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Posted by Jeff Rubin on February 18th, 2014 under SmallerWorld
One of the largest accidental releases of oil in Alberta’s history isn’t a burst pipeline and it doesn’t involve a train of tanker cars derailing into a river. It’s also not a thing of the past. It’s been going on for about a year and it’s still happening. An estimated 12,000 barrels of bitumen and water has now risen from giant cracks in the forest floor at an underground oil sands project run by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.
Oil leaks are a regrettable fact of life in the business, but this one might send shivers up the spine of even a veteran oilman. CNRL insists the seepage is due to the failure of four well bores that are supposed to draw oil from its Primrose project, near Cold Lake, to the processing facilities on the surface. Others, including even Alberta’s pro-industry energy regulator, aren’t so sure.
The well bores are separated by several kilometers, which calls into question why four would fail at the same time. A more frightening theory that’s gaining currency suggests CNRL may have overpressurized the underground formation causing the caprock closer to the surface to fracture, which is allowing the bitumen to seep upwards.
Primrose is a so-called in situ oil sands play, which means it uses a process that involves heating bitumen in the ground to a point where its viscosity allows it to be pumped to the surface. It doesn’t create the moonscapes and toxic tailings ponds that have become the signature features of oil sands mining projects, but it’s also not without its environmental footmarks. At Primrose, CNRL, for instance, has been ordered to pump more than 400,000 cubic meters of contaminated water from a small lake contaminated by the bitumen seepage. On a broader scale, the enormous amount of steam needed to extract bitumen from in situ plays, makes the undertaking more carbon intensive than even the mining projects that begin by stripping all traces of the original boreal forest from the landscape.
The carbon trail from in situ projects isn’t the only worry. The extraction method may also be having more of an impact on the earth itself than was previously thought. Geologists have found that injecting massive amounts of steam into bitumen deposits can actually lift the ground cover by more than a foot a month. If this upheaval fractures the caprock then that’s one less barrier left to stop the uncontrolled flow of bitumen to the surface.
The proliferation of such unconventional extraction methods, as the US experience with fracturing shale rock shows, can also have unintended seismic effects. In Oklahoma and other places, for instance, fracking has been linked to earthquake activity.
So far, the Alberta Energy Regulator has yet to deliver a final verdict on the Primrose leak, although it did recently move to limit the amount of steam that CNRL can inject into its wells. While the provincial energy regulator — led by a former EnCana executive and president of the oil industry’s lobby group — does seem to be suspicious of CNRL’s proffered explanation for the seepage, it has yet to order the company to stop injecting steam at its Primrose operations. The longer bitumen keeps seeping to the surface, though, the more pressure the regulator will face to do so.
Whether CNRL’s problems at Primrose are specific to that site or will become a more generic issue for the industry remains to be seen. But with 80 percent of the massive expansion planned for the oil sands coming from in situ production, it’s a question that investors in oil sands stocks will soon want answered.
The greenhouse gas emissions from oil flowing through TransCanada Pipelines’ proposed Energy East project would be equivalent to putting seven million new cars a year on Canadian roads, according to a report from an environmental think-tank released today.
The Pembina Institute’s study looked at the potential upstream carbon pollution — that is, from the well to the refinery gate — from oil flowing through the pipeline and found that it could add anywhere from 30 to 32 million tonnes of CO2 a year to the atmosphere.
“For a single piece of infrastructure, that’s huge. It’s more than the emissions of five provinces,” explained Clare Demerse, Pembina’s federal policy director and co-author of the report.
“The single most effective climate policy today [in Canada] is Ontario’s decision to phase out coal [for generating electricity]. The emissions associated with building Energy East could effectively wipe out the gains of our single most effective climate policy by far,” she told CBC News.
Tune in to The National on CBC-TV tonight to hear how pipeline companies and environmentalists are changing their tactics in Canada’s energy infrastructure debate.
Energy East is planned to take both conventional and oilsands oil from Alberta to the deep-water port in Saint John. The project would convert an existing natural gas pipeline that runs to the Ontario-Quebec border to carry oil, then build a new pipeline the rest of the way. When running at full capacity, Energy East would eventually carry 1.1-million barrels of crude a day.
TransCanada has yet to file an application with the National Energy Board, but it is expected to do so in the middle of this year.
Demerse admits that this is a preliminary report and that it is hard to comment accurately on Energy East because so little detail is known about the project. Still, she said, Pembina wanted to start the conversation about it as soon as possible.
TransCanada said it wants to take a closer look at the numbers before it comments on the report. The pipeline company has already held information sessions about the project in communities along the route.
It’s up to the U.S. President to decide whether the cross-border leg of the Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest of his country. Ultimately, his criteria are less scientific than political. Does he stand to lose more by alienating those who support or oppose the project?
With midterm elections coming up in November, Obama doesn’t have time to worry about Canada’s hurt feelings. Our economy, environment and opinion are very low on his list of priorities.
But the strongest pro-Keystone arguments on the American side raise an uncomfortable question: if the pipeline is approved, who benefits a little bit — and who benefits a lot? In other words, who gets the short end of the stick?
Houston-based Forbes contributor Loren Steffy lays out the business logic behind Keystone XLwith a clarity you’d be hard-pressed to find on our side of the border:
“[In 2011], for the first time in six decades, the U.S. exported more gasoline and diesel than it imported. The bulk of the exports went to Mexico, Canada and Brazil. Mexico and Canada, even without Keystone, are two of our biggest suppliers of crude (Canada is No. 1; Mexico is No. 4 behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela). Gasoline, of course, is more expensive than crude, so we are in effect importing raw materials, adding value, and selling it back at a higher price – and maintaining U.S. jobs in the process.”
Catch that? It sounds a lot like the old story about exporting logs and buying back the furniture. Our domestic politicians tell us we’re an “energy superpower,” but to hear U.S. analysts describe it, we’re more of a convenient resource colony.
