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Dakota Access Pipeline Would Lock in Emissions of 30 Coal Plants

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By Lorne Stockman

The Dakota Access Pipeline would carry oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to Gulf Coast refineries and export terminals via Patoka, Illinois. With a maximum capacity of 570,000 barrels per day (bpd), it could carry more than 50 percent of North Dakota's current oil production. Ultimately, the net greenhouse gas (GHG) impact of the pipe would depend on what future actions we take to end our fossil fuel addiction and address climate change.

Happy American Horse attaching himself to an excavator at the construction site of the Dakota Access Pipeline on Aug. 31.Rob Wilson / Bold Alliance

Building a large, new pipeline that reduces the cost of delivering a large oil reserve to market would undermine our climate goals. Meeting the targets set out in the Paris agreement, now signed by more than 180 countries around the world, will not be possible if we continue to lock into new fossil fuel infrastructure like the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In response to the ongoing protests in North Dakota and the concerns raised regarding the approval process, construction of the project within 20 miles of Lake Oahe has been suspended, yet construction activities continue elsewhere on the route. The statement from the Departments of Justice, Army and Interior that ordered the suspension indicates that a review of the process by which the remaining permits can be considered will be conducted including "under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws." Given the White House recently issued guidance on how federal agencies should assess climate impact, it makes sense that a climate test should now be applied to this misguided project.

How Much Carbon is in the Pipe?

Putting aside broader market impacts for a moment, the total emissions that would be delivered by the pipeline are a factor of the average throughput and the emissions intensity of the crude oil it would deliver. We calculate that at typical utilization rates of 95 percent of capacity, total lifecycle emissions from producing, transporting, processing and burning the products derived from the oil would amount to 101.4 million metric tons of CO2e per year. These emissions are equivalent to 29.5 typical U.S. coal plants or the average emissions of 21.4 million U.S. passenger vehicles.*

How Pipelines Lock In Emissions

The first response of pipeline proponents to estimates of GHG emissions from North American pipelines, will be to claim that the crude will go by rail if there are no pipelines. By asserting that the oil would flow with or without a pipeline, proponents will try to argue that the additional GHG emissions would be zero.

This ignores both the market impacts of shifting from rail to pipe, as well as the potential for climate policy to alter the incentives for oil supply and demand.

First let's look at the difference in costs to shippers between rail and pipe.

According to RBN Energy (behind pay wall), the Dakota Access Pipeline would reduce the cost of shipping Bakken oil from North Dakota to the Gulf Coast by $7 per barrel, with rail costing $15 compared to the pipeline charging $8. These are likely averaged tariffs and the difference may be greater or smaller according to specific contracts, committed volumes over non-committed, length of contract, etc.

This is a 47 percent reduction in shipping costs to the world's biggest refining market, which nowadays also happens to be America's main crude oil export point. There is no doubt that this is an attractive route for Bakken producers to get their oil to major markets at lower cost. And in an oil market that for some time now has seen prices hover between $40 and $50 per barrel, that $7 saving boosts profits and cash flow and can be put toward future investment in more drilling and more production. While the economics in the Bakken are very fluid, making it difficult to estimate with any precision how much more production is triggered by a $7 per barrel increase in netback, it is clear that it can only help producers.

An extra $7 per barrel could be the deciding factor for whether it's worth drilling a new well or not. A good example of the impact a similar increase can have was recently discussed by Bloomberg in response to a presentation by executives at Apache Corporation.

In the presentation, CEO John Christmann explained how a rise in oil prices from $50 per barrel to $60 would enable Apache to drill more than 3,000 more wells at its Permian Basin acreage in Texas, a more than 300 percent increase on the $50 case. These figures may be unique to that acreage but it gives an idea of how an increase in the price a company can expect to receive from its operations can enable it to drill and produce more oil.

Locking in Capital, Locking in Carbon

Another respect in which pipelines impact climate compared to rail is that they lock in oil supply, because they have a higher ratio of capital expenditure (capex) over operational expenditure (opex). The Dakota Access Pipeline is estimated to cost $3.8 billion. In addition, the ETCO pipeline, which is the southern section of the system that would deliver the crude from Illinois to Texas and is mostly comprised of an old gas pipeline, will cost around $1 billion. All together that's a $4.8 billion investment.

Shutting down a $4.8 billion pipeline investment before it's paid off is rare. If markets change due to climate policy, perhaps because of new policies that reduce oil use or rapid market adoption of alternatives such as electric vehicles, companies are likely to keep the oil flowing by cutting tariffs. As long as tariffs are higher than the operating costs of pumping the oil, any capital losses for the pipeline owners will be reduced and any long-term profits increased. So in the climate-action scenario, the tariffs could go a long way below $8—perhaps as low as $1 or 2 per barrel. This will have a powerful effect in maintaining oil flows—and hence emissions—in spite of future climate action.

In contrast, rail terminals are comparatively cheap to build. A rail terminal built to load or unload crude onto and off of rail cars typically costs in the tens to low hundreds of million dollars to build, depending on the size. The capital is paid off quickly but the operational expenses are higher. The reason sending crude by rail is more expensive than pipeline, $7 per barrel more expensive in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, is the cost of running the operations. Loading and unloading rail cars, paying rail company freight charges, fuel surcharges, insurance, transporting the crude to and from the rail yard, all of these make rail transport an opex-intensive activity. In contrast to the pipeline, rail operators cannot significantly lower their tariffs, because operating costs are the dominant part of the economics.

The switch from rail to pipe has already played out in the Bakken with the decline in oil prices since 2014. Before the price drop, rail carried around 70 percent of the oil produced in North Dakota. That figure has now declined to less than 30 percent as prices dropped, margins narrowed and pipeline utilization rose to near capacity. Now pipelines carry nearly 60 percent, a figure that is bound to rise if the Dakota Access Pipeline is built (see Figure).

The Shift From Rail to Pipe in the Williston Basin

Oil Change International

The recent price crash illustrates very well the role of pipelines in maintaining high oil production during times of tight margins. If rail had been the only option, some producers would have shut in wells as their operational costs, including sending the crude to market, would have exceeded the price they received. Because pipelines existed as an alternative, existing pipeline capacity filled up instead.

Nobody wants to see a decimation of an industry overnight, with the severe consequences for workers and communities that that entails. But it is a fact that we need to transition to a clean energy economy as soon as possible in order to address a climate crisis that itself will decimate communities and ecosystems forever. By continuing to build infrastructure that perpetuates our use of fossil fuels for decades to come, we are laying the foundations for disaster and not transition.

The Dakota Access Pipeline would be with us decades into the future. Once built and operating, the economic incentives to keep it going will be hard to overcome. Every year it will be the source of carbon emissions equivalent to nearly 30 coal plants. Even though it may be the case that those emissions would anyway occur this year or next year, or five years from now, it cannot be the case that those emissions can occur in 20, 30 or 40 years from now. Building the Dakota Access Pipeline would be yet another barrier to the path to climate safety.

*We used the Oil Climate Index for the life cycle emissions of Bakken crude oil and the EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator for coal plant and vehicle equivalents. Ninety-five percent utilization equates to average annual throughput of 541,500 barrels per day.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

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Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.