Segment of TransAlaskan Pipeline near Fairbanks

By David Dannecker
Senior Editor

The Keystone XL pipeline extension has been back in the news recently, thanks in part to an effort by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to hold a Senate vote on the project last month which ultimately failed by a razor-thin margin. For those who don’t know, the pipeline first proposed back in 2008 would run from Alberta to Nebraska, delivering crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The project has been a major point of contention between environmentalists and the Canadian petrochemical company TransCanada since its first proposal. Polling suggests that the proposal enjoys majority support among Americans, although support has been slipping since a high about a year and a half ago. With the special interest proxy war in its seventh year, it is hard to get a handle on what the actual facts are surrounding Keystone XL and what effects it would have if it received the green light for construction. It seems that the level of misinformation in the debate could be a confounding factor when it comes to gauging public support; very few people are likely to know the details of the project, especially those that haven’t been following the issue. Figures for job creation vary wildly, as do claims about its safety, and the broader environmental impact the project could have. So without further ado, let’s delve into some of the arguments over Keystone XL.

Job creation is one of the primary arguments in favor of the pipeline. It’s true that infrastructure projects often are a big help toward creating jobs and spurring economic growth. However, reports of the number of jobs that Keystone XL could create are inconsistent. The figures on TransCanada’s website suggest an estimate of 9,000 construction jobs for the project, while other sources suggest a more modest 2,000 construction jobs, with those positions only lasting a couple of years. The State Department found that the number of permanent jobs created by Keystone XL (i.e. those jobs that would outlast the construction phase of the project) would equal a paltry 50 employees. To put those figures in some kind of context, the United States as a whole added 214,000 jobs in the month of October this year. Even the higher job estimates cited by TransCanada represent less than five percent of one month’s national job growth. If job creation is the main reason behind Republican support for the project, one has to wonder why other infrastructure initiatives with ostensibly greater job creation potential often meet with tepid Republican support at best.

Turning to claims about the pipeline’s safety, TransCanada appears confident that the new branch of the Keystone pipeline will be the safest ever constructed. Seeing as the new pipeline will have the benefit of the last few years of cutting edge technological advancements that weren’t available to the earlier phases of the pipeline, this may be the case. However, Media Matters points out that in spite of similar language before the original Keystone pipeline, it suffered a dozen spills in just its first year. Oil pipelines have a poor track record in the U.S. in general with over 110 million gallons spilled in the last 25 years. And while the pipeline has been rerouted to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sandhills area of Nebraska, the new route still threatens drinking water, including crossing an important aqueduct, which would be vulnerable to contamination should a spill occur in the vicinity. TransCanada has assured the public that it is committed to containment and restoration in the event of any spills or leaks, but even so, given the history of pipeline shortcomings and TransCanada’s own recent record of overselling the safety of its delivery infrastructure, treating safety claims with some modest skepticism seems appropriate.

What about the environmental impact of Keystone XL? Would it be the harbinger of climatic doom that environmentalists have painted it to be? Firstly, tar sands are one of the least efficient sources for obtaining fossil fuels. Because the crude oil is found in an amalgam of sand, clay, and bitumen, extraction is extremely difficult. The extraction process itself requires a great deal of natural gas and water to isolate the crude oil, and that’s before the transportation and refinement processes. So, yes, tar sands as a fuel source are pretty awful for the environment, and that’s not even taking into account the significant deforestation connected with mining tar sands. Some defenders of Keystone XL argue that Alberta’s tar sands are going to be utilized with or without Keystone, so the pipeline itself should be seen as a net zero as far as emissions go. It’s true that TransCanada is exploring other options for delivering the crude oil to refineries, including sending the oil by rail or by retrofitting Canadian pipelines to handle crude oil in a separate project known as Energy East. However, rail transport has been under increased scrutiny in the aftermath of a couple of explosive disasters, and neither of these alternatives would be as cost-effective as Keystone XL would be for TransCanada, which explains their dogged determination to see the proposal approved. Given the opposition that each of these approaches is facing, the development of Alberta’s tar sands is no sure thing. The value of extraction relies on the possibility and ease of subsequent transport, so while Keystone XL isn’t the only option Canadian energy companies have, its existence would likely facilitate and foster future development.