Canada is a rare duck indeed: a developed nation that is also a net exporter of crude oil. But the U.S. is catching up, thanks to a different kind of oil. The crude coming out of North Dakota’s Bakken shale is light and sweet. Canada’s is higher in sulphur and carbon content, while lower in energy and therefore value.
We produce light crude too, but not enough to match domestic consumption. And we don’t have the refineries to handle our own heavy oil. So we import light crude and gasoline to make up the difference, and send our low-grade stuff to the U.S.
We’re producing so much oil sands crude that we’ve overwhelmed cross-border pipeline capacity. Now the industry is stuck in a Catch-22. Profit margins have dropped dramatically. To reassure investors, bitumen miners talk about dramatically expanding production. But the more we produce, the more we exacerbate the supply glut.
The industry’s best hope right now lies in pipelines like the Keystone XL.
Back to Barack Obama. He doesn’t care about the woes of Canadian oil sands producers. His job is to calculate the U.S. national interest — or at least a version he can sell to voters. Last week’s State Department environmental impact report gave him more political cover on the question of increased carbon emissions.
Yes, operating the pipeline would be like adding 300,000 cars to the road. Yes, Canadian crude is worse for the atmosphere than the other heavy grades it would displace. But, the reportargues, without Keystone much of the same oil would find its way to the same refineries by rail — creating even more emissions than the pipeline, and significantly increasing the risk of accidents.
Rejecting Keystone, the report finds, won’t stop Canadian producers from digging up oil. The question is how they get it to customers.
“Keystone is important to the U.S. because it amounts to an energy insurance policy,” wrote Loren Steffy in Forbes. “Keystone gives us improved access to Canadian crude, which, with or without Keystone, is likely to remain some of the cheapest in the world.”
Is it smart for the president to lock in a stable supply of cheap oil from an eager neighbour? Yes. Is it smart to provide short-term jobs for U.S. construction and refinery workers? Yes. Will the political benefits outweigh the backlash? It’s a good bet Obama will decide yes.
The voters who will be most upset are probably the Nebraska ranchers whose lands will be expropriated. But they’re already Republicans.
Many backs will be slapped and victory cigars chomped in Calgary and Ottawa, the day Keystone XL is approved. Stephen Harper and his cabinet ministers will, no doubt, claim full credit.
Who will be the real winners? Oil companies, certainly. The Government of Alberta, which badly needs the royalties.
On a more modest level, perhaps the Canadian treasury. More than half the federal government’s revenue now comes from personal income tax. So the bean counters will be happy at the prospect of higher wages in the oil patch, so long as wages don’t drop in other parts of the economy.
But remember, oil and gas together make up less than 7% of Canada’s GDP. The entire sector pays 4.2% of total corporate taxes. And it provides only 3% of the jobs in the country. What’s good for oil sands companies is not necessarily the same as what’s good for the nation.
How about ordinary Canadians? Perhaps we’ll feel a fleeting sense of pride that our low-grade crude has found a loving home in the big Gulf Coast refineries. Then we’ll go fill up our gas tanks.
Image credit: www.keystone-xl.com
Ending the World the Human Way
Climate Change as the Anti-News
By Tom Engelhardt
Here’s the scoop: When it comes to climate change, there is no “story,” not in the normal news sense anyway.
The fact that 97% of scientists who have weighed in on the issue believe that climate change is a human-caused phenomenon is not a story. That only one of 9,137 peer-reviewed papers on climate change published between November 2012 and December 2013 rejected human causation is not a story either, nor is the fact that only 24 out of 13,950 such articles did so over 21 years. That the anything-but-extreme Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers an at least 95% guarantee of human causation for global warming is not a story, nor is the recent revelation that IPCC experts believe we only have 15 years left to rein in carbon emissions or we’ll need new technologies not yet in existence which may never be effective. Nor is the recent poll showing that only 47% of Americans believe climate change is human-caused (a drop of 7% since 2012) or that the percentage who believe climate change is occurring for any reason has also declined since 2012 from 70% to 63%. Nor is the fact that, as the effects of climate change came ever closer to home, media coverage of the subject dropped between 2010 and 2012 and, though rising in 2013, was still well below coverage levels for 2007 to 2009. Nor is it a story that European nations, already light years ahead of the United States on phasing out fossil fuels, recently began considering cutbacks on some of their climate change goals, nor that U.S. carbon emissions actually rose in 2013, nor that the southern part of the much disputed Keystone XL pipeline, which is to bring particularly carbon-dirty tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast, is now in operation, nor that 2013 will have been either the fourth or seventh hottest year on record, depending on how you do the numbers.
Don’t misunderstand me. Each of the above was reported somewhere and climate change itself is an enormous story, if what you mean is Story with a capital S. It could even be considered the story of all stories. It’s just that climate change and its component parts are unlike every other story from the Syrian slaughter and the problems of Obamacare to Bridgegate and Justin Bieber’s arrest. The future of all other stories, of the news and storytelling itself, rests on just how climate change manifests itself over the coming decades or even century. What happens in the 2014 midterms or the 2016 presidential elections, in our wars, politics, and culture, who is celebrated and who ignored — none of it will matter if climate change devastates the planet.
Climate change isn’t the news and it isn’t a set of news stories. It’s the prospective end of all news. Think of it as the anti-news.
All the rest is part of the annals of human history: the rise and fall of empires, of movements, of dictatorships and democracies, of just about anything you want to mention. The most crucial stories, like the most faddish ones, are — every one of them — passing phenomena, which is of course what makes them the news.
