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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Forward on Climate: The Problem with Novel Technologies

Crossposted from the Forward on Climate blogathon at Daily Kos. There is a schedule of diaries and info about the blogathon at the end of the DK diary.

This week, we’ve had an impressive crop of diaries about the Keystone XL project — an pipeline that hooks us more deeply into one of the more damaging fossil fuel extractions we’ve ever seen. Selling oil from the tar sands promises to make Canada a player in the fossil fuel game…

Margaret Atwood, a Canadian, who recently observed that Canadians with The Tar Sands are Hobbits with The Ring. All of the riches in the world belong to he who holds that power. What Canada decides to do with the tar sands will affect energy policy for most of the next century.

With that against all of us — we who want to slow the rate we are pulling carbon out of the ground and putting it into the sky — there are few things we can control directly about Canada’s decision to mine the tar sands. What we can do is address the horse apples. Slowing the process enough could grind it to a halt. Slowing the process will have an impact.

For today’s horse apple, let’s have a few words about what happens when we try to regulate novel energy technology.

One problem with the XL pipeline is that it is a novel technology. That alone doesn’t make it a problem — but the fact that nobody understands the risk assessments is. Policy makers do not understand the risk, and the people creating the technology do not understand, either. They can’t understand the risk. They haven’t been using the methods long enough. And they are creating technology as they go along.

They are in such a hurry to get that oil. They are young cowboys — opening the barn door before they really know if the animals it contains will make nice once they are loose. Later they find out that they shouldn’t have opened that door.

The fossil fuel industry takes metrics compiled from conventional technology, and insists that those data apply to the unconventional technologies they want to use. They make it part of their narrative, and nobody in Policyland will question them. Hydraulic fracturing is a fine example. Fracking companies repeat again and again that their technology is 99.9% safe. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And it is pretty good — if and only if you’re talking about conventional drilling.

99.9% safety means that you expect one major accident per 1000 wells. If you were going to build a dozen wells, that might be a reasonable risk. But that isn’t how fracking works. To frack shale, you have to carpet the land with wells. They are expecting to drill somewhere around 400,000 wells on the Marcellus shale alone. That means they expect 400 major environmental impacts on that patch of land. A patch that supports watershed to three states.

No matter. Those environmentalists are crazy people. Fracking is 99.9% safe. What is there to worry about???

Similarly, with the Keystone XL. It’s extremely hard to push stuff through a pipe. It is a fact of physics that it’s hard to even suck air through a pipe. There is a problem with friction and viscosity — and the pipe’s conductivity falls off as a function of length. The Keystone XL will rival the longest crude pipelines in the world in terms of the distance it covers. That alone isn’t enough to cause concern — but when you consider that it isn’t conventional crude that they are piping through this system, it should give you pause.

Bitumen — the stuff they extract from the tar sands — doesn’t have the right properties to travel through a pipeline. So, they dilute it (that’s why it’s called dilbit, and sometimes called synthetic crude). Well, bully for them that they managed to push this stuff through a pipe. It really is a hard thing to do — and it becomes significantly harder as the pipeline gets longer.

What about the risk?

Pish Posh! No danger here! So says the President of Energy and Oil Pipelines for TransCanada Corp.

For the tar sands, engineers make a mixture of bitumen and “stuff” such that the tar sands oil can slip through the pipes. But there is no reason to think we know how this mixture behaves long term. Not really. Does it segregate into its constituent parts? Likely it does in some conditions. Will this cause goop balls to form and plug the pipeline? Maybe. The fact is, we don’t know how any of this stuff will behave as it ages. The only thing we know is that we expect spills from systems they do understand well. That we know from the past. And just because dilbit is non-corrosive and viscous like natural crude when they make it doesn’t mean that it behaves well in the wild. For dilbit, they have a short history to draw from.

It is up to us to be vigilant in learning about all of the new technologies. Most Congress members won’t. Don’t let them pretend that they understand. For them, understanding is listening to someone like Pish Posh boy cited above. And it isn’t clear that the EPA is much of an improvement over Congress on this point. The fact is that there are no adequate safety regulations for this technology today.

Start by reading here: Tar Sands Safety Risks


  1. blue jersey mom

    Climate change is the existential issue of our lifetimes, and completing the XL pipeline only makes a bad situation worse.

  2. jsfox

    in the fossil fuel game and has been for years. The Alberta Tar sands have only made it a bigger player. Canada is now a petro dollar economy. So let’s not make believe that stopping XL slows down Canada’s entry into the game . It doesn’t.

    And I know I am repeating my self here, but stopping the pipeline  does nothing to mitigate global warming. Stopping the pipeline does not shut down production out of the tar sands it just forces Trans Canada to find another way to to the refiners, which they will.

    The only thing that will help slow down global waring is to reduce demand for fossil fuels. The only thing that stops extraction is reduced demand. We should be insisting that a percentage of federal taxes collected on refined oil go to RD of alternative energy and underwriting wind and solar production. We should be demanding better and high speed rail.

    Next, given the number of pipelines now transporting tar sands oil across the country I am not sure you can really say with complete confidence that they don’t understand the technology.  (

    I truly believe blocking the pipeline is a tactical error for the environmental movement. You and the Democratic politicians who support this move will be labeled as job killers, and in a weak economy this is the kind of label that will stick and hurt for some time, especially come the mid-terms.

    Feel free to beat me around the head I’m a big boy and I can take it.

  3. I wouldn’t mind a little more due diligence before industries are allowed to experiment with our long term health and permanent destruction of our environment.

    The sad thing is that even if the science suggests that this is a bad thing, our country has vilified scientists to the point that “science” is now considered just another opinion to be debated and discarded when inconvenient.

  4. Wee Mama

    emitting energy sources, and be redistributed on a per capita basis (half share for a child). This reduces the desirability of carbon emitteing sources and has a progressive effect on income.

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