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Your Weekly Environmental Roundup For Texas and Beyond!

by: Adam Schwitters

Thu Jul 12, 2012 at 09:00 AM CDT

Land Commissioner Wants To Steal Money From Children To Fund His Nifty New Desal Plant

  • Though Texas schools lost over $4 billion from their budgets over the last legislative session, Texas Land Commissioner, Jerry Patterson, has come up with a devious plan to take even more money from them.  His plan is to use funds from the Permanent School Fund to build a desalinization plant on General Land Office land somewhere between Austin and San Antonio.  “Desal” (as those in the know like to call it) is the talk of Texas these days, with supporters imagining it to be a sort of silver bullet to end all our water woes.  While Texas has a huge supply of brackish water stored deep in aquifers, the process of turning it into drinkable, lawn water-able water is hugely expensive.  If similar Texas plants are any guide, this plant would cost around $100 million, and would produce water at 3-6 times the price of water gained thorugh conservation efforts.

Enron Apparently Still Exists, And Its Trying To Poison North Texans

  • Everyone’s favorite disgraced energy giant, Enron Oil and Gas (EOG) is up to its neck in complaints from residents living near a proposed sand mine in Cooke County, along the Oklahoma border.  Residents expressed concerns about respiratory diseases and cancer to a TCEQ hearing on the subject in Gainesville.  “The real problems begin when they start operating. We’re gonna have air pollution, that’s our major concern, we’re gonna have water problems, that’s another major concern, we’re gonna have truck traffic, emissions from those trucks,” said a concerned citizen, Ozlem Altiok.  A TCEQ contested case hearing will begin on Thursday to determine who will be affected by the mine, and whether construction can continue.

Remember To Visit The Beach While It’s Still There

  • Climate Central released this nifty map which allows you to see exactly where flooding will occur as sea levels begin to rise due to global climate change.  The map coincides with a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report which predicts that by 2070 sea level changes will effect 120 million people and cost around $35 trillion in damages.  Galveston, for instance, sees little flooding from a moderate 2 foot flood surge, but is nearly wiped off the map in the event of a 6 foot surge.

Tar Sands Spill The Result Of Sloppy Management And Regulation

  • Federal investigators reported on Tuesday that the 2010 spill of 843,000 gallons of toxic tar sands diluted bitumen oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan was the result preventable safety measures.  The report faults both Enbridge, the Canadian operator of the pipeline, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency tasked with regulating pipeline operators.  Enbridge (which is currently building a tar sands pipeline to the Texas coast from Oklahoma) was blamed for not incorporating readily available knowledge in its safety evaluations, and the PHMSA was blamed for “weak and ambiguous regulations.”

Though Texas has more than enough pollution to go around, we’ve got nothing on Guandong province, China.

  • China Daily Newspaper reported that about 9.5 billion tons of raw sewage (or about 3/4s of the province of 104 million people’s annual waste) is discharged, untreated into the Pearl River which supplies Hong Kong.  That news of this sort is even reported is a sign that China’s government is beginning to get serious about the rampant air and water pollution that has followed China’s remarkable economic growth since 1976.
Discuss :: (1 Comments)

Joe Nocera Wades Into A Tar Sands Debate He Doesn't Understand

by: Adam Schwitters

Tue Feb 07, 2012 at 02:53 PM CST

While the US Senate is debating a bill that would revive the moribund Keystone XL pipeline while limiting legal challenges to the route, Joe Nocera of the New York Times published an ill considered OpEd today that shows he understands neither the risks nor the economics of tar sands oil.

Nocera makes at least four completely false assertions in his piece.

  • The first, which makes  up the bulk of the essay, is that the Obama administration’s rejection of Keystone is driving the Canadian government into the arms of the Chinese and thereby endangering US energy security.  Keystone was always aimed at the Chinese market.  As a result of increased efficiency and the global downturn, US oil consumption has steadily dropped since 2005 (from about 20.5 million barrels per day to 19 million bbd in 2010).  China’s demand, on the other hand, rose from about 6.5 million bbd to over 9 million bbd during the same period.  Source: CIA Factbook.  Over this same period, Port Arthur, Texas (the proposed endpoint of Keystone XL) undertook “the largest US refinery expansion to occur in 30 years” with major additions to Motiva and Valero refineries.  That expanded refining capacity and easy access to the Panama Canal made Port Arthur the easiest and cheapest route for tar sands oil to reach the Chinese market.  Tar sands oil has been in the US market for years it just never had an easy path to overseas markets.  A recent Cornell University study on Keystone’s economic impact predicted that were the pipeline built, midwest gasoline prices would likely rise 10-20 cents per gallon.  Also, though Joe asserts that Canada has a “newfound willingness to to business with China,” the Canadian logging industry has never had an issue with selling lumber to China.