Climate change isn’t. New as that human-caused phenomenon may be — having its origins in the industrial revolution — it’s nonetheless on a different scale from everything else, which is why journalists and environmentalists often have so much trouble figuring out how to write about it in a way that leaves it continually in the news. While no one who, for instance, lived through “Frankenstorm” Sandy on the East Coast in 2012 could call the experience “boring” — winds roaring through urban canyons like freight trains, lights going out across lower Manhattan, subway tunnels flooding, a great financial capital brought to its proverbial knees — in news terms, much of global warming is boring and repetitive. I mean, drip, drip, drip. How many times can you write about the melting Arctic sea ice or shrinking glaciers and call it news? How often are you likely to put that in your headlines?
We’re so used to the phrase “the news” that we often forget its essence: what’s “new” multiplied by that “s.” It’s true that the “new” can be repetitively so. How many times have you seen essentially the same story about Republicans and Democrats fighting on Capitol Hill? But the momentousness of climate change, which isn’t hard to discern, is difficult to regularly turn into meaningful “new” headlines (“Humanity Doomed If…”), to repeatedly and successfully translate into a form oriented to the present and the passing moment, to what happened yesterday, today, and possibly tomorrow.
If the carbon emissions from fossil fuels are allowed to continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, the science of what will happen sooner or later is relatively clear, even if its exact timetable remains in question: this world will be destabilized as will humanity (along with countless other species). We could, at the worst, essentially burn ourselves off Planet Earth. This would prove a passing event for the planet itself, but not for us, nor for any fragment of humanity that managed to survive in some degraded form, nor for the civilizations we’ve developed over thousands of years.
In other words, unlike “the news,” climate change and its potential devastations exist on a time scale not congenial either to media time or to the individual lifetimes of our short-lived species. Great devastations and die-offs have happened before. Give the planet a few million years and life of many sorts will regenerate and undoubtedly thrive. But possibly not us.
Nuclear Dress Rehearsal
Here’s the strange thing: we went through a dress rehearsal for this in the twentieth century when dealing (or not dealing) with nuclear weapons, aka the Bomb — often capitalized in my youth as a sign of how nuclear disaster was felt to be looming over life itself. With the dropping of that “victory weapon” on two Japanese cities in 1945, a new era opened. For the first time, we humans — initially in Washington, then in Moscow, then in other national capitals — took the power to end all life on this planet out of God’s hands. You could think of it as the single greatest, if also grimmest, act of secularization in history. From 1945 on, at least prospectively, we could do what only God had previously been imagined capable of: create an End Time on this planet.
In itself, that was a remarkable development. And there was nothing figurative about it. The U.S. military was involved in what, in retrospect, can only be considered operational planning for world’s end. In its first “Single Integrated Operational Plan,” or SIOP, in 1960, for instance, it prepared to deliver more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities which would then, if all went well, cease to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured. (Those figures undoubtedly underestimated radiation and other effects, and today we also know that the exploding of so many nuclear weapons would have ended life as we know it on this planet.) In those years, in the most secret councils of government, American officials also began to prepare for the possibility that 100 Russian missiles might someday land on U.S. targets, killing or injuring 22 million Americans. Not so many years later, the weaponry of either of the superpowers had the capability of destroying the planet many times over.
The U.S. and the USSR were by then locked in a struggle that gained a remarkably appropriate acronym: MAD (for “mutually assured destruction”). During the Cold War, the U.S. built an estimated 70,000 nuclear warheads and bombs of every size and shape, the Soviet Union55,000, and with them went a complex semi-secret nuclear geography of missile silos, plutonium plants, and the like that shadowed the everyday landscape we knew.
In 1980, scientists discovered a layer of particularly iridium-rich clay in sediments 65 million years old, evidence that a vast asteroid impact had put such a cloud of particulates into the atmosphere as to deprive the planet of sunshine, turning it into a wintry vista, and in the process contributing to the demise of the dinosaurs. In the years that followed, it became ever clearer that nuclear weapons, dispatched in the quantities both the U.S. and USSR had been planning for, would have a similar effect. This prospective phenomenon was dubbed “nuclear winter.”
In this way, nuclear extermination would also prove to be an apocalyptic weather event, giving it an affinity with what, in the decades to come, would be called “global warming” and then “climate change.” The nuclear story, the first (and at the time the only imaginable) tale of our extinction by our own hands, rose into the news periodically and even into front-page headlines, as during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as into the movies and popular culture. Unlike climate change, it was a global catastrophe that could happen at any moment and be carried to its disastrous conclusion in a relatively short period of time, bringing it closer to the today and tomorrow of the news.
Nonetheless, nuclear arsenals, too, were potential life-enders and so news-enders. As a result, most of the time their existence and development managed to translate poorly into daily headlines. For so many of those years in that now long-gone world of the Cold War stand-off, the nuclear issue was somehow everywhere, a kind of exterminationist grid over life itself, and yet, like climate change, nowhere at all. Except for a few brief stretches in those decades, antinuclear activists struggled desperately to bring the nuclear issue out of the shadows.
The main arsenals on the planet, still enormous, are now in a kind of nuclear hibernation and are only “news” when, for instance, their very backwater status becomes an issue. This was the case recently with a spate of headlines about test cheating and drug use scandals involving U.S. Air Force “missileers” who feel that in their present posts they are career losers. Most of the major national arsenals are almost never mentioned in the news. They are essentially no-news zones. These would include the gigantic Russian one, the perhaps 200 weapons in theIsraeli arsenal, and those of the British, French, Indians, and Pakistanis (except when it comes to stories about fears of future loose nukes from that country’s stock of weapons).
The only exceptions in the twenty-first century have been Iran, a country in the spotlight for a decade, even though its nuclear program lies somewhere between prospective and imaginary, and North Korea, which continues to develop a modest (but dangerous) arsenal. On the other hand, even though a full-scale nuclear war between Pakistan and India, each of which may now have about 100 weapons in their expanding arsenals, would be a global catastrophe with nuclear-winter effects that would engulf the planet causing widespread famine, most of the time you simply wouldn’t know it. These days, it turns out we have other problems.
