Author Archives: BuryCoal

Air transport emissions from the oil sands

The volume is probably tiny compared to the amount of pollution produced from the oil being mined, but it is interesting to note that oil sands companies in Alberta are now transporting so many people by air:

Call it Air Oil Sands. Industry giant Suncor Energy Inc. alone moves enough people that it would rank somewhere between Canada’s `10th- and 12th-largest airline. Several oil sands companies operate fully functional airports, complete with baggage handlers, and have filled out employment rosters with pilots and mechanics. One airplane charter outfit engaged in oil sands work is bringing in new airplanes so fast it doesn’t have time to paint them before they start flying workers.

The article says that it costs $42,000 to air-commute one person to the oil sands – arguably another demonstration of the boomtown logic at work in Fort McMurray today.

Engineer speaks out against Keystone XL pipeline

Mike Klink, a former pipeline inspector with Bechtel, has publicly spoken out about the shoddy construction he saw on the original Keystone pipeline and what that means about the risks arising from the proposed Keystone XL expansion:

I am not an environmentalist, but as a civil engineer and an inspector for TransCanada during the construction of the first Keystone pipeline, I’ve had an uncomfortable front-row seat to the disaster that Keystone XL could bring about all along its pathway.

When I last raised concerns about corners being cut, I lost my job – but people along the Keystone XL pathway have a lot more to lose if this project moves forward with the same shoddy work.

What did I see? Cheap foreign steel that cracked when workers tried to weld it, foundations for pump stations that you would never consider using in your own home, fudged safety tests, Bechtel staffers explaining away leaks during pressure tests as “not too bad,” shortcuts on the steel and rebar that are essential for safe pipeline operation and siting of facilities on completely inappropriate spots like wetlands.

I shared these concerns with my bosses, who communicated them to the bigwigs at TransCanada, but nothing changed. TransCanada didn’t appear to care. That is why I was not surprised to hear about the big spill in Ludden, N.D., where a 60-foot plume of crude spewed tens of thousands of gallons of toxic tar sands oil and fouled neighboring fields.

TransCanada says that the performance has been OK. Fourteen spills is not so bad. And that the pump stations don’t really count. That is all bunk. This thing shouldn’t be leaking like a sieve in its first year – what do you think happens decades from now after moving billions of barrels of the most corrosive oil on the planet?

Klink says he is speaking out because his children have encouraged him to do the right thing.

Climate the issue of the century?

Strong words from The Economist’s Democracy in America blog:

A HUNDRED years from now, looking back, the only question that will appear important about the historical moment in which we now live is the question of whether or not we did anything to arrest climate change. Everything else—the financial crisis, the life or death of the euro, authoritarianism or democracy in China and Russia, the Great Stagnation or the innovation renaissance, democratisation and/or political Islam in the Arab world, Newt or Mitt or another four years of Barack—all this will fade into insignificance beside the question of whether we managed to do anything about human industrial civilisation changing the climate of Planet Earth. It’s extremely hard to focus on this, because environmentalism goes in and out of political fashion depending on the economy, war, and so forth. But from the perspective of our great-grandchildren, the only thing that’s going to seem important is whether we burned all the fossil fuel on the planet and sent global temperatures up by at least 4 degrees Celsius in the next century, or whether we took collective action, shifted our energy sources, and held the global temperature rise to 2 degrees or less.

Joseph Romm has made a similar point before.

The blog post goes on to say:

Maybe a hundred years down the line, nobody will look back at climate change as the most important issue of the early 21st century, because the damage will have been done, and the idea that it might have been prevented will seem absurd. Maybe the idea that Mali and Burkina Faso were once inhabited countries rather than empty deserts will seem queer, and the immiseration of huge numbers of stateless refugees thronging against the borders of the rich northern countries will be taken for granted. The absence of the polar ice cap and the submersion of Venice will have been normalised; nobody will think of these as live issues, no one will spend their time reproaching their forefathers, there’ll be no moral dimension at all. We will have wrecked the planet, but our great-grandchildren won’t care much, because they’ll have been born into a planet already wrecked.

The question of how climate change will be viewed in retrospect is a tricky one. There are things about it that will be unknowable. If we do end up mitigating strongly, we will never know for sure if things would have been OK without all that action. Similarly, if we ignore the problem and things become terrible, we will never know for sure whether we could have succeeded in stopping it.

Is the world choosing geoengineering by default?

Judging by the Durban talks, the world as a whole really doesn’t see climate change as an urgent issue. Nor is there any willingness whatsoever to cut emissions by the amount necessary to prevent temperature rise of over 2°C.

Does this make geoengineering inevitable? 

If the atmospheric concentration of CO2 keeps rising sharply until 2020 and beyond, preventing radical climate change through future emissions cuts may well be impossible. At that point, the deliberate manipulation of the climate system may be the only option that remains.

Continuing to phase out coal

Some good news from Ontario:

Ontario is permanently shutting down two more dirty coal-fired units at Nanticoke Generating Station, ensuring cleaner air and a healthier future for families.

As of December 31, Ontario will have shut down 10 of 19 coal units and cut the use of coal by nearly 90 per cent since 2003.

By the end of 2014, Ontario will be the first jurisdiction in the world to replace dirty coal-fired generation with more sustainable alternatives such as wind, solar and bioenergy — the equivalent of taking seven million cars off the road. This is the single largest climate change initiative being undertaken in North America and will lead to savings of $4.4 billion a year in health care, environmental and financial costs.

McEwan on climate change

Back in 2005, Ian McEwan described our situation with regards to climate change in this way:

How can we ever begin to restrain ourselves? We appear, at this distance, like a successful lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a fruit. Can we agree among ourselves? We are a clever but quarrelsome species – in our public discourses we can sound like a rookery in full throat…

Despite that near ignorance, or perhaps because of it, reports from a range of scientific disciplines are telling us with certainty that we are making a mess of the earth, we are fouling our nest and we have to act decisively and against our immediate inclinations. For we tend to be superstitious, hierarchical and self-interested, just when the moment requires us to be rational, even-handed and altruistic. We are shaped by our history and biology to frame our plans within the short term, within the scale of a single lifetime; and in democracies, governments and electorates collude in an even tighter cycle of promise and gratification. Now we are asked to address the wellbeing of unborn individuals we will never meet and who, contrary to the usual terms of human interaction, will not be returning the favour.

This seems a rather good concise summary of the challenge, and why human beings are so poorly equipped to respond to it.