  • The second, is that tar sands oil would allow the US “to become, if not energy self-sufficient, at least energy secure, no longer beholden to OPEC.”  Not only is all that Canadian oil not bound for US markets, it will not endanger price points set by, in Joe’s words, “countries that don’t like us.” Countries like Saudi Arabia which possesses the world’s largest oil reserves and which recently indicated that it would keep global oil prices “around $100 per barrel” regardless of new supplies (tar sands) or supply instability (Iran).  $100 per barrel is, conveniently, about the lowest price for tar sands oil to be economically viable, as the cost in extracting and transporting the sticky, nearly solid substance is substantially higher than traditional crude oil.

  • Nocera’s third false premise is that tar sands oil is just ” a little dirtier than the crude that pours forth from the Saudi Arabian desert, but is hardly the environmental disaster many suppose.”  Tar sands oil is a lot dirtier than Saudi crude.  It contains 10 times more sulfur and is 3 times more acidic than traditional crudes.  When piped, it is subject to 3 times more pressure than crude oil, and contains a 3 times greater flow of abrasive quartz and silica than a commercial grade sandblaster.  There already has been a major tar sands oil spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the increased size and flow of the Keystone XL pipe would raise the risks of another, bigger, spill considerably.  Also, just last week, Canadian officials announced a plan to start poisoning wolves in northern Alberta in an attempt to stave off the collapse of caribou herds which have been affected by massive habitat loss due to tar sands mining that destroys huge tracts of forest to get at the sticky substance underneath. If the massive deployment of strychnine is not an admission of an environmental catastrophe, what is?  See it for yourself.  This is what a tar sands strip mine looks like from space.  This is a whole lot different from the “crude that pours forth from the Saudi Arabian desert.”

  • Nocera’s final wrong assumption is that if Keystone XL isn’t built, Canada will, with a sweep of its imperial hand, find its own “diverse buyers so it won’t be held hostage by American politics.”  To do this, Canada would need an oil exporting terminal along with a pipeline bringing oil to it from Alberta.  This has not proved easy for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration.  Enbridge, a major player in Albertan oil, has proposed the Northern Gateway pipeline which would terminate in Kitimat along the pristine northwest coast of British Columbia.  British Columbians, blessed as they are with natural beauty and clean waters, are not pleased with this plan and have been staging large protests ever since Northern Gateway was first proposed.

Joe Nocera should stick to issues he understands, apologia for Canadian oil profiteering is beneath him.

Contact your senators here to let them know that a revived Keystone pipeline is unacceptable.  We have enough oil in this country, and it is dirty enough as it is thank you very much.

Discuss :: (3 Comments)

Obama Kills Keystone XL, But Tarsands Fight Just Beginning

by: Adam Schwitters

Fri Jan 20, 2012 at 01:00 PM CST


Environmental activists gathered in front of President Obama’s Austin campaign headquarters yesterday to applaud his decision to deny Transcanada’s bid to construct the Keystone XL pipeline which would have brought diluted bitumen, a nearly solid form of petroleum, from the tarsands region of Alberta to the Texas Gulf coast.

Adam Hammick, a volunteer with 350.org, was ecstatic, describing the decision as “the only time in decades big oil has been put in its place.” He added, “against all odds we won.” He acknowledges, however, that the fight to keep tarsands oil, which is profoundly nasty substance, out of the United States has just begun, and that there are more pipelines already planned, including the Seaway Pipeline which would bring existing stocks of tarsands oil from Oklahoma to Texas.  That there are so many new projects planned means “environmental groups can’t afford to spend this much energy on one project in the future.”

The President was forced to make this decision due to a cynical political ploy from Republicans in Congress who attached a rider on the Payroll Tax Cut Bill that stipulated he must make a decision on the pipeline within 60 days of the bill’s passage.  The State Department had previously determined that their environmental impact study for the project was insufficient, and needed approximately 18 months to fully study the pipeline’s proposed route. Congressional Republicans believe that they can use this as leverage in the November elections by painting Obama as a job killing tree hugger who killed a project that would provide energy security to America and, in the words of Transcanada’s economic review “hundreds of thousands of man-years of employment.”  Well, their math is just dead wrong.

Two non-idealogical reviews of the project, by the State Department and by Cornell University, show that Transcanada is wildly inflating job creation numbers.  The DOS review puts the total number of jobs at 5000-6000, while Cornell estimates that no more than 4650 temporary jobs would be created by the project.  Thinkprogress.org’s review of the Transcanada report showed “Among the list of jobs that would be created: 51 dancers and choreographers, 138 dentists, 176 dental hygienists, 100 librarians, 510 bread bakers, 448 clergy, 154 stenographers, 865 hairdressers, 136 manicurists, 110 shampooers, 65 farmers, and (our favorite) 1,714 bartenders.”

The notion that these pipelines would somehow improve America’s energy security is also erroneous. Tarsands oil already flows to market in the US.  What it does not do, at the moment, is reach overseas consumers in the burgeoning markets of China and India.  If it were to be refined close to major export terminals along the gulf coast, it would actually raise gasoline and diesel prices “10 to 20 cents per gallon,” according to the Cornell study. “These additional costs (estimated to total $2-4 billion) will suppress other spending and will therefore cost jobs.”