The End of History?
If the end of the world doesn’t fit well with “the news,” neither does denial. The idea of a futureless humanity is difficult to take in and that has undoubtedly played a role in suppressing the newsiness of both the nuclear situation and climate change. Each is now woven into our lives in essential, if little acknowledged, ways and yet both remain remarkably recessive. Add to that a fatalistic feeling among many that these are issues beyond our capacity to deal with, and you have a potent brew not just for the repression of news but also for the failure to weave what news we do get into a larger picture that we could keep before us as we live our lives. Who, after all, wants to live life like that?
And yet nuclear weapons and climate change are human creations, which means that the problems they represent have human solutions. They are quite literally in our hands. In the case of climate change, we can even point to an example of what can be done about a human-caused global environmental disaster-in-the-making: the “hole” in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Discovered in 1985, it continued to grow for years threatening a prospective health catastrophe. It was found to be due to the effects of CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) compounds used in air-conditioning units, refrigerators, and aerosol propellants, and then released into the atmosphere. In fact, the nations of the world did come together around CFCs, most of which have now been replaced, while that hole has been reduced, though it isn’t expected to heal entirely until much later this century.
Of course, compared with the burning of fossil fuels, the economic and political interests involved in CFCs were minor. Still, the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer is evidence that solutions can be reached, however imperfectly, on a global scale when it comes to human-caused environmental problems.
What makes climate change so challenging is that the carbon dioxide (and methane) being generated by the extraction, production, and burning of fossil fuels supports the most profitable corporations in history, as well as energy states like Saudi Arabia and Russia that are, in essence, national versions of such corporations. The drive for profits has so far proven unstoppable. Those who run the big oil companies, like the tobacco companies before them, undoubtedly know what potential harm they are doing to us. They know what it will mean for humanity if resources (and profits) aren’t poured into alternative energy research and development. And like those cigarette companies, they go right on. They are indeed intent, for instance, on turning North America into “Saudi America,” and hunting down and extracting the last major reserves of fossil fuel in the most difficult spots on the planet. Their response to climate change has, in fact, been to put some of their vast profits into the funding of a campaignof climate-change denialism (and obfuscation) and into the coffers of chosen politicians and think tanks willing to lend a hand.
In fact, one of the grim wonders of climate change has been the ability of Big Energy and its lobbyists to politicize an issue that wouldn’t normally have a “left” or “right,” and to make bad science into an ongoing news story. In other words, an achievement that couldn’t be morecriminal in nature has also been their great coup de théâtre.
In a world heading toward the brink, here’s the strange thing: most of the time that brink is nowhere in sight. And how can you get people together to solve a human-caused problem when it’s so seldom meaningfully in the news (and so regularly challenged by energy interests when it is)?
This is the road to hell and it has not been paved with good intentions. If we stay on it, we won’t even be able to say that future historians considered us both a wonder (for our ability to create world-ending scenarios and put them into effect) and a disgrace (for our inability to face what we had done). By then, humanity might have arrived at the end of history, and so of historians.
Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, isTerminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
[Note: I would like to thank Jonathan Schell for loaning me the term “anti-news” in relation to climate change.]
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.
Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt
Big Oil Is Gaming the System to Raise Domestic U.S. Prices
Completion of the entire [Keystone] pipeline would raise prices at the pump in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains 10 to 20 cents a gallon, Verleger, the Colorado consultant, said in an e-mail message.The higher crude prices also would erase the discount enjoyed by cities including Chicago, Cheyenne and Denver, Verleger said.
CNN Money reports:
Gas prices might go up, not down: Right now, a lot of oil being produced in Canada and North Dakota has trouble reaching the refineries and terminals on the Gulf. Since that supply can’t be sold abroad, it reduces the competition for it to Midwest refineries that can pay lower prices to get it.
Giving the Canadian oil access to the Gulf means the glut in the Midwest goes away,making it more expensive for the region.
Tyson Slocum – Director of Public Citizens’ Energy Program – explains:
How does bringing in more oil supply result in higher gas prices, you ask? Let me walk you through the facts. A combination of record domestic oil production and anemic domestic demand has resulted in large stockpiles of crude oil in the U.S. In particular, supplies of crude in the critical area of Cushing, OK increased more than 150% from 2004 to early 2011 (compared to a 40% rise for the country as a whole). Segments of the oil industry want to import additional supplies of crude from Canada, bypass the surplus crude stockpiles in Oklahoma in an effort to refine this Canadian imported oil into gasoline in the Gulf Coast with the goal of increasing gasoline exports to Latin America and other foreign markets.
Cushing typically is a busy place – I noted in my recent Senate testimony how Wall Street speculators were snapping up oil storage capacity at Cushing. And all of that surplus capacity is pushing WTI prices down – and for many in the oil business, downward pressure on prices is a terrible thing. As MarketWatch reports, “[B]y running south across six U.S. states from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, [the Keystone pipeline] would skirt the pipeline hub at landlocked Cushing, Okla., a bottleneck that has forced Canadian producers to sell their oil at a steep discount to other crude grades facing fewer obstacles to the market.
There are several global crude oil benchmarks, and the price differential between Brent and WTI now is around $10/barrel, which is a fairly significant spread, historically speaking. Moving more Canadian crude to bypass the WTI-benchmarked Cushing stocks, the industry hopes, will align WTI’s current price discount to be higher, and more in line with Brent.
The Keystone pipeline isn’t just about expanding the unsustainable mining of … Canadian crude, but also to raise gasoline prices for American consumers whose gasoline is currently priced under WTI crude benchmark prices.
Slocum notes that oil is America’s number 1 import at time same that fuel is America’s number 1 export.
Specifically, more oil is being produced now under Obama than under Bush. But gas consumption is flat.