While disagreements over the merits of Keystone XL continue to exist, and are likely to persist until the project is either approved or denied for good, it is possible to isolate some plausible parameters to frame the debate. Sourcing tar sands for crude oil is bad for the environment. While Keystone is not the only option for crude oil delivery, it would likely speed up tar sand development in Alberta and so hasten the release of their greenhouse gases. The prospects for Keystone job creation are not likely to be very significant, and there are plenty of non-fossil-fuel-related infrastructure alternatives to consider if temporary job creation is the goal. It’s hard to predict the exact likelihood of pipeline malfunctions, since accidents are by their very nature unpredictable, but the position of the pipeline route and the recent history of pipeline technology do not support the idea that Keystone XL would be as safe as TransCanada claims. As the facts surrounding this project find their way into the public debate, we might expect that the polls will continue to decline. President Obama has recently signaled his own awareness of the project’s shortcomings. While the proposal itself is tied up while a legal challenge is settled in Nebraska’s Supreme Court, Obama’s opposition to Keystone XL looks like it will be the deciding factor, even in the face of a new Republican-controlled Congress. Since Canadian oil companies are the only certain beneficiaries of Keystone XL’s construction, the project seems unlikely to move forward, what with Obama positioning climate change as one of the defining issues of the final years of his presidency.

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By Melanie Emr
Staff Writer

On April 7, 2014, Professor Emeritus Mehdi Sarram gave a lecture at UCSD that addressed how increasing pressure to meet global energy needs must be met by both nuclear energy plants and renewable energy. [1] Professor Sarram is the president of Energy Security Consulting group, LLC, and has worked with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) since its establishment in 1975, as well as with the Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear facilities. Along with his impressive achievements in the realm of nuclear energy regulation and management, he was also one of the founders of Iran’s nuclear energy program and served as the Director of Nuclear Safeguards, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran from 1973 to 1979. Despite the shutdown of a few nuclear plants across the United States and Germany’s recent divestment from nuclear energy, Professor Sarram argues that the world must not abandon nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is a significantly cost-efficient resource and provides an effective means of reducing global carbon emissions. [1]

According to Professor Sarram, a potential agenda for solving future energy needs in a more sustainable way is an expanded role for nuclear energy in conjunction with renewables and a global eradication of energy dependence on fossil fuels. Climate change scientists paint a dim portrait for our warming planet in the years to come. CO2 concentrations have increased by about 40 percent since the industrial era due primarily to anthropogenic fossil fuel emissions such as oil, gas and coal. The evils of fossil fuels cannot be denied. Coal produces about 100-200 times more of a carbon footprint than nuclear or wind power. [1] The Pacific Ocean is warming at a faster rate than has been observed overthe past 10,000 years, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying — the list is exhaustive. Whether or not you are an advocate for nuclear energy, all climate change scientists agree that the key to reducing the anthropogenic carbon footprint and mitigating the impending effects of climate change is the need for a complete global divestment from fossil fuels.

Moreover, Professor Sarram addresses how the world’s pressing energy needs are increasing due to the soaring global population growth. Developed, industrialized nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have a lower population growth rate than those in developing nations not affiliated with the OECD. Non-OECD nations thus consume more energy that inevitably places high demand on the environment and natural resources. To illustrate, non-OECD annual electricity demand growth is at 3.3 percent per year compared to only 1.2 percent of electricity demand increases per year in OECD nations. Since non-OECD nations are impoverished, the methods of energy extraction are often “dirty,” as people rely on cheap energy extraction methods such as burning coal and wood. Since forests naturally capture and store CO2, nations like China (which is the biggest polluter in the world) are eliminating natural sources of carbon storage through deforestation and enabling carbon to be stored in the atmosphere as a “sink.” OECD nations tend to be more environmentally conscientious. For example, OECD countries produce roughly half of the hydroelectricity produced worldwide. A highly important factor for future climate policy to address is how to get OECD countries to divest from fossil fuels, making renewables and nuclear power more economically appealing options for energy extraction. [1]

