Plagued by leaks, regulative reforms and assessments, political indecisiveness, and pleas of social injustices, oil pipelines are a poignant and controversial part of our infrastructure. But what’s the real story behind them?  Are they the environmental hazard activists claim? Are they the job creators the pipeline companies claim?  Are they a necessary link in the energy infrastructure?  Are there more economical and environmentally-friendly alternatives? A good place to start is a video by CNN looking at the pros and cons of the Keystone pipeline:

Synopsis

We look at 10 factors within the pipeline debate and scored them on YES Pipelines are good / NO Pipelines are bad.  While this is not a scientific scoring system with methodologies, statistics, and other means of calculating scores, our evaluation is purported to be fair to all sides and stakeholders within the pipeline arena.

Final Score

YES – 2    NO – 6

Recommendation

Continue to use the existing pipeline infrastructure we have running and use supposed pipeline capital investments to transition to a greener economy that stimulates the job market. We must do our part in mitigating climate change and preventing horrible disasters like Hurricane Harvey/Irma/Jose/Maria that scar families permanently and cost the economy billions of dollars.

Discussion

In North America and many other parts of the world, there are few more polarizing debates than whether or not we should create more pipelines. Unfortunately, with mainstream media covering every aspect of pipelines like Keystone or Northern Gateway, many opinionated voices have flooded the space. This has understandably left people feeling confused, or worse, misinformed. Many people are affected by pipelines, both positively and negatively, which biases their point of view.

First, it Is crucial to understand what pipelines do and how they connect to you. The graphic below illustrates the oil cycle. Between steps 2 and 3, 3 and 4, and 4 and 5, you will see pipes. These pipes, called pipelines, transport anything from raw, “crude” bitumen (See Factor 9) to the finished product that you pump into your car or what heats your home. Alternatively, this transportation is conducted by rail, truck, or boat. Pipelines already make up a large part of our infrastructure, but is there a need for more of them?

An Environmental Scorecard on Oil Pipelines - oil extraction process

In this article, we have outlined all of the major factors that influence the pipeline debate while trying to be as neutral as possible. With this being said, as self-described treehuggers, we admittedly will take a more earth-friendly stance on certain issues. By using images, peer-reviewed data and graphics, we hope to provide a thorough exposition of the pipeline debate to help eliminate any predisposed notions towards either end of the spectrum. 10 factors are presented and scored as points either for or against the manifestation of new pipelines:

Factor 1:  Tidewater and Economic Potential

If you have been following the pipeline chronicles to any degree, you have surely come across the word “tidewater”. Tidewater is a government catchphrase that simply means access to ocean ports. So why is it important? In the pipeline world, getting to tidewater is crucial because it opens up the international market. The Alberta Oil sands in Canada are a great example of this. They are completely landlocked, meaning that rail (and trucks in some cases) are required to get the oil to refineries and then onto tanker ships (See image below of a pipeline going from landlocked Alberta to the East Coast of Canada). Having a pipeline that sends the oil directly to refineries that are usually near tidewater expedites transportation, reduces costs, and drastically reduces the occurrence of spills (see Factor #2). Conservative estimates have rail costing $12-15 per barrel while pipelines are about $8. While these savings aren’t clear-cut since quality and international demand (among other factors) play a role, let’s keep it simple and call it a win for pipeline expansion.

An Environmental Scorecard on Oil Pipelines - transcanada energy east pipeline

Tidewater is a strong reason in favour of pipelines

Score:  YES – 1    NO – 0

Factor 2:  Oil Spills

Firstly, the term “spills” needs to be separated into land spills and ocean spills as they are intrinsically different. Land spills, while not getting as much media coverage, are significantly more common. Pipelines decrease the amount of land spills substantially because oil trucks or trains involved in collisions are more common than we would hope. They cause a higher potential for death because they are extremely flammable and prone to explode due to pressurization. Furthermore, it takes years for the land to recover from an oil spill, damaging the ecosystem.

