Fossil fuel: monster on the loose

The controversial proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would bring tar sands oil through the central U.S. to refineries on the Gulf Coast, was one part of a two-headed, "duo-cephalic," environmental monster discussed in this space last week. This consideration is timely, not only because the pipeline is still under presidential review, but also because of an oil pipeline spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, on Friday, March 29, which has drawn comparisons to the dangers inherent in the proposed Keystone XL.These recent developments bring to the forefront the broader debate regarding the benefits versus the dangers of fossil fuel, as well as inevitable ties of the energy industry to government subsidy and support. To a large extent government administration and support of our energy resources makes sense, since clearly the days are long gone when a single family unit could provide for its own energy needs simply by going out into the forest and chopping enough wood for today's fire. Likewise, private monopoly of energy resources, without the oversight of government regulation on behalf of all the people, has the potential for devolving into lawlessness, if sufficient numbers of people were to be disenfranchised and cut off from the earth's resources. One need only look to South Africa to see the results of this kind of failed government. In the U.S., government subsidization of energy resources--fossil fuels, to be specific--goes as far back as 1789, when tariffs were set by the newly-formed United States government on imported British coal, which was being smuggled into the U.S. in the holds of ships. Early in the twentieth century the federal government initiated policy to subsidize a young oil industry with deduction incentives for drilling. In 1926 a cost depletion write-off was put into place. These and other forms of subsidy continue to this day. Estimates of the amount of fossil fuel subsidy range from a widely acknowledged $4.5 billion per year to broader valuations putting the total amount of U.S. oil subsidization in the tens of billions of dollars. To the north, with oil reserves larger than anywhere else on the planet, except for Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, Canada has entered the oil business in a big way. And Alberta Premier Alison Redford is actively courting the U.S. oil market to increase its commerce in tar sands oil delivered through pipelines which, it should be made abundantly clear, already provide a network from Canada into the United States, with other expansions underway, in addition to the proposed Keystone XL. To some extent, therefore, the horse has already left the barn. But the two-fold problem with Canada's oil is that it is tar sands oil--emitting three to five times more greenhouse gases than the diminishing reserves of cleaner oil that have heretofore supplied humanity's voracious appetite for petroleum. It takes enormous amounts of dirty energy, as well as 2 to 4.5 barrels of water per barrel of oil, to clean tar sands oil up for consumption. Secondly, this oil, still dirty, is transported through hundreds of miles of pipeline within the heartland of middle America. And, as the Mayflower spill reminds us, such pipelines are all too prone to break, causing another level of environmental degradation. Premier Redford--no relation to actor and activist Robert Redford, who has an opposite and much publicized view of the pipeline--was on National Public Radio last week promoting the Keystone XL. But in her zeal to promote her country's product, she inaccurately characterized the difficulties associated with cleanup of this kind of oil. It almost goes without saying that one of the big reasons tar sands oil is becoming so visible, not to speak of controversial, is that supplies of cleaner petroleum are becoming globally depleted. So fossil fuel--once looked upon as an environmental savior from the pollution of its transportation predecessor, the aforementioned horse--is now increasingly viewed as an environmental monster on the loose. Which leads to the question: shouldn't we be looking for something better?

********** Published: April 25, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 02