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Great Lakes Pipeline Dispute Highlights a Broader Energy Dilemma
By Douglas Bessette
A deal involving an aging oil pipeline in Michigan reflects the complex decisions communities across the country need to make to balance the needs for energy and safety with efforts to deal with climate change.
Gov. Rick Snyder and Enbridge, a Canadian company, have reached an agreement over a leak-prone pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, the four-mile-long waterway that divides Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
Rather than shut the 65-year-old pipeline down altogether, as environmentalists are demanding, or conduct routine maintenance, as Enbridge desired, Snyder is requiring Enbridge to replace the pipeline at an estimated cost of up to $500 million without a deadline.
While the lakes, beaches and livelihoods vulnerable to harm from a potential spill are perhaps unique to Michigan, the question of what to do about a host of aging pipelines across the U.S. is not. Nearly half of the nation's pipelines currently operating were built before 1960.
Amid rising oil and gas production, there are hard compromises to make between ensuring an adequate energy supply, protecting public safety, and reducing the nation's reliance on fossil fuels—a key contributor to climate change. But my research suggests that there may be a straightforward way for both decision-makers and the public to make these choices.
Millions of Miles
Approximately 3 million miles of pipelines move crude oil, natural gas and other hazardous liquids across the U.S. Most crude oil pipelines traversing the center of the country transport oil from western Canada and North Dakota southward to refineries in Texas and Louisiana.
More of the natural gas pipelines that span the county are concentrated around the Marcellus Shale formation, in eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania. And 60 percent of the 319,000 miles of pipelines currently transporting natural gas were installed before 1970.
Compared to hauling fuel by rail or truck, the Transportation Research Board, a nonprofit that serves as an advisory body to the White House, Congress and federal agencies, considers pipelines to be safer. Yet when pipeline accidents do occur, they are typically larger and impact the environment more directly than the alternatives.
When a natural gas line exploded in Massachusetts, where many pipes are over 100 years old, it destroyed 80 homes and killed one person. In 2012, another pipeline operated by the same company—Columbia Gas, this one built in 1967, exploded.
That earlier accident in Sissonville, West Virginia, charred 800 feet of roadway along a nearby highway, wrecking three homes, and melted the siding on houses hundreds of feet away. Following an investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board found many causes. Among them: corrosion and a lack of automatic or remote shutoff valves.
In 2010, one of Enbridge's Michigan pipelines ruptured, spilling 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. That pipeline was built in the 1960s, and made with the sorts of welding processes and protective coverings that have not stood the test of time. The cost to clean up that spill was more than $1 billion and spurred concerns among Michiganders over the safety of the Straits pipeline.
A big spill in the Straits of Mackinac could result in oil polluting over 1,200 miles of shoreline, cause $1.3 billion in damage and cost $500 million to clean up, Michigan Technological University researchers estimate.
Following an independent risk analysis, Snyder and Enbridge agreed that a replacement pipeline should be placed inside a tunnel and buried beneath the lakebed. Taking that step would substantially reduce the risk of a spill. But it will also take at least seven years to build. And the agreement assumes the Straits pipeline would continue to operate during the new pipeline's construction.
There's one good reason why old and dangerous pipelines aren't being shut down: the emergence of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—the process by which water, sand and chemicals are injected underground at high pressures to crack rock and release the oil and gas trapped inside.
According to the American Petroleum Institute, building the pipelines to accommodate this increase in output would require annual investments between $12-19 billion. A 2008 report prepared for the Edison Foundation predicted that modernizing the national oil and gas transmission and distribution network would cost $900 billion before 2030.
As the battles over the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines have shown, opposition to new long-term fossil fuel infrastructure projects is growing. Replacing old dangerous pipelines with new ones is not easy—or fast, even if it might reduce risks and carbon emissions.
There is also growing evidence, such as the latest report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that instead of a bigger and better pipeline network, the U.S. needs a new energy strategy, aimed at ending reliance on fossil fuels altogether by 2050. The problem is that once pipelines are built, they typically last decades. Building new ones would further lock in dependence on fossil fuels.
A recent poll shows that a majority of Americans support aggressive action on global warming. But smaller numbers back some of the specific policies or actions that might take.
As my research suggests, adopting a more comprehensive and logical process for making decisions could provide a way forward. This process helps communities identify their most important objectives first and then evaluate options according to those specific goals. It's an approach that ensures that what's most important—climate change, jobs and protecting ecosystems, for instance—gets addressed.
It could become handy the next time a state and a corporation tangle over whether or not to replace a big aging pipeline–even when this debate is less contentious than the one about Michigan's Straits of Mackinac.
Douglas Bessette is an assistant professor of community sustainability at Michigan State University.
Disclosure statement: Douglas Bessette 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 his academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated the estimated cost to replace the pipeline to be $500 billion in the third paragraph. The correct figure is $500 million.
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A central player in the fight against the novel coronavirus is our immune system. It protects us against the invader and can even be helpful for its therapy. But sometimes it can turn against us.