The Sierra Club is planning a large rally on February 18 to begin the fight against future tarsands pipelines, and I will keep you up to date on these events as they near.

To read the President’s statement on the Keystone decision, and thank him for protecting our environment and economy, visit whitehouse.gov.

Discuss :: (4 Comments)

Tarsands Pipeline Debate Shifts To Texas As Oil Co Seeks to Avoid State Department Review

by: Adam Schwitters

Mon Dec 05, 2011 at 05:28 PM CST

In the three weeks since the State Department decided to re-evaluate the environmental impact of the proposed route of Transcanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, the focus of the pipeline debate has shifted from Nebraska, where a broad coalition of activists, landowners, and politicians from both parties effectively stopped construction of the pipeline over the state’s sensitve Sand Hills region and forced the Obama administration to reconsider its approval of the project in general, to Texas, where Transcanda (and a competitor, Enbridge) are trying to rush construction of the southern section of the pipeline.

The proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline is split up in to two major segments.  The northern portion begins in the tarsands region of northern Alberta, crosses the international border in Montana, then through South Dakota and Nebraska where it would merge with an existing Transcanada pipeline on its way to Cushing, Oklahoma.  Cushing is a major oil shipping and storage hub, and is the price settlement point for West Texas Intermediate crude, which makes Cushing a critically important link in the chain that brings oil products from the Gulf coast north to consumers.  There is a huge stockpile of diluted bitumen oil (the tarsands oil variety) at Cushing, but no capacity there to refine it into usuable vehicle fuels.  Unrefined bitumen is used in road construction and roofing, but the huge volume flowing out of Alberta has collapsed the price for unrefined bitumen.  In order to get the tarsands oil to market, Transcanada and Enridge hope to connect their stockpiles in Cushing to the major refinery complexes on the Texas gulf coast in Houston and Port Arthur.  This section of pipeline would primarily pass through east Texas, taking over sensitive areas such as the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer recharge zone, and the Neches River.  

Transcanada believes that the Cushing to Texas segment would not require State Department approval since it does not cross an international border, and is rushing to begin construction on the line.  It is not altogether clear whether it is legal for Transcanada to consider the southern segment as a separate entity from the northern portion, and several groups in Texas are already considering lawsuits if Transcanada does attempt to move forward with this plan.

While Transcanada’s pipeline is stalled for the moment, a competing company, Enbridge, is trying to move forward with its own plans to reverse the flow of an existing pipeline.  In its current state, the Seaway Pipeline brings crude oil from the gulf north to Cushing, but Enbridge proposes to use Seaway to bring tarsands oil south from Cushing to the gulf where it can be refined and exported.  Now, Enbridge has a horrible safety record on lines it manages including, but not limited to, a 2010 spill of 840,000 gallons of bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that has cost at least $700 million to clean up, and a 2003 natural gas pipeline explosion in Ontario that killed 7.  Enbridge is also trying to build its own tarsands pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean in British Columbia, a prospect so atrocious to Canadians it does not seem likely to be built.  

The primary concern with these pipelines is the odious nature of the diluted bitumen(PDF) that they contain.  Bitumen is nearly solid at room temperature, so it has to be heated to over 158 degrees farenheit in order to be transported (conventional crude transportation temperatures are approximately 100 degrees farenheit).  Bitumen contains 10 times more sulfur, is three times more acidic, and is subject to almost 3 times more pressure inside the pipeline than conventional crude.  Each one of these factors increases the risk of pipeline corrosion, and thereby spills, considerably.  That the tarsands oil would have a three times greater flow of abrasive quartz and silica than a commercial grade sandblaster ensures that these pipelines would be extremely stressed.  A study released by Alberta’s provincial government disputes these findings, but remember that Alberta is basically run as a personal fiefdom of the tarsands industry, and its findings have to be taken about as seriously as cigarette manufacturers’ “evidence” that tobacco isn’t harmful.

Here in Texas, non-idealogical groups such as local volunteer fire departments and landowners along the proposed route are simply trying to figure out what the results of a spill in the east Texas woods would mean for their communties.  Given the unprecedented drought and wildfire season we have experienced, it would seem as if these are legitimate concerns.  A number of chemicals are used to dilute the bitumen, some of them might be flamable or hazardous to residents living near a spill, but Transcanda and Enbridge refuse to disclose the chemicals used, considering them to be “proprietary.”  Chief George Bostok of the Gallatin, Texas fire department estimates that it would take the nearest hazmat team (from either Tyler or Longview) over an hour to respond if there was a leak in his jurisdiction.  

There is still time to stop Transcanada and Enbridge from building these dangerous pipelines.  Visit the Texas Sierra Club and stoptarsands.org for more information on how you can get involved.

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