Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Coule Pas Chez Nous

As a coastal British Columbian I can't help but support Quebec's Coule Pas movement to resist the Enbridge Trans Canada Energy East dilbit pipeline crossing their province.

What's wrong with the Enbridge Trans Canada pipeline initiative? What's not? Why is it needed at all?

For starters, the world needs bitumen like a massive head wound. A report published in Nature Climate Change last month presented a fresh assessment of our atmosphere's CO2 carrying capacity. This is a measure of how much more greenhouse gas we can pour into the atmosphere and still have a reasonable chance of staying within 2 degrees Celsius of warming.

The old number was about 2,400 billion tons of GHG. It sounds like a lot. It's not. From that it was a simple matter of figuring out how much greenhouse gas would be emitted if we burned all the proven reserves now on the books of the energy giants. That brought us to the conclusion that, if we were to have a reasonable chance of not triggering runaway global warming, we would have to leave no less than 80% of those proven reserves untouched, unburned, in the ground.

All that changed last week when new research showed that the remaining carbon budget wasn't 2,400 billion tons of GHG as we had assumed but barely more than half of that, 1,240 billion tons. What's the practical consequence of that? Well, instead of having to abandon 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves, we'll actually have to forego the extraction of 90% of those reserves. If we're to have what is an increasingly slim chance of averting catastrophic, runaway global warming, we can use, at most, 10% of those reserves.

Now here's the thing. Not all fossil fuels are created equal. Coal comes in various grades. So too does natural gas and so too does petroleum. There's really dirty coal and somewhat less dirty coal. Ditto for gas and for oil.

With 90% of those fuels now having to be left untouched, we - mankind - are literally awash in fossil fuels. We're up to our alligators in the stuff. That means we have options, the sort that come with surfeit instead of shortage. That means opting for the cleanest, lowest-carbon fossil energy options. And, when it comes to oil, bitumen is the highest-cost, highest-carbon ersatz oil of them all.

It's no one's fault that places like Saudi Arabia have really sweet, low-carbon oil that's almost effortlessly pumped out of the ground and is almost clean enough to go straight into your car's engine. They lucked out. It's no one's fault that Athabasca's petroleum option is at the other end, the wrong end of the carbon-intensity scale. You don't turn on a tap to get that out of the ground. You have to dig it or boil it out along with all the contaminants embedded in it. Then you have to process it and then you have to dilute it and construct special pipelines to move it. It's an environmental mess, a point that the Coule Pas folks understand.

Our political caste doesn't like to acknowledge it but there's already a lot of talk going around about "stranded assets." The term refers to those varieties of fossil fuel energy that are going to have to be abandoned. Coal is at the top of that list. Right behind it stands bitumen.

Cost is just part of bitumen's problems. Demand is another. Bloomberg Business reports we're on the cusp of a transportation revolution, one in which electric cars will dominate the market.

This may sound radical but Bloomberg is late coming to the party. In August, 2014, the world's largest private bank, UBS, advised its institutional investors (and they're real heavyweights) to prepare for a massive switch by consumers to home solar and electric cars. The bank's analysis found that the cost of a 20-year solar power system and an electric car could be recouped in just 6-years. Bill Gates has proclaimed a clean energy revolution will be in place within 15-years.

Meanwhile the Saudis intend to keep flooding the market with clean (did I mention low-carbon?) oil to drive the dabblers (us) out of the energy markets.

So, add it all up. 1. The Saudis are undercutting the market price of oil. Cheap oil, it seems is here to stay. That guts the economic viability of high-cost energy products such as bitumen. It's a loser, a lousy bet. 2. All indications are that we're just a matter of years away for an energy revolution, a wholesale move away from fossil fuels, even the cleaner, cheaper stuff. 3. The scientific research makes plain that high-carbon fossil fuels must be abandoned. 4. Add to that the failure the bitumen traffickers consistently experience with gaining public licence for their problematical pipelines. 1, 2, 3 and 4. That's a basketful of downsides and no upsides - nada. So, why are we hitching our wagon to a dead horse? Is it because the ailing beast hasn't quite fallen over yet?


Toby said...

I am sure you noticed that our mainstream media, including CBC, keep saying oil when talking about the Enbridge Energy East pipeline. Rarely, if at all, do they say dilbit or diluted bitumen. They are soft-peddling, pretending that it is all like sweet Saudi crude. They don't even mention that this is all for export.

Just how much is the Canadian taxpayer spending in order to satisfy Koch Brother's greed and China's insatiable appetite?

The Mound of Sound said...

I can't begin to answer your questions, Toby. I find this whole business has become irrational.

Anonymous said...

All interesting expectations for not doing this pipeline.


I think Energy East is a TransCanada Gas project - gas pipeline reversal with added bits to transport western dillbit to eastern refineries? and ports. It is not an Enbidge project.


