the Wilzetta fault. It is one of many faults in the area that formed during the Carboniferous Period (around 300 milliion years ago) during an episode of mountain-building activity ultimately leading to the formation of the Rocky Mountains. But we don’t understand the relationship between these recent earthquakes and this old geologic structure. We do know that Oklahoma’s east and west borders are 280 and 750 miles from New Madrid, the namesake of a high seismic zone responsible for several of the largest historical earthquakes to strike the continental United States (1811-1812).
H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama has taught that “a balanced and skillful approach to life, taking care to avoid extremes, becomes a very important factor in conducting one’s everyday existence.” Our efforts to force sticky hydrocarbons out of the Earth’s sedimentary rocks in Alberta, Canada (A), then transport them thousands of miles across a critical aquifer while skirting a high seismic zone (conduit), so we can refine them in Texas (B) only to burn them to create energy and incidentally warm the planet seems to me extreme, unbalanced, and unskillful.