Professor Sarram’s argument for a global strengthening of the nuclear power industry is put into perspective with the recent shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear station, which has negatively impacted the surrounding environment. The San Onofre Nuclear power plant was shut down in 2012 due to safety, equipment and political issues. What the public does not realize, however, is that the utility has increased its use of natural gas and other fossil fuels to replace the plant’s power generation, which provided up to 2000 MW of electricity for the San Diego county grid. In 2011, when San Onofre was still running, 50 percent of the utility’s energy sources came from carbon-free nuclear, hydroelectric and renewable sources. In 2012, only 30 percent of the utility’s electricity came from carbon-free resources. Professor Sarram insightfully identifies that the use of natural gas to replace the use of nuclear energy will create a significantly higher amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. With the shutdown of the nuclear plant, we need 2 million KWh of electric power. If we measure the carbon footprint of nuclear energy versus that of natural gas, we will see that natural gas produces 500 grams of CO2 per KWh more than nuclear energy. This increase in CO2 emissions per KWh amounts to a frightening 8.7 million tons of CO2 released per year into the atmosphere. [1] Despite the risks of nuclear energy, the loss of the environmental benefits from nuclear power plants is apparent with the end of the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

Professor Sarram continues to argue that nuclear energy is, in fact, a “safe and reliable” electricity source. He makes an interesting observation that people continue to drive their cars, even with so many deaths related to car crashes. The probability of a core melt is less than one in a million for new designs, lower than the probability of death from a car accident which is already extremely low. While another nuclear accident may happen, civil management engineers have learned from previous human errors and poor design factors and have increased safety measures to avoid another accident. For the future, safety measures are also being established to mitigate the aftereffects of nuclear plant malfunctions so there is a fast “recovery” of the surroundings. Professor Sarram believes that society’s fear of nuclear energy is a fear based on misinformation, which is causing a divestment from nuclear energy and leading to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.[1] The public and government officials worldwide must be made aware of the immediate environmental benefits that nuclear energy provides rather than fear the possibilities of an accident.

Although Professor Sarram refers to nuclear energy as a “safe and reliable” source of electricity, this poses controversial insight amidst the recent disaster of Fukushima and the lingering aftereffects of Chernobyl. With all the concerns raised about nuclear disasters, why not just expand renewables like wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, tidal waves and biomass? Is it possible to rely solely on renewables and avoid nuclear energy altogether? Professor Sarram identifies a key limitation to renewables — a geographical barrier in terms of location. Wind or sun cannot be produced just anywhere, and the locations where wind and sun are produced may be the areas that need them the least. This poses a good argument in favor of nuclear power plant installations because, unlike a wind turbine or a solar panel, a nuclear power plant can be built anywhere on the planet and produce energy for the surrounding population. In fact, in 2006, 16 percent of the world population’s energy was nuclear and 25 of the OECD countries derived their energy from nuclear power. In the United States in the same year, about 20 percent of electricity was produced by 105 nuclear plants. [1]

In opposition, Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, intends to make a world largely based on renewables where fossil fuels and nukes are a thing of the past. Jacobsen’s plan calls for the massive installation of millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar panels both on and offshore around the globe. Looking at the state level, in California, the potential benefits of such installations would create a net 137,000 permanent jobs. If the entire globe were powered by renewable energy, according to Jacobsen, this would prevent hazardous oil spills polluting water supplies, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and clean up air pollution. Professor Sarram, however, disagrees with this proposal, as he reveals how Spain and the United Kingdom ran into deep trouble trying to produce more electricity from wind and solar. Spain has accumulated a debt of 26 billion euro for subsidies to wind and solar. [1]

Jacobsen claims that while renewable installations appear costly and inaccessible to non-OECD countries, the renewable infrastructure is long-lasting, furthering his ideal notions of dependency on renewables. We “do not need to keep feeding steel into a wind turbine that’s already up and running unlike the hungry beasts of fossil fuels, which endlessly devour coal, oil and gas” says Jacobsen. Professor Sarram, however, argues that the life of a wind tower is in reality only 15-20 years. Also, renewables have low capacity factors, unlike nuclear energy that has a capacity factor of 92 percent as compared to wind that has a capacity factor of 27 percent. In general, the costs of renewables have a decreasing trend in cost, while conversely the cost for fossil fuels is steadily rising. To put things into perspective, in the past four years costs for installing wind turbines have decreased by 50 percent. In the past year solar has declined in cost from between six percent and 14 percent. However, Professor Sarram reveals that currently the actual cost in cents per Kwhr is higher than both coal and nuclear, which remains the cheapest energy source along with hydropower. Again, this reveals that nuclear is presently a cost-effective source to replace the use of “dirty” energy sources in global marketplaces. Professor Sarram also poses another problem to renewables regarding intermittency. If the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing when the energy is most needed, then what? Jacobsen proposes combining wind and solar and using hydroelectric to fill in the gaps. While Professor Sarram agrees with this part of Jacobsen’s proposal, yet again, renewables alone are not enough — there is still a need for nuclear energy. [1] Renewables are part of the ideal energy portfolio for the future, but alone they cannot produce enough electricity for the world. We simply cannot meet all our energy needs by these three sources alone; we need nuclear energy as a base load.