Anonymous said...

It is a complete technical overstatement to say Saudi crude is almost gasoline. It still has to be refined to produce the whole gamut of oil-derived products.

Dilbit obviously is a heavier, more viscous product, no question there. It requires additional refining to produce the same oil-derived product range, and the proportion of gasoline to diesel to heavy oil is different from Saudi oil.

When you speak of carbon content per unit volume of finished product, it is noteworthy that diesel contains proportionally less than gasoline. Which is why Europe with its transport CO2 regulations expressed in terms of g/km has favoured diesel. In return they have gassed themselves with high levels of nitrogen oxides that produce smog, because making clean diesel engines for use in cars is not easy. VW (40 times regulatory limit at times) and now Mercedes (65 times) have shown that. NOx emissions can be reduced to nearly zero, but it requires huge doses of urea in the untreated exhaust stream. Big rigs have the capacity to carry enough urea, cars not so much. Acceleration phases are the worst at producing NOx, making city cars the worst way of utilizing diesel

The cleanest product by far is methane gas, CH4, only one carbon atom per molecule, and is extensively used in the US for power generation. However, heavy oil, which beats coal in this regard, is still not used extensively in the US.

Then we get to electric cars. Their batteries must be filled. I'm an old engineer, used to work in the electric utility business, and the figures bandied about concerning how clean EVs are, always seem to overlook how the electricity was generated. If it was by thermal power, electric cars are marginally, perhaps 10 to 20% better than buying the fossil fuel and carrying it around in the tank. I just shake my head at stories of 90% efficiency written by eager beavers in the environmental movement. Absolute rubbish as a small calculation will show. They have hynotized themselves as to how wonderful EVs are given our current generation methods and mixes taken as a North American whole..

Now, if the electrical energy to charge EVs comes from solar or wind or even nuclear, great. That's the way to go.

Meanwhile, it is unwise to come up with myths about Saudi oil and other light sweet crudes as they are termed, in order to advance an agenda.

There are other idiocies in the energy business as well. Japan has decided to go to a hydrogen economy. To produce hydrogen, carbon is stripped from the methane molecule, which requires vast energy input - it's not easy. Then hydrogen, being the smallest lightest molecule around, leaks straight through solid metal walls. BMW's first hydrogen car would lose about 30% of its hydrogen from the tank if it just sat unused for a week. The only advantage of making hydrogen from natural gas is that the carbon stripped away is sequestered, so no doubt the next problem will be where to store it.

Boil it all down, and the problem is clear. There are simply too many humans. Back in Grade 11 in 1961, we passed the 3 billion population mark. And we talked about the consequences then. That was too many, and now we're over 7 billion, dwarfing the capability of the planet to supply the necessary resources we require to live as we do.

Today, every pressure group from every sector of society produces studies and other guff that support whatever agenda they're pushing. Environmental groups are no different. We're all humans and subject to producing bombast and exaggeration. Nowhere do I see anyone getting back to basics to produce the straight goods on our situation here on Earth. Nowhere. And if someone did, its messagge would be hammered as relentlessly by special interest groups as everything else is.

If I have gored any oxen, so be it. The truth is out there, hidden in plain sight.


The Mound of Sound said...

I don't know where you read the idea about pouring Saudi oil in the gas tank of a car. If you recall, let me know. I said it's almost light enough to go into the engine as oil, not as gasoline.

Dilbit also contains pet coke, abrasives, corrosives (acids), heavy metals and carcinogens. The pet coke is often sold under the table. The Koch brothers, however, sell it right up front.

Methane, of course, is also known as natural gas. Yes, it is extensively used for power generation. The problem with it is leakage, especially in older infrastructure - cities.

As for the latest developments in solar power and electric vehicles, I'm not going by the accounts of 'eager beavers in the environmental movement.' That's hardly the Union Bank of Switzerland or Bloomberg Business, don't you think? UBS commissioned engineers who specialize in these things for its report to institutional investors. I think they probably would have done their homework given the risk to their reputation, don't you?

Overpopulation is a critical problem not being addressed by alternative energy/global warming debate. So too is over-consumption, our ever growing individual environmental/ecological footprint. We're not addressing either threat although they both undermine our best efforts on climate change.

Many of the impacts are visible to the naked eye from the International Space Station. Deforestation, desertification, rivers that no longer run to the sea, once massive lakes like the Aral now emptied, dry. Satellites monitor surface subsidence from our rapacious draining of aquifers. Algae blooms afflict our lakes and sea coasts giving rise to marine dead zones that keep expanding year on year. Tundra thawing, drying out and burning. Permafrost exposed and melting, releasing methane. Black soot coating the Greenland ice sheet. The retreat of the glaciers and loss of Arctic sea ice. The loss of half of our marine and terrestrial life in less than four decades even as our own numbers doubled. Fishing down the food chain. It's all there. It's palpable, tangible, measurable and indisputable.