So producers are exporting refined products. By exporting, producers keep refined products off the U.S. market, creating artificial scarcity and keeping U.S. fuel prices high.
Slocum said that the main goal of the Keystone Pipeline is to import Canadian crude so the big American oil companies can export more refined fuel, driving up prices for U.S. consumers.
Tom Steyer points out:
Statements from pipeline developers reveal that the intent of the Keystone XL is not to help Americans, but to use America as an export line to markets in Asia and Europe. As Alberta’s energy minister Ken Hughes acknowledged, “[I]t is a strategic imperative, it is in Alberta’s interest, in Canada’s interest, that we get access to tidewater… to diversify away from the single continental market and be part of the global market.”
And see this NBC News report.
As Fortune explains, the U.S. is now an exporter of refined petroleum products, but Americans aren’t getting reduced prices because the oil companies are now pricing the fuel according to Europeanmetrics:
The U.S. is now selling more petroleum products than it is buying for the first time in more than six decades. Yet Americans are paying around $4 or more for a gallon of gas, even as demand slumps to historic lows. What gives?
Americans have been told for years that if only we drilled more oil, we would see a drop in gasoline prices.
But more drilling is happening now, and prices are still going up. That’s because Wall Street has changed the formula for pricing gasoline.
Until this time last year, gas prices hinged on the price of U.S. crude oil, set daily in a small town in Cushing, Oklahoma – the largest oil-storage hub in the country. Today, gasoline prices instead track the price of a type of oil found in the North Sea called Brent crude. And Brent crude, it so happens, trades at a premium to U.S. oil by around $20 a barrel.
So, even as we drill for more oil in the U.S., the price benchmark has dodged the markdown bullet by taking cues from the more expensive oil. As always, we must compete with the rest of the world for petroleum – including our own.
This is an unprecedented shift. Since the dawn of the modern-day oil markets in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s, U.S. gasoline prices have followed the domestic oil price ….
In the past year, U.S. oil prices have repeatedly traded in the double-digits below the Brent price. That is money Wall Street cannot afford to walk away from.
To put it more literally, if a Wall Street trader or a major oil company can get a higher price for oil from an overseas buyer, rather than an American one, the overseas buyer wins. Just because an oil company drills inside U.S. borders doesn’t mean it has to sell to a U.S. buyer. There is patriotism and then there is profit motive. This is why Americans should carefully consider the sacrifice of wildlife preservation areas before designating them for oil drilling. The harsh reality is that we may never see a drop of oil that comes from some of our most precious lands.
With the planned construction of more pipelines from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, oil will be able to leave the U.S. in greater volumes.
This isn’t old news … or just a hypothetical worry.
As Bloomberg reported in December 2013:
West Texas Intermediate crude gained the most since September after TransCanada Corp. (TRP) said it will begin operating the southern leg of its Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf Coast in January.
[West Texas Intermediate oil] prices jumped to a one-month high, narrowing WTI’s discount to Brent. TransCanada plans to start deliveries Jan. 3 to Port Arthur, Texas, via the segment of the Keystone expansion project from Cushing, Oklahoma, according to a government filing yesterday. Cushing is the delivery point for WTI futures. Crude [oil pries] also rose as U.S. total inventories probably slid for the first time since September last week.
“With the pipeline up and running, you are going to see drops in Cushing inventories,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research in Winchester, Massachusetts. “It drives up WTI prices far more than Brent. You are going to see a narrowing of the Brent-WTI differential.”
State Department Releases Flawed Keystone XL Final Environmental Review In Super Bowl Friday Trash Dump | DeSmogBlog
The State Department has released theFinal Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the proposed northern leg of the controversial and long-embattled TransCanada Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
In a familiar “Friday trash dump” — a move many expected the Obama administration to shun — John Kerry’s State Department chose to “carefully stage-manage the report’s release” on Super Bowl Friday when most Americans are switching focus to football instead of political scandals. **See bottom of this post for breaking analysis**
Anticipating the report’s release, insiders who had been briefed on the review told Bloomberg News the SEIS — not a formal decision by the State Department on the permitting of the pipeline, but rather another step in the department’s information gathering — “will probably disappoint environmental groups and opponents of the Keystone pipeline.”
And, indeed, the new report reads: “Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.”
This reiterates one of the earlier draft’s most heavily criticized conclusions that the pipeline is “unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands,” and thus avoids a comprehensive assessment of those climate impacts.
In June 2013, President Obama said in a speech announcing his Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University that he would only approve the permit if it was proven that “this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
The final environmental review is being released on the heels of damning revelations about the close ties between the Canadian pipeline builder, TransCanada and Environmental Resources Management (ERM). ERM was hired by the State Department to conduct the environmental review.
Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica did not mince words in his reaction to the State Department’s new report, telling the National Journal, “The State Department’s environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline is a farce. Since the beginning of the assessment, the oil industry has had a direct pipeline into the agency.”
ERM Group: A History Tied to API
Over the past two years, DeSmogBlog has published a number of articles documenting controversial projects — in Peru, the Caspian Sea, Delaware and Alaska — that the ERM Group has approved. In each case the projects have been permitted and have eventually resulted in spills or severe environmental damage.
ERM Group is a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute, which has spent over $22 million lobbying on behalf of Keystone XL.
Timing of the Release
The Final SEIS also precedes a heavily anticipated State Department Inspector General’s report addressing these potential conflicts-of-interest between TransCanada, ERM and the State Department, as has been covered here onDeSmogBlog. It also occurs on a Friday afternoon before the Super Bowl, with attention of much of the American public diverted.
Environmental groups and opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline were surprised by the timing and suddenness of the report’s release. The surprise was not shared by supporters of the pipeline.
For days, industry reps have been claiming that the SEIS would be released this week. The loudest voice was that of Jack Gerard, chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute (API), who speaking to Reuters last week said, “It’s our expectation it will be released next week,” citing sources within the administration.
