Friday, January 20, 2012

Pipelines and Spoiled Brats

Obamas decision to reject the Keystone Pipeline was very disturbing in two ways: first, because it was precisely what was not needed right now here in America, and second because it shows our President to have no understanding what he is doing or why. At a time when the number one issue should be jobs, and the Keystone would not only provide these jobs in terms of construction and further development of the new oil shale fields that are Americas fastest growing industry right now, but also provide demand for manufactured goods like steel and foundry items from the suffering East and Midwest, our President, already facing a potentially difficult reelection, has decided that he will give up the last chance he has to make his reelection a cakewalk. If the economy booms, then none of the assorted clowns currently running for GOP candidate will even have a chance against him, but alas for Obama, this is one boat he has missed. His reason for this dismal choice for both himself and his country: the claims of some environmentalists.

Now the ball is in Canadas court. An alternate pipeline could run from the same locations in Alberta westward to a small, undeveloped port on an inlet 70 miles long called Kitimat in British Columbia. Not only would it carry oil to China, but it would also carry oil along the well developed Inside Passage seaway to the Puget Sound for refining at Anacortes, WA and the American market. But here, again, the Greens are not satisfied.

So why, precisely, are they not satisfied? The biggest reason they are not satisfied, though it is not the only reason, is because it will "delay the development of non-carbon energy sources." Now for environmentalists in America today, this means wind and solar. Wind is extremely unreliable, and solar is astronomically expensive. What's more, the fact that solar can operate off-grid gives it a natural niche market outside of the regular electric grid, so if it can't be successful with substantial government subsidies plus a niche market, then you know it really stinks. Wind, of course, is unreliable, and a smart grid that would make it more reliable by sharing power from different geographic points would also be so susceptible to electromagnetic storms from space as to naturally be completely destroyed and take months to rebuild every 8-10 years. The alternative proposition of battery farms would be outlandishly expensive and require constant maintenance. How precisely something that requires constant input of material resources can be "sustainable" is quite beyond me.

Another reason they're not satisfied is because extracting tar sands is energy intensive. This charge is true. However, extracting oil from shale by current methods is not energy intensive, and as shale drilling becomes more and more common (tar sands is slightly older technology) the less expensive energy cost will be a deciding factor in terms of switching away from tar sands production to shale production. Right now, the massive expansion of shale drilling, especially in North Dakota where unemployment is only 3.5% (and lower near Williston) as a result, has driven up the cost of purchasing equipment for shale drilling. This is a good thing in the long run as it means more capacity will be available in the future, but in the short run means that shale is unlikely to replace any existing production until this bottleneck is widened. In the long run, this capital cost will be gone and shale will replace tar sands, especially since just the (much smaller far southern tail) of the Bakken Formation in North Dakota contains at least 3.65 billion barrels of oil, and I suspect that this analysis by the USGS was understated partially by pressure from the Obama administration and paritally by laziness, or as the report puts it: "They also combined their findings with historical exploration and production analyses to determine the undiscovered, technically recoverable oil estimates." The first rule of engineering is if you want to be lazy, always understate your result so that nobody cares.

Then there is simply the old environmentalist hatred of economic development. This is somewhat connected to the very last concern of environmentalists to be listed here, but this really is where I begin doubting the character of environmentalists as people. The reality is that, far from being some Garden of Eden, the third world is a place where illegal loggers destroy rainforests, poachers with machine guns kill off endangered species, massive sprawling cities come up over night and coal plants put mercury and radiation in to the air by the bucket full. It is also a place where in Monrovia, Liberia, the people poop on the beach, allowing untreated human sewage to go straight in to an aquifer while also stinking up the air and despoiling a beautiful 5-mile strip of pristine sand. The problem with environmentalists is they expect the full regulatory ability of a first-world country without the society or, frankly, resources, that made it possible. In short, they are spoiled brats.

