Turning the heat up on Canada’s pipes

By Gauntlet Editorial Board

TransCanada wants to convert and lengthen its natural gas pipeline running from Alberta to eastern Canada into a crude oil pipeline, which will send a mixture of bitumen and gasoline on a cross-country trek to eastern Canadian refineries. There the mixture will be converted into useable products such as gasoline, kerosene and plastics.

TransCanada’s announcement arrives during the negotiating periods of two contested pipeline projects. The first of these is the Northern Gateway, which extends westward to British Columbia’s coast and the Asian market. The second is the Keystone XL which would run south through the United States, ending up in Texas by the Gulf of Mexico. There its contents would be refined by upgrading facilities along the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard. The TransCanada pipeline is the best compromise for Canada’s economical and environmental objectives. But we’re fucked anyway.

The Enbridge Northern Gateway promises lucrative returns. Asian countries cannot wait to guzzle Albertan black milk to nurture their manufacturing sector. China is willing to buy what a glutted American market won’t, such as the services of engineers to design processing facilities, liquefied natural gas and oil, of course. China has been purchasing a great deal of Canadian oil because they can’t reach their own substantial reserves of unconventional shale oil. They are looking for a way to separate their oil from rock, much like how Calgarians learned to extract Albertan crude oil using steam-assisted gravity drainage techniques.

The Northern Gateway also cuts through Aboriginal territories and the coastal route the tankers will take is filled with sharp rocks and choppy waters. An alternative route through the northwest passage would have almost comically tragic environmental effects if one of the tankers whacked an iceberg. David Suzuki would get to say, “I told you so,” if a million gallons of crude end up in our sushi, or if a valve bursts during a crash and the ship’s liquefied natural gas canisters explode, taking someone’s retirement home on a B.C. island with them.

If approved, the Keystone XL will snake across the continental U.S., an admission of Americans’ unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels. Much discussed by Democrats and Republicans, its fate will be judged by a mistrustful White House. The Keystone’s design is not ideal, but since it is relatively restricted to land we can think of worse large-scale construction undertakings. Keystone fits Alberta’s short-term objectives well, but still does not address the fact that we are selling most of our oil to another country who refines it and then sells it back to us at a premium.

The Obama administration’s environmental trepidations about Keystone are largely political. Pressure to create jobs within the U.S. led to government efforts in developing clean coal and shale gas industries, both of which are plentiful in America. However, clean coal is an oxymoron and shale gas is dangerous and difficult to reach. Shale gas extraction, known as fracking, relies on a type of echolocation called microseismic. Microseismic occasionally misses fractures in the Earth’s crust that can allow gas to escape upwards ­— take the November 2010 case of the largest shale spill in the U.S., Marcellus Shale, which rocketed 50,000 gallons of radioactive waste water into the locals’ cups and baths. With any luck, one of them will birth an omniscient mutant who solves cold fusion and gets us out of this mess.

The TransCanada pipeline would be a difficult endorsement if it hadn’t already been built. As a natural gas pipeline, it is probably whispering methane into the atmosphere already. Natural gas leaks are common and nearly impossible to detect due to the gas’s intangibility. Converting the pipeline from natural gas to crude oil would provide greater likelihood of detecting leaks — although the technology in this field could use improvement. The conversion process is unlikely to stir fresh conflict with Aboriginal groups, and should companies decide to build new refineries to greet the pipeline, the work involved with creating and manning equipment and materials could jump-start Eastern Canada’s weakened manufacturing industry.

Canadian refineries currently process international oil, since Alberta traditionally ships its crude off to the U.S. but government incentive to prioritize Canadian oil could contribute to a more energy-independent nation. A significant issue with the TransCanada pipeline is that since we have few refineries in Alberta, the bitumen and gasoline combination pushed through the pipes will be highly corrosive and much more likely to leak than treated oil. But environmentalist outrage is mostly tied up with the Keystone and Northern Gateway projects at the moment. The TransCanada is likely to slip under the radar for the time being.

Canada’s preoccupations with getting the greasiest bang for her buck have sprung an irreversible trap. Oceans are morphing into acid baths, sprinkled with icebergs shrinking into ice cubes too small to accommodate the drowning polar bears fleeing south. Gaseous streams of greenhouse gases rise like prayers for wealth from distillation towers wider than swimming pools. They will mingle with the clouds into an insulating layer of light-trapping film, like a screen of aluminum foil wrapping around a baked potato. The heat will turn saltwater into freshwater, choking northern fish into extinction.

This knowledge will not change our course. We have already driven off the cliff but continue fighting on the way down for small victories that we brandish as trophies, not consolation prizes. Tomorrow, many of us (including the Gauntlet) will drive to school. We’ll leave the lights on by accident at least once this month. The Chinese government will attempt to further their carbon credit system this year even as Chinese villages rely on coal to power an infrastructure which will demand an increasing energy supply. Energy is God to the gears of the tangible world. We need God in our lives, but he can be difficult to worship.

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