ERM Group is a dues-paying member of API. Of this clear conflict and the timing of the release, Steve Kretzmann of Oil Change International wrote:
Jack Gerard was apparently briefed by “sources within the Administration” on the timing and content of the report. Before the environmental community. Before Congress. Before anyone else.
If that doesn’t prove once and for all what a corrupt process this has been, I don’t know what will. The oil industry, which has had this process rigged since the word go, are the first to know, because of their cozy and corrupt role in this process.
Green Groups Respond
Jim Murphy of National Wildlife Federation asked this of the decision before the State Department:
The question going into the State Department’s final environmental impact statement is this: Who will State listen to? Will State reverse course after listening to the Environmental Protection Agency experts who criticized the first draft as ‘inadequate‘ and the second draft as ‘insufficient’ on climate impacts, oil spill risks, and threats to water resources? Will it listen to Goldman Sachs, who called Keystone XL key to expanding tar sands production and all the carbon pollution that goes along with it?
What about Canada’s own government or the oil industry, which has repeatedly said Keystone XL is needed to realize tar sands growth plans that Canada projects will cause its own carbon emissions tosoar 38% by 2030? Or will State stand by the oil industry consultants it hired to write that first draft currently being investigated forconflicts of interest?
During the State of the Union, President Obama said he wanted to be able to look into the eyes of his children’s children and say he did everything he could to confront the climate crisis. How exactly does he plan on explaining to his grandchildren how building a 800,000 barrel a day tar sands pipeline like Keystone XL helped solve climate change? The twisted logic in the State Department’s environmental assessment might provide some political cover in DC, but it will be small comfort for future generations who have the bear the impacts of the climate crisis.
Over 76,000 citizens have pledged an oath of civil disobedience if Keystone XL gets the final green-light from President Obama. Though that decision will probably not be made for months.
Green Groups Take Action
In anticipation of the report’s release, a diverse coalition of 16 environmental organizations sent a petition to Secretary of State John Kerry, insisting that the scope of the environmental review is far too narrow and that an entirely new review is necessary.
Citing the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, the groups threaten legal action if the environmental review doesn’t consider the cumulative impact of related projects, like the Keystone XL and the proposed Alberta Clipper expansion.
The groups write:
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that an EIS consider the cumulative impacts of the proposed federal agency action. Cumulative impacts are defined as: “the impact on the environment which results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency (Federal or non-Federal) or person undertakes such other actions.”…
The Keystone XL DSEIS fails to address the cumulative effects of Keystone XL and Alberta Clipper, especially the growth-inducing effects that the combined 1.3 million bpd of additional pipeline capacity would have on the rate of tar sands extraction in Canada.
The groups signing the petition include: Sierra Club, Bold Nebraska, Center for Biological Diversity, For Love of Water, Friends of the Earth, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Labor Network for Sustainability, Michigan Environmental Council, Minnesota Environmental Partnership, Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, Michigan Land Use Institute, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oil Change International, Rainforest Action Network and 350.org.
“The State Department will open a 30-day comment period on Feb. 5, and the agencies will have 90 days to weigh in,” The Washington Post explained. “After a decision is issued other agencies have 15 days to object, and if one does, the president must decide whether or not to issue the permit.”
DeSmogBlog will continue to feature in-depth analysis of the Keystone FEIS and responses from energy, climate and policy experts.
**UPDATES WILL BE ADDED BELOW AS ANALYSIS ROLLS IN**
BusinessWeek points to this section on the paltry job creation: Once constructed, Keystone XL “will support only 50 U.S. jobs–35 permanent employees and 15 temporary contractors.”
Ben Jervey contributed reporting to this article.
Image credit: Kris Krug.
Andrew Nikiforuk: Canada’s Petrostate Has “Dramatically Diminished Our International Reputation” | DeSmog Canada
“Alberta is very much a petrostate,” says journalist and author Andrew Nikiforuk. “It gets about 30 per cent of its income from the oil and gas industry. So as a consequence, the government over time has tended more to represent this resource and the industry that produces it, than its citizens. This is very typical of a petrostate.”
The flow of money, he says, is at the heart of the issue. “When governments run on petro dollars or petro revenue instead of taxes then they kind of sever the link between taxation and representation, and if you’re not being taxed then you’re not being represented. And that’s what happens in petrostates and as a consequence they come to represent the oil and gas industry. Albert is a classic example of this kind of relationship.”
In this interview with DeSmog, Nikiforuk explains the basics of his petrostate thesis and asks why Canada, unlike any other democratic nation, hasn’t had a meaningful public debate about the Alberta oilsands and how they’ve come to shape the Canadian landscape, physically as much as politically.
The Kochs have bet big that the earth is doomed. (And Obama is fighting for them to win that bet).
Forbes magazine noted, way back in 2006, that though the Koch brothers – David and Charles – could sell Koch Industries and live happily ever after (on the proceeds from selling what was then the world’s largest private company), Charles, who actually runs the firm, told them straight out, that selling it would be “literally over my dead body.”
In other words: they won’t do that.
What, then, is such an extraordinary business plan, that keeps them from simply retiring as two of the world’s richest people? The answer seems clear:
Petroleum has been their firm’s base, ever since their dad, Fred Koch, started Koch Industries in 1940 (on the proceeds he had earned mainly during 1929-32 from helping Stalin build the Soviet Union’s crucial oil-infrastructure). However, Koch Industries has been diversifying recently. In 2004, they paid $4.2 billion for Dupont’s fibers businesses, including Dacron and much else. Then, in 2005, they paid $21 billion for Georgia-Pacific, the paper and wood-products manufacturer.
