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The Keystone XL Pipeline Project: Extremely Unskillful? November 9, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, climate change, Dalai Lama, earthquakes, fossil fuel, fracking, hydraulic fracturing, Jack Kornfield, Keystone XL Pipeline Project, tar sands.
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 This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and Truthout


As thousands of people circled the White House to make known their objections to the multibillion dollarKeystone XL Project, I was again reminded of a comment by Jack Kornfield:

“Ours is a society of denial that conditions us to protect ourselves from any direct difficulty and discomfort. We expend enormous energy denying our insecurity, fighting pain, death, and loss, and hiding from the basic truths of the natural world and of our own nature.”

The dedicated activists who gathered to communicate their views to the President and many others are trying to alert the world’s population to a critical basic truth about the Earth: fossil fuels are an exhaustible resource whose extraction is a perilous and foolhardy enterprise. What’s more, they are trying to wake us up to the fact that in our pursuit of energy sources, greed prevents us from acting skillfully.

The Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion (Keystone XL), operated by Calgary-based TransCanada, is the southernmost geographical component of the Keystone Project that will carry crude oil derived from Alberta, Canada tar sands through Saskatchewan, across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to southern Texas where it will be refined along the Gulf of Mexico. In a recent interview TransCanada CEO Russ Girling commented

“We never expected to be the lightning rod for the development of the Canadian oil sands. At the end of the day we build a conduit from A to B.”

What’s wrong with this attitude? The idea that this complex enterprise can be reduced to as simple a notion as connecting two points by a line can only arise from a profoundly confused mind. Here’s some geoscience in the service of clarity.

Tar sand” is a generic term used to describe petroleum-bearing rocks exposed at the Earth’s surface. Because petroleum is hydrocarbon its combustion for energy contributes significantly to well-established global warming. Geologists know tar sands as natural bitumen which means basically that it is a very viscous (sticky) petroleum. This stickiness distinguishes it from heavy crude oil, another type of petroleum. Tar sand is more like a flowy (if you will) solid whereas crude oil looks more familiarly like a liquid. It’s the stickiness that makes tar sands particularly problematic as technically recoverable resources.

 

Two different methods are used to produce oil from tar sands – surface mining andin-situ (in place) production. Only about 20 percent of all tar sand resources are recovered via surface mining. The rest is obtained through the later technique of in-situ processing which involves pumping steam underground through a horizontal well to liquefy the bitumen and pump it to the surface. Despite publicity about Canadian oil sands from the American Petroleum Institute intended to inform and assure those with well-founded worry about pipeline leaks and water contamination of western aquifers, such processing may be simple but it’s not easy. We need only look at theDeepwater Horizon fiasco to see how difficult it can be to stop simple flow from a pipe. (And the mind of this New Yorker not only is tempted to go