Ocean spills have massive degradative effects, and not simply on the ecosystem. Economic effects in the spill area and neighboring shores include tremendous collapses to the fishing and tourism industries while electrical services like nuclear plants can also be closed due to the inability to obtain clean water for cooling purposes. In terms of the ecosystem, the term you may see most commonly used is “toxic contamination”. This is when an ocean species ingest/inhales oil. This causes a wide array of issues for these affected animals; damage to the nervous and digestive systems and reproduction problems are usually raised as primary issues. Finally, physical contact is when the animal comes in direct contact with the oil. You may have seen an image like the below (or the many Dawn commercials) where the oil is so thick that birds cannot activate their wings.

An Environmental Scorecard on Oil Pipelines – oil spills

The spill factor is two-pronged, as pipelines reduce the number of spills on land but also bring more oil to the oceans and thus raise ocean spill potential. Let’s call this a draw:

Score:  YES – 1    NO – 0

Factor 3:  Jobs

The job factor for pipelines is perhaps the most controversial of them all. Proponents hail that pipelines will reinvigorate the oil industry and provide thousands of new jobs. The truth is not that simple. First, many of the major oil companies lobbying for new pipelines are slashing thousands of jobs yearly, with no end in sight. In 2010, the top five oil companies laid off over 4,400 employees. The Keystone Pipeline is purported to create over 4000 new jobs, yet almost all of these will be temporary. With 2/5 of workers in the oil industry making minimum wage and having little to no job security, it begs the question of whether it will help middle/low-income families. The U.S Political Economy Research Institute estimates that a green stimulus package focused on renewable energy would create four times the jobs than a similarly priced investment into pipelines. Furthermore, as explained in future sections (peak oil and climate change), the wind and sun won’t stop bowing/shining but eventually, oil reserves will run dry.

The most recent U.S Energy and Employment report (2017) found that in 2015, solar energy employed 374,000 people (43 percent of the sector’s workforce) compared to all fossil fuels combined employing 187,117 people (22 percent of the workforce). They outline this in the graph below.

While we certainly understand that the potential to create thousands of new jobs looks appealing at first, we fail to see the benefit of temporary, low-paying work-terms for families. Since more long-term jobs can be created with sustainable investments, we score this one in favor of no pipeline expansion:

Score:  YES – 0    NO – 1

Factor 4: Greenhouse gas emissions/Climate Change

You knew this one was coming. Hurricane Harvey, Irma, Jose – will it ever stop? The simple answer is no, unless we are willing to change our ways of life. Remember when climate change was called (and still sometimes is called) global warming? While it’s true that is what’s causing climate changes (burning of oil creates carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere and trap some of the sun’s radiation and warming our planet), some people in Western society entertain the idea of having the world be a bit warmer. Climate change, on the other hand, has a much more dire and urgent tone. And our situation is dire and urgent. While pundits and political industrial spokespersons may boisterously disagree, over 99% of scientists have stated that climate change is happening. As massive hurricanes continue to wreak havoc on the Southern United States after destroying much of the Caribbean, we must ask ourselves what we are doing to slow this change down and mitigate the damage. Other than coal, oil creates the most greenhouse gas emissions when turning into energy. It begs the question, should we invest in infrastructure that puts people in harm’s way? For you economically-minded people out there, remember that the cost of Hurricane Sandy was over 1 billion USD and Irma is expected to be much more than that.