But their chief business continues to be petroleum: not just the pipelines to transport it, but increasingly also the raw oil in the ground, and the dirtier the oil the better. They now own two-thirds of the world’s dirtiest oil: Alberta Canada’s tar sands. And they are lobbying and propagandizing heavily for President Obama to allow construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline (which pipeline they would own 25%) in order for that deeply land-locked Canadian oil to be transported to two of their own Texas refineries, which have been especially adapted for the purpose. Not only would they be deriving about $1 billion per year from operating the pipeline, but they would also be marketing the tar sands, two thirds of which are on land that is owned by Koch Industries. That’s the two-thirds of Alberta’s tar sands oil that the Kochs actually own.
However, one of the world’s biggest banks, HSBC, came out with a study, on 25 January 2013, “Oil & Carbon Revisited: Value at Risk from ‘Unburnable’ Reserves,” which reported that in order for this planet to have even as much as a 50% chance of avoiding the climate’s going haywire, “only around 1,000 Gt [Gigatons] or a third of current proven reserves can be ‘burned’.” Furthermore, “Embedded ‘carbon’ in coal is three times the amount bound in oil and over four times that in gas.” This report acknowledged that, “It is clear that reduced usage of coal [whose usage is soaring in China and already causing massive health-problems in Chinese cities] is the key to stabilising and eventually reducing annual carbon emissions. However, we believe that reductions in oil demand … can be delivered more quickly than coal through improvements in transport fuel economy.” In other words: forcing a reduction in oil-use is absolutely essential, in order for our descendants not to lose the planet quickly.
On page 16 of that report was a stunning calculation, titled “Break-evens for selected high-cost oil projects,” and the researchers actually calculated there the price that a barrel of oil would need to fetch on the global market in order for each type of petroleum to be able to be produced without the sellers losing money on that oil. For “Deepwater” projects, it ranged from $49.40 up to $64.00. On “Heavy oil,” it was $54.70. And on “Oil sands” (Alberta’s oil, the dirtiest in the world), it was $75.50.
In other words, the Koch brothers (via their private firm) own two-thirds of the world’s dirtiest petroleum, which consequently is so costly to process, that it becomes utterly worthless at a global per-barrel price of $75.50. All other oil would still be profitable at that price, but not the oil that now constitutes the biggest speculative (and by far the riskiest) portion of the Koch brothers’ (or of Koch Industries’) massive investment portfolio.
Whereas other oil companies have focused on the lowest-cost petroleums to get to market, the Kochs have focused instead on the highest-cost petroleum to get to market. They bought it cheap, because it’s so dirty and land-locked.
Their business-plan (other than diversifying into non-petroleum industries) is simple: Drive their costs to produce their filthy oil down from the existing $75.50 per barrel, in order to make it more competitive (since they own two-thirds of the estimated 874 billion barrels of this stuff).
How can they drive that cost down? Right now, President Barack Obama is negotiating, behind the scenes, through his U.S. Trade Representative, to get Europe to weaken its anti-global-warming standards, so as to enable the world’s dirtiest oil to become more price-competitive.
On 24 September 2013, Kate Sheppard at Huffington Post bannered “Michael Froman, Top U.S. Trade Official, Sides With Tar Sands Advocates,” and she reported that the Obama Administration was threatening Europe with retaliation at the World Trade Organization if Europe didn’t eliminate its distinction between high-CO2 oil and regular oil – between tar-sands-derived oil, and ordinary petroleum. The U.S. Trade Representative told Congress that the issue he had here didn’t concern climate change, but only “inadequate transparency and public participation in the European Commission’s regulatory process.” Then, Sheppard herself asked one of his aides, who simply reiterated that by saying, “The United States shares the EU’s objective of reducing greenhouse gas intensity, but we have raised concerns with respect to inadequate transparency and public participation in the European Commission’s regulatory process.” Sheppard, at least as far as her news report indicated, asked no follow-up question, such as: “‘inadequate’ in what way; and how can you even be talking about that since the issue here is global warming?” So: the President and his Representative have not been confronted publicly on this matter.
Barack Obama’s public statements against global warming were belied by his actions in private, and yet his hirees, such as the U.S. Trade Representative, Michael Froman, formerly a Managing Director of Citigroup, were turning the table and accusing the EU of “inadequate transparency” – as if the future of this planet weren’t the issue, and a vastly more important one.
If President Obama can force Europe to lower their anti-global-warming standards in order to enable the Kochs to export their super-dirty oil to Europe via the Kochs’ Corpus Christi Texas refineries, then a significant portion of the existing cost-disadvantage of the Kochs’ super-dirty oil (as compared to cleaner oil) will be absorbed ultimately by the planet itself, in the form of added global warming. “These refineries have a combined crude oil processing capacity of about 300,000 barrels per day. While one potential purpose of the KXL Pipeline for Koch Industries could be to provide access to Canadian tar sands for its Corpus Christi refineries, this benefit appears relatively insignificant compared to their massive potential profits from producing tar sands crude oil.” (See page 11 there.) In other words: President Obama is negotiating behind the scenes in order to transfer these harms onto everyone else, so that the benefits will go to the Kochs for their having paid dirt-prices for each and every one of the two million acres of tar sands they own. (That’s on page 7.) Consequently, there would be, for the Koch brothers (as stated in the report’s Executive Summary), “$100 billion in potential profits due to KXL.” Their destroying this planet would thus be very profitable for them.
Apparently, this is the business plan that they are so eager to pursue that it’s more attractive to them than simply retiring: Instead of their being each tied with the other as being the6th-wealthiest person on this planet, they’d probably be by far the wealthiest two people of all individuals on Earth. (The report estimates that their joint existing fortune of roughly $80 billion will be enhanced by yet another $100 billion, for a total of $180 billion, or $90 billion apiece.) Apparently, the Kochs are doing this for sheer status. (They couldn’t possibly consume all their wealth even if they wanted to.) It thus seems that their motivation is basically similar to that of their father’s great benefactor, Stalin. His status was based on communist values; theirs is based on fascist values; but the motivation is status, just the same.
