By Andy Rowell
The energy revolution sweeping the U.S. is now taking up serious column inches in the nation’s papers. Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran with with the headline: “Expanded Oil Drilling Helps U.S. Wean Itself from Mideast.”
The next day it was “U.S. Wakes Up to North American Oil Abundance.”
There is no doubt that the dirty tar sands and fracking are revolutionizing the industry. But what is less understood is how inter-connected the two are. Ironically, one dirty technology is actually boosting the other.
One of the big energy issues dominating the energy and political debate over the last year has been the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would facilitate the export of tar sands from Canada to the U.S.
But what many people don’t realize is that, at the moment, the U.S. is actually exporting light crude to Canada. An informative article by John Kemp, a Reuters market analyst, explained how last week.
The fracking boom has produced an excess of condensate in the U.S. Condensate is a by-product of oil and gas production. It is a kind of wet gas or gaseous liquid depending on how you look at it. It is abundant in the shale gas and tight oil wells being drilled across America using hydraulic fracturing.
On the downside for refiners, this surplus has reduced refining margins for the light crudes and condensates.
But, by a twist of fate, is has also provided a major boost to Canada’s dirty tar sands industry, as the condensate is perfect for diluting and liquefying the semi-solid bitumen extracted from the tar sands so that it can flow through pipelines.
So as tar sands producers gear up for massive expansions of their high carbon production, more and more of the condensate produced from fracking is being exported to Canada to facilitate the transportation of bitumen to American refineries.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the independent statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, in the first three months of 2011, the U.S. exported 1 million barrels of a type of light condensates known as “pentanes plus." These exports rocketed to 10 million barrels in the same period this year.
Last month, one company announced it would be exporting 100,000 barrels per day of condensate for at least ten years from Illinois to the tar sands.
And the exports are set to skyrocket. By 2025, the demand for light condensate to feed the tar sands is predicted to be more than 450,000 barrels per day.
If it wasn’t for the severe local impacts of fracking, it would be sadly ironic that America is trading its relatively low carbon oil for Canada’s high carbon tar.
But without a climate-led energy policy that places a safe limit on carbon in North America, it is simply predictable to find that one destructive energy production method is feeding another.
By Jonathan Runstadler and Kaitlin Sawatzki
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
By John R. Platt
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