How does our immune system react to the coronavirus?<p>The coronavirus is — like any other virus — not much more than a shell around genetic material and a few proteins. To replicate, it needs a host in the form of a living cell. Once infected, this cell does what the virus commands it to do: copy information, assemble it, release it.</p><p>But this does not go unnoticed. Within a few minutes, the body's immune defense system intervenes with its innate response: Granulocytes, scavenger cells and killer cells from the blood and lymphatic system stream in to fight the virus. They are supported by numerous plasma proteins that either act as messengers or help to destroy the virus.</p><p>For many viruses and bacteria, this initial activity of the immune system is already sufficient to fight an intruder. It often happens very quickly and efficiently. We often notice only small signs that the system is working: We have a cold, a fever. </p>
Is there an immunity? How long does it last?<p>The good news is that it is very likely there is an immunity. This is suggested by the proximity to other viruses, epidemiological data and animal experiments. Researchers <a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.03.13.990226v1" target="_blank">infected four rhesus monkeys,</a> a species close to humans, with SARS-CoV-2. The monkeys showed symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, developed neutralizing antibodies and recovered after a few days. When the recovered animals were reinfected with the virus, they no longer developed any symptoms: They were immune. </p><p>The bad news: It is not (yet) known how long the immunity will last. It depends on whether a patient has successfully developed neutralizing antibodies. Achim Hörauf estimates that the immunity should last at least one year. Within this year, every new contact with the virus acts as a kind of booster vaccination, which in turn might prolong the immunity.</p><p>"The virus is so new that nobody has a reasonable immune response," says the immunologist. He believes that lifelong immunity is unlikely. This "privilege" is reserved for viruses that remain in the body for a long time and give our immune system a virtually permanent opportunity to get to know it. Since the coronavirus is an RNA (and not a DNA) virus, it cannot permanently settle in the body, says Hörauf.</p><p>The Heidelberg immunologist <a href="https://www.klinikum.uni-heidelberg.de/immunologie/immunologie" target="_blank">Stefan Meuer</a> predicts that the novel coronavirus will also mutate like all viruses. He assumes that this could be the case in 10 to 15 years: "At some point, the acquired immunity will no longer be of any use to us because then another coronavirus will return, against which the protection that has now been formed will not help us because the virus has changed in such a way that the antibodies are no longer responsible. And then no vaccination will help either."</p>
How can we take advantage of the antibody response of the immune system?<p>Researchers are already collecting plasma from people who have successfully survived an infection with SARS-CoV-2 and are using it to treat a limited number of patients suffering from COVID-19. The underlying principle: <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-drugs-can-antibodies-from-survivors-help/a-52806428" target="_blank">passive immunization.</a> The studies carried out to date have shown positive results, but they have usually been carried out on only a few people.</p><p>At best, passive immunization is used only when the patient's own immune system has already started to work against the virus, says Achim Hörauf: "The longer you can leave the patients alone with the infection before you protect them with passive immunization, the better." Only through active immunization can one be protected in the long term. At the same time, it is difficult to recognize the right point in time.</p><p>PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests are currently used to find out whether a person is infected with the coronavirus. With the help of PCR, it is not possible to tell whether or not there is reproducible viral RNA; it is just a proof of whether the virus is still present, dead or alive. A PCR test cannot tell us whether our immune system has already intervened, i.e. whether we have had contact with the virus in the past, have formed antibodies and are now protected. Researchers are therefore working on tests that check our blood for the presence of antibodies. They are already in use in Singapore, for example, and are nearing completion in the USA. With the help of these tests, it would finally be possible to gain an overview <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/corona-confusion-how-to-make-sense-of-the-numbers-and-terminology/a-52825433" target="_blank">of the unclear case numbers.</a> In addition, people who have developed antibodies against the virus could be used at the forefront of health care, for example. An "immunity passport" is even under discussion.</p>
Is it possible to become infected and/or ill several times with the coronavirus?<p>"According to all we know, it is not possible with the same pathogen," says Achim Hörauf. It is possible to become infected with other coronaviruses or viruses from the SARS or MERS group if their spike proteins look different. "As far as the current epidemic is concerned, it can be assumed that people who have been through COVID-19 will not become ill from it for the time being and will not transmit the virus any further," he says.</p>
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Why do people react differently to the virus?<p>While some people get off with a mild cold, others are put on ventilators or even die of SARS-Cov-2. Especially people with <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-who-is-particularly-at-risk-and-why/a-52710881" target="_blank">pre-existing conditions</a> and older people seem to be worst-affected by the virus. Why? This is the hottest question at the moment.</p><p>It will still take a very, very long time to understand the mechanistic, biological basis for why some people are so much more severely affected than others, virologist Angela Rasmussen told <em>The Scientist</em>. "The virus is important, but the host response is at least as important, if not more important," her colleague Stanley Perlman told the magazine.</p><p>Stefan Meuer sees a fundamental survival principle of nature in the different equipment and activity of our immune systems: "If we were all the same, one and the same virus could wipe out the entire human species at once. Due to the genetic range, it is quite normal that some people die from a viral disease while others do not even notice it. "</p><p>Achim Hörauf also suspects immunological variants that could be genetically determined. Since interstitial pneumonia is observed with the coronavirus, the focus is probably on an overreaction of the immune system. However, it is also possible that each person affected may have been loaded with a different dose of the virus, which in turn leads to different outcomes. And finally, it makes a difference how robust the body and lungs are: Competitive athletes simply have more lung volume than long-time smokers. </p>
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