I notice you seem to accept the assessment that we have to leave somewhere between 80% and 90% of proven fossil fuel reserves untouched if we're to avoid 2C. Given that we've already locked in 1.5C of warming that's going to be tough to achieve.

You haven't gored any oxen, BM. Relax.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Bill, you're right. It is Trans Canada, not Enbridge. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Anyong: When I mentioned to a group of Albertans why people east of Ontario don't like dirty oil due to its composition, and I happened to mention the US's appetite for sweet crude and all of Newfoundland's oil is purchased by the US since it is sweet crude, that it needed very little processing to make it fit to run a car, I was told I am a stupid person...that there isn't any such thing. Are Albertans able to accept the truth about Tar oil?

Anonymous said...

There is virtually no possibility of staying under the 2C limit, which will occur within 10 years now no matter what humanity does. But that's not to say we should permit any more pipelines, we shouldn't. Glad to see Canadians get behind this insanity and try to put a stop to more destruction of our only habitat.

the salamander said...

.. great post, Mound.. and excellent comments too..

More and more I see the Johnny Appleseed phenomena at work.. and for a lovely dash of Canadian content - the Man Who Planted Trees phenomena too .. For every Indy blogger who posts concerned credible posts there may be commenters who absorb and re-transmit the content and context.. and even some who jump to Twitter and challenge Mainstream Media to validate or expand on their missives, whether partisan screeching or valuable insight & journalism. Old Marshall McLuhan and Hunter S Thompson would only approve !

More and more I dream of Canadian grade school level children digging into the basics of Big Energy ! They don't need tp venture into 'the politics' of it or 'captured government'.. but what a relief to see Grade 5 to 8 Canadian schoolchildren tear into the Energy for Idiots conversations.

Is there a better way to encourage non-partisan examination and illumination of the simplistic basics of tar sands, pipelines, fracking, supertankers, discounts, refineries, diluted bitumen, Brent Benchmark, diluent, disposal, NEB, lobbying, Environmental Legislation, natural gas, West Texas Intermediate, offshore wells, Saudi Arabian imports, condensate pipelines, silicate sand, upgraders ?

And after all.. why shouldn't our future generations know the truth about their planet, environment, species, future.. its ripoff artists, corrupters, evangelical posturers and frauds ? That would be bonus !

Goodness.. just imagine the rainfall of high school & higher eduction levels chipping in.. whether re the science, the biology.. hell ! The sociology of such efforts ! Not to mention those students who decide that honest documentary, journalism or music and art should aid in the effort.. It might get loud.. Mound !!

Northern PoV said...

Hi Mound

You might like this little ditty I wrote and attempted to perform:

... especially if you know the John Prine song about mountaintop removal mining in Kentucky:

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks for that, NPoV. I did enjoy it. Well done.

The Mound of Sound said...

I think (or hope) Sal that we write these things to help nudge opinion just a bit. I try to link to the source research or reports. The analysis can be mine, the connect-the-dots stuff, but the facts need to be anchored in the quality of expert knowledge few bloggers possess, me well included.

One problem that troubles me most is how quickly critical information gets flushed down the Memory Hole today. The 2014 and 2015 Living Planet Reports are a fine example. In 2014 we learned that fully half of terrestrial life had been lost over the past 30-40 years since Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney steered us into neoliberalism. The 2015 report found a similar loss of marine life. Yet that same interval witnessed a doubling of human numbers.

Within a week of the release of those reports they had gone from a few news outlets' environment section to disappear down that old memory hole. The urgent discussion we needed to have at the highest international levels simply isn't going to happen. There's nobody at the wheel any more. You and me, we're stuck in the back seat with seatbelt buckles that no longer open.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Survival Acres. I'm with you on your major point. Yes, at this point, there are limited options for improving the planet our grandkids will inherit but there are plenty of options for making it far worse than it need be.

Existing atmospheric GHG loading has already "locked in" 1.5C of warming. Fossil energy use is increasing, not collapsing. The energy giants are even fighting their shareholders and investors to defend the notional value of their fossil fuel reserves lest they be revealed as insolvent. It's hard to see how we won't blow straight through 2C and quite possibly hit 3C.

We've lost sight of the critical fact that the 2C target was a best guess, political number that's now been shown to be dangerously over-optimistic. When it was reached it was thought to be the maximum amount of warming we could tolerate if we weren't to trigger runaway global warming, natural feedback loops. What we've found instead is that, at just 1C, we've already crossed a number of powerful tipping points.

The Mound of Sound said...

Anyong, you pose a question that I cannot begin to answer.