This one’s easy, one point to no pipelines:

Score:  YES – 0    NO – 1

Factor 5: Peak Oil

If you are following the pipeline debate, you’ve certainly heard the term “Peak Oil”. Let’s clear up the definition: peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of extraction of oil is reached. But seriously, what does that even mean? Peak oil takes three important factors into consideration: the total amount of proven oil reserves the world has and the cost to extract it while also accounting for new discoveries. The graph below provides a visual of the term. Peak oil was coined in the 1950s where it was predicted to be reached in 1970 but this changed with advancements specifically in hydraulic fracturing as a new oil extraction method. It can be argued that a new discovery will always come around and push the peak oil time back again and again. On the other side, oil is finite so we will run out eventually or we will slowly dwindle to a point where the average person cannot afford to buy the commodity. While the timeline is up for debate, what is not is that oil prices are climbing substantially because we must go deeper and deeper, further and further, and enter into previously unexplored regions (ex: Arctic, deep oceans) to get our oil. Soon, we must give in because the effort is not worth the reward. Let’s put that effort into green technologies that are becoming cheaper and more accessible every day.

That’s another easy one, one point to no pipelines:

Score:  YES – 0    NO – 1

Factor 6: Human Health and Air Pollution

When talking about oil in terms of health and air pollution, there is not much good to be said. The burning of oil to help us move or create electricity unleashes many harmful pollutants into the atmosphere other than the main global warming culprit carbon dioxide; ozone, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds are the most noted pollutants deriving directly or indirectly from oil. In particular, ozone and nitrogen oxides are linked to respiratory illnesses and lung damage. Cars are the main producer of nitrogen oxide, so when speaking about pipelines the point can be argued that fewer trucks and rail transporting oil will reduce air pollution. However, a fair rebuttal would be to say that investing in pollution-less resources, such as solar and wind power, would be best for human health. Pipelines must lead somewhere because they need to be refined and these refineries significantly affect the air quality in their surroundings.

An Environmental Scorecard on Oil Pipelines

We propose a draw here because each side makes valid and scientifically significant points:

Score:  YES – 1    NO – 1

Factor 7: Finite Resources/Stranded Assets

While the peak oil section hopefully helped explain that oil is a finite resource, what wasn’t articulated was that this issue suffers also from localization. In other words, every oil well is most certainly going to run out at a certain point. The big issue in the context of pipelines is what happens when a pipeline is connected to an oil well that has run dry? This is what’s called a stranded asset. The pipeline and all its affiliated infrastructure is rendered useless not because it doesn’t work but because it has no oil to transport. This will happen to all pipelines eventually so it’s fair and important to ask the question whether a huge (monetary, land, material) investment is worth it when you know the well will dry up.

An Environmental Scorecard on Oil Pipelines - oil extraction process

A very strong point in favour of no pipelines:

Score:  YES – 0    NO – 2

Factor 8: Fragmentation and Habitat Destruction

Fragmentation is an important term in ecosystem studies. It refers to an ecosystem being cut or fragmented, into two or more pieces because of a barrier. The barrier prevents the natural flow of the ecosystem and causes challenges to the food chain. Many species become endangered due to this phenomenon because their habitat is cut in half or less, meaning they have lesser chances of finding a mate, food, or a safe home. Migrating land animals are especially affected by this habitat destruction. A barrier could be anything from a road to a wall, or in this case, even a pipeline. Pipelines require incredible amounts of land as it carves its path to the ocean. It is not just animals that are affected; humans are too. In Canada especially, Indigenous Peoples are passionately arguing that putting a pipeline through their land and communities is a direct violation of their Charter rights and traditional way of life. Building a pipeline is more than land expropriation, it is a fragmentation.

This is a powerful point against pipelines, both from an animal/endangered species and ecosystem perspective and from a human perspective:

Score:  YES – 0    NO – 3

Factor 9: Crude Bitumen

Bitumen has nearly reached the point in North America where it is a household term so we have allowed it to be a factor all on its own. Bitumen is the material that is extracted from oil sands, such as the Alberta oil sands that are involved in the Keystone Pipeline debate. Bitumen is colloquially referred to as tar because it is very thick and will not flow unless it is heated or heavily diluted. Even the National Energy Board of Canada describes bitumen as a highly viscous material that is not usually recoverable at a commercial rate because it is too thick to flow. Bitumen creates more carbon dioxide emissions when burned for energy than regular petroleum or oil and requires much more manpower and energy to extract. With regards to pipelines, why would it be a good idea to put a product that is usually considered too thick to flow into a pipe for thousands of kilometers? The graphic below compares the density of bitumen to heavy, medium, and light oil. While the tar sands in Alberta continue to extract bitumen and refine it into usable oil, bitumen theoretically should never enter into a pipeline. Furthermore, because of its high greenhouse gas emissions, a case could be made to not use it at all as an energy source.