And Barack Obama, against whom the Kochs bundled more campaign cash than any other two people, for Mitt Romney and for Republicans in Congress and in the state houses, is fighting against the European Union, in order to assist the Kochs to achieve this, their dream. Perhaps that’s the only thing in this story that doesn’t make sense, but it is certainly the case, up till now. And (if there is another thing that doesn’t make sense) the massively ignorant American public wants them to win.
Obama’s excuse for trying to force Europe to buy the Kochs’ filthy oil might be called ludicrous. However, since this excuse proves that he is a hypocritical liar, and the stakes that are involved here are enormous for the entire world, it is, instead, tragic, if is not outright catastrophic.
Perhaps Obama, too, is chiefly driven by status. Then, all of this insanity on the part of the elite might make sense – in an insane sort of way. Maybe status-addicts are actually the type of people who most tend to rise to the top, anywhere. Hitler, Stalin, Capone, Koch, Obama, Bush: what’s the difference, really, other than their “personality”?
Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.
A controversial pro-oil pressure group has launched an attack site against Neil Young following the rocker’s recent tour criticizing the oilsands.
EthicalOil.org, a political group founded by Alykhan Velshi, an advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has launchedNeilYoungLies.ca, which attempts to debunk Young’s comments on the oilsands during his recent “Honour the Treaties” tour, which wrapped up Sunday in Calgary.
The site doesn’t miss a beat in tearing down Young, even denying the rocker’s Canadian roots with a reference to Young’s “home state of California.” The website urges visitors to “help us fight back against foreign celebrities and their slander.”
Young was born in Toronto and grew up in Manitoba, but has lived in California since the 1960s.
The website accuses Young of hypocrisy on environmental issues, displaying pictures of Young’s “monstrous” diesel-burning tour bus.
“Neil Young has a massive environmental footprint,” the site says. “He owns a 1,500-acre California estate, plus homes in Florida and Hawaii.”
On a page titled “Who Paid Neil Young To Lie,” the site links Young’s tour to international environmental groups, though some of the links are rather thin, such as a $55,000 payment to Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation by the Tides Foundation.
The site notes that Young’s tour had only one listed sponsor, the Lakota People’s Law Project, which it describes as “the main project of the California-based Romero Institute.”
The Lakota People’s Law Project is a campaign helping South Dakota aboriginals who have had their children taken away by the state.
EthicalOil.org has stirred controversy in the few years it has been campaigning. The group first came to prominence in 2011, when it released a series of ads arguing Canadian oil is “ethical” because buying it doesn’t put money into the pockets of dictators around the world.
The group’s founder, Alykhan Velshi, works as director of issues management in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Though the campaign is clearly allied with Canada’s conservatives, it often uses liberal and progressive arguments in support of Canadian oil, often pointing out the poor women’s rights records among oil-exporting Middle Eastern countries.
Climate activists like Al Gore often argue that “there is no such thing as ethical oil,” given the energy source’s emissions and the environmental degradation caused by its extraction.
The former prime minister recently sat down with George Stroumboulopoulos and, in an interview that will air Monday night, he compared the Canadian rock icon weighing in on complex oilsands issues with Chretien suddenly joining the entertainment business.
“He’s a great artist but I would not become a singer tomorrow,” Chretien said. “It will be a disaster.”
While Chretien said Young is entitled to express himself as he sees fit, it’s clear the Liberal legend believes developing the oilsands makes sense.
“I think it’s a resource that has to be eventually developed. And protecting the environment – that’s very important,” he said. “But oil is oil and we still have cars and we’re not about to not need oil. We have oil that God put in the ground in Canada. We have to develop it in a responsible way.”
The former prime minister also suggested that with advancements in technology, he is not put off by the idea of pipelines.
“If we can put a man on the moon, you can get oil out of the ground and put it safely into a pipe,” he said.
Chretien, who also served as minister of Indian affairs and northern development under Pierre Trudeau for “for six years, two months, three days and four hours,” also briefly addressed some concerns expressed by First Nations communities.
“Of course the natives were living there, so they have to be compensated,” Chretien said. “They lived a different way, but the natives don’t live anymore from hunting and trapping. It’s not a way to live anymore. It’s a new reality that they face.”
Young launched a blistering attack on the Harper Conservatives and Alberta’s oilsands this week as part of his “Honour the Treaties” tour to raise funds for a northern Alberta reserve’s fight against oilsands development.
At a press conference in Toronto last Sunday with members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Young accused the Harper government of ignoring science to drive corporate profits.
“Canada is trading integrity for money,” he said. “That’s what’s happening under the current leadership in Canada, which is a very poor imitation of the George Bush administration in the United States and is lagging behind on the world stage. It’s an embarrassment to any Canadians.”
He also said he was “shattered” after visiting a Fort McMurray industrial site, comparing it to the atomic bomb-devastated wreckage of Hiroshima, Japan.
Residents of Fort McMurray responded by posting beautiful pictures from around town to Twitter.
Jason MacDonald, Harper’s top spokesperson, hit back with a press release.
“Even the lifestyle of a rock star relies, to some degree, on the resources developed by thousands of hard-working Canadians every day,” MacDonald said in a statement. “Our government recognizes the importance of developing resources responsibly and sustainably and we will continue to ensure that Canada’s environmental laws and regulations are rigorous.”
In addition to sparking plenty of debate, Young’s concert series raised more than $550,000 this week for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s legal fund.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who feted Chretien at a tribute dinner this week, also supports oilsands development and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Yet, Trudeau says a lack of sound climate change policies from the Harper government is preventing the project from moving forward.
Chretien’s full interview with Stroumboulopoulos airs Monday, January 27 at 7 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. on CBC.
With files from The Canadian Press