Guest column: Alan Keller ... Keystone pipeline

By Alan Keller

Naples

The Naples Daily News recently published two interesting pieces on U.S. energy sources and by implication on climate change — the first an editorial endorsing the Keystone pipeline and the second a guest commentary by Kevin Doyle, executive director of Consumer Energy Alliance-Florida. Both are more noteworthy for what they leave unsaid than the arguments they make. Those omissions merit analysis.

The Daily News editorial recommends that the Keystone pipeline be approved because we are annoying Prime Minister Harper's Canadian government. The editorial argues that only two issues have held up approval — the routing of the pipeline over the critical Ogallala aquifer and a Republican imposed deadline for approval. If only they were the only two issues!

Unfortunately the 800 pound gorilla in the Keystone closet remains largely unaddressed because climate change has become so hyper-politicized that it makes science-based discussion almost impossible.

The predominant problem with the Keystone pipeline is that it would be used to transport oil which generates far more greenhouse gas than any other type of oil. Unlike crude which is extracted in liquid form, tar sands must be intensely heated to liberate the oil which consequently produces anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent more greenhouse gas than crude. Reliance on tar sands oil is the major reason Canada can not meet its own emissions objectives. No technology is in sight to reduce this shortcoming of tar sands oil. If the Keystone pipeline is built, the investment will guarantee that it will used for a long time to transport this "dirtiest of oils".

So the real Keystone question which the Daily News failed to discuss is one of intergenerational justice — whether we have the right to unnecessarily increase greenhouse gas emissions and burden our descendants with a much more dangerous world — just to avoid annoying Mr. Harper.

The guest commentary is simple cheerleading for natural gas obtained by fracking, "a process of drilling by pumping water mixed with sand and other components into the ground to create cracks" in the shale encasing the gas.

Doyle rightly points out that the recent boom in production of natural gas by fracking has generated many jobs and that so much natural gas is being produced that costs have fallen dramatically, making it the fuel of choice in new power plants including those in Florida. So price is a clear advantage of natural gas fracking. So too potentially could be the fact that burning natural gas produces 30 percent less greenhouse gas than burning oil and as much as 50 percent less than burning coal. That is the good news.

Unfortunately Doyle has omitted the bad news. For example, "other components" must be one of the best efforts to put lipstick on the pig to appear in a long while. Those "other components" are varying cocktails of 750 different chemicals, many toxic and/or carcinogens, used in large quantities along with huge volumes of water in the fracking process. Information is difficult to obtain on the chemicals in use at each drilling site because the Bush-Cheney Energy Act exempted fracking from enforcement under the Clean Water Act of 1974 and allowed drillers to withhold information on the chemicals they are using (the so-called Halliburton Loophole).

Although the industry claims that it can frack in ways which avoid harming water supplies, there are multiple opportunities for contamination during the injection process, from minor associated earthquakes, from inadequate sealing of the well piping, and from stored residues of fracking fluid.

As the Gulf oil spill demonstrated, industry safeguards do not always provide security, and contamination of water supplies has occurred at multiple fracking sites around the country prompting lawsuits demanding that in the public interest the Loophole be overturned.

A second drawback to fracking is that studies conducted in the eastern U.S. and Colorado show significant leakage of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, during fracking and transportation. The observed leakage is enough to wipe out the comparative advantage that natural gas has over oil and coal in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change.

To close the natural gas topic on a happier note, prospects of reducing leakage and averting water and air contamination seem to be theoretically good. Technology is available and if safest practices were to be employed, natural gas could serve as an affordable interim fuel producing lower greenhouse gas emissions than the other fossil alternatives until greener alternatives become viable.

Over a 35-year career Keller assisted governments in over 50 countries in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa on policy formulation relating to population growth and economic development and their effects on the environment. After retirement to Naples in 2002, Keller became involved in environmental conservation work and served as president of Collier County Audubon Society for four years. He remains on that board as conservation chairman.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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