And that brings us to our final environmentalist objection: locality. I shall begin by discussing the Canadian pipeline, as it is simply their most egregious abuse. All throughout the internet and journalism, we find various environmentalists and journalists, who know nothing about how development takes place, put up pictures of this pristine, perfect wilderness of tremendous natural beauty (that is, for the record, almost completely contained in an archipelago of Canadian National Parks and Provincial Parks) that supposedly will be completely destroyed by the pipeline and economic development.

To put it bluntly, no it won't. People only think it will because they don't live there. If they did live there, they would know that mountains rise straight out of the sea on both sides of the Kitimat Inlet, making any kind of construction enormously expensive, and that Kitimat is at the eastern end of that inlet and the beginning of a long, and nowhere near as pristine or beautiful, flat typical river valley. It also is located SEVENTY MILES EAST of where most of the wilderness is. In fact, this is why the pipeline is sent so far north instead of simply going to Vancouver - to avoid those eternally annoying in the sense that only an engineer can understand mountains. They would also know that if there's one thing the coastline of British Columbia has an overabundance of, its beautiful, pristine, undeveloped coastline. There are no roads on the coast of British Columbia and Alaska running North-South from the Vancouver Suburbs to Anchorage, Alaska, a distance of 800 miles, the reason why the most common accidental death in Alaska is plane crashes. It also won't because these areas are already protected as parks, both at the provincial and Canadian federal level, and there are far too many flatter, more valuable, riverside pieces of real estate nearer to Kitimat and the pipeline for lobbying by the businesses to even be profitable to them. It is also true that with a tidal range near 20 feet, any oil spill would not last very long but be swept out to sea pretty fast. But environmentalists think their asinine, immature, irrational fears justify the shutting down of an entire part of the world in economic activity, when everything that even can be done to protect that wilderness already is.

The original locality makes somewhat more sense, but only somewhat, to protest. That of course is the lands through the plains that the original Keystone XL would've run through. Of course, unlike BC, there are plenty of roads in the Plains, and even more in Texas. Lots of 2-lane or 4-lane roads going passed corn fields, unused infrastructure, tiny cities and all. This is true. It is also true that the Great Plains aquifer is pretty big, though one could counter that being so big its really not that easy to substantially impurify, and what oil would do is certainly no worse then what farmlands already do with fertilizers and pesticides. Oil also has the advantage over farmlands with their pesticides and fertilizers that it is not generally to the advantage of oil companies for their pipelines to be constantly leaking. It has yet another advantage that increasing land prices may drive the farms with their pesticides and fertilizers out of business. Further, there is the little matter of refining at Wood River, Illinois and Steele, Nebraska, right over the aquifer and the Mississippi River, where oil leaks and all manner of chemical spills are much more likely to happen then at the pipeline, and where the final expansion to Houston and Port Arthur could've eventually replaced those refineries by economies of scale, in the middle of a swamp where bacteria and a chemical-recycling ecosystem already can handle most water purity issues.

Yet even here, the same picture of the environmentalist as a spoiled brat emerges - unshaking, unwilling to compromise, loud, sort of like a toddler. Instead of seeing that some development, even if not constrained by the great mountains of the Kitimat Inlet, is neccesary to finance and safeguard environmental protection, they would rather shout and scream and yell and let everything go to some third world country where no chance exists for proper controls or procedures to prevent what they want to prevent. The result is that for every ton of smog they prevent in Southern California, two tons come across the pacific blown by winds from China, and the prairie starves, and no one even really pays close attention to what they are saying or any way of making a reasonable solution to the problem. There answer is to criticize China, a country doing its best to get out of poverty, who has no special interest in listening to much of anyone who lives on this side of the Pacific. The result also is that eventually, as people become poorer and poorer, the toddler who cried wolf may really get eaten after all.

We'll all be sad that day, just like any parent would be, but it doesn't change the fact that it happened, and that the child is gone forever and not coming back. When you yourself feed on irrationality, don't be too surprised if you eventually get fed to it. Environmentalists with no respect for reason will not be given reasonable attention, and this will be a collective judgement, not an individual one, applied to all environmentalists everywhere, whether they were part of the problem or not. They will not be heard, nor will anyone else about our very real environmental problems.

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