 An Environmental Scorecard on Oil Pipelines - oil extraction process - the graphic compares the density of bitumen to heavy, medium, and light oil.

If bitumen is all that remains, creating more pipelines is simply not worth it:

Score:  YES – 0    NO – 2

Factor 10: Community Economic Investment

Are pipelines worth the astronomic initial economic investment? While pipelines do bring oil to tidewater, as explained above, their initial investment is so high that it begs the question of whether the money could be used for other things. Remembering that most of the pipeline cost is borne by the oil company, should we really care? The answer is yes. Investors must bear some responsibility for where they choose to put their money because it will shape not only our futures but also those of our children and grandchildren.

There is already an existing infrastructure of refineries, ports, ships, and storage containers which constitutes an enormous investment.  However, oil is heavily subsidized by most governments that effectively transfers much of the investment costs to the public realm.  Add the cost of cleanups whose burden again is largely passed down to the public, and the health care of those who have in some way been contaminated by the toxic fumes from refinery plants, or oil extraction, or oil spills.  Increasing earthquakes as a result of fracking also causes building damages that are paid in part by insurance companies.  But the biggest cost is opportunity cost – by destroying our environment for oil extraction and not investing in renewable energy, the society is losing out on economic growth while perpetuating an aging system that has economically plateaued.  The question is what is the cost of our children’s future?  What is the world that we leave for them, and vision that is our legacy – forward and green, or backward and grey.

 An Environmental Scorecard on Oil Pipelines - oil extraction process

Score:  YES – 1    NO – 3

References

1.      Association of Oil Pipelines. (2017). Why do we need pipelines? Pipeline 101. Retrieved from http://www.pipeline101.com/Why-Do-We-Need-Pipelines

2.      Berke, J. (2016). Here’s where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stand on energy issues. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-and-clinton-on-the-issues-energy-policy-2016-9

3.      Cleaner + Greener. (2013). How do we cause air pollution? Leonardo Academy. Retrieved from http://www.cleanerandgreener.org/resources/air-pollution.html

4.      Leach, A. & Smith, K. (2014). Economist Andrew Leach and Kirsten Smith pop the notion of a “bitumen bubble”. Alberta Oil. Retrieved from https://www.albertaoilmagazine.com/2014 /02/ andrew-leach-bitumen-bubble/

5.      Lemphers, N. The climate implications of the proposed Keystone XL oilsands pipeline. The Pembina Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.pembina.org/pub/2407

6.      Phillips, B. (2017). Oil pipelines and spills. Auburn University. Retrieved from http://cla.auburn.edu/ces/energy/oil-pipelines-and-spills/

7.      Shogren, E. (2012). Firm blamed in the costliest oil spill ever. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/07/10/156561319/oil-company-knew-michigan-pipeline-was-cracked

8.      United States Department of Energy. (January, 2017). U.S energy and employment report. Retrieved from https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2017/01/f34/2017%20US%20Energy %20and%20Jobs%20Report_0.pdf

9.      United States Green Chamber of Commerce. Recycling wastewater from ‘oil sands’ mining: too little too late. “What is oil sands mining”. Retrieved from http://www.usgreenchamber.com/most-wastewater-from-oil-sands-mining-can-be-recycled/

10.  Vittana.org. (n.d.). 17 important Keystone Pipeline pros and cons. Retrieved from https://vittana.org/17-important-keystone-pipeline-pros-and-cons

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