Nevertheless, while we have the renewable energy we need to power the world, numerous obstacles come in our path that force us to stay dependent on fossil fuels. “Humankind faces a vicious circle: a shift to renewable energy will replace one non-renewable resource (fossil fuel) with another (metals and minerals),” wrote researchers Olivier Vida, Bruno Goffe, and Nicholas Arndt. The demand for base metals like iron, copper and aluminum is predicted to rise drastically. Therefore, it cannot be expected that fossil-fuel dependent nations will be eager to adopt renewables when facing such a prospective trade off.

Yet what fossil-fuel dependent nations are not acknowledging is how their present activities will affect future generations. Oil, gas and coal will not last forever. As they become scarcer in the future, their prices will rise dramatically. While renewable energy continues to be seemingly inaccessible and its potential benefits misunderstood (primarily by non-OECD nations), global dependence on nuclear energy must be the alternate solution to avoid the continued application of fossil fuels. While many want to forgo nuclear energy in light of the potential disasters, our thirst for energy is making nuclear energy a necessity if our goal is to create a more sustainable world for future generations.

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[1] Sarram, Mehdi. University of California, San Diego. La Jolla, Ca. 7 April 2014. Lecture.


North Sea Oil Rigs

By James Kim
Contributing Writer

It is no surprise that gaining independence from the United Kingdom is no easy task. The United States had ten years of anarchy before ratifying the Constitution; India suffered a violent partition that divided her into two (eventually three) separate nations; and several newly formed countries of the developing world underwent and continue to endure civil wars and unstable governments. A referendum for Scottish independence has been scheduled for a vote later this year. Even though Scotland is a well-developed region with the highest per capita income in the whole of the U.K., that fact will not give her an exception from the difficulties of self-determination if the referendum passes in September.

However, there is a commonly held view among supporters of the independence movement and the Scottish National Party that petroleum would ease the troubles in the early days of home rule. Aberdeenshire, where most of the Scottish oil industry is headquartered, serves as a major SNP voting bloc and even forms the constituency for First Minister Alex Salmond, the main proponent for independence. Scotland’s petroleum reserves are located in the North Sea, which it shares with Norway. The Norwegian success with its lucrative resource has become a rallying cry for the independence movement, as unlike their prosperous Scandinavian neighbor, the Scots have no control over the tax revenues of the North Sea petroleum industry. London instead has the final say in wealth redistribution, leaving the Scots with only a fraction of their rewards. Relationship with the Westminster Parliament is becoming more contentious due to the domination of the Conservative Party, a political group long mistrusted by the majority of Scots. The Tories’ move to privatize the British postal service and even the NHS has frightened the socialist leaning Scots, who fear that their taxes would only be used against them. Thus, the rise of the independence movement is a response to the urgency of making sure that Scottish resources stay with the Scots.

Yet, oil cannot be viewed as a panacea to Scotland’s economic woes. OPEC recently released a statement that the discovery rate of new wells in the North Sea is at its lowest in three decades, initiating fears that production may have already reached peak capacity. To make matters worse, the Westminster Parliament stated that it would veto Scotland’s retention of the pound, a significant blow to the region’s financial security since oil is traded in American dollars. Losing a currency that has more value than the American greenback will create more obstacles than solutions for an independent Scotland.

Having a natural resource that everyone needs does not necessarily make a nation independent. While it does lead to a spirit of nationalism due its huge role in the local economy, oil also carries the risk of attracting foreign powers that want to possess all of its rewards. England knows that it will lose its tax benefits if Scotland gains full control over its own resources; a potential loss of billions of pounds forces Westminster to urge both the Conservatives and Labourers to hinder the SNP’s attempts at separation. However, Scotland also realizes that remaining in the union would prove to be a zero-sum game, as the price of the union means gambling with a hostile right-wing political party that has a sour history with the Scottish people. Despite the importance of black gold, it alone cannot break the stalemate between a compromised union and an uncertain independence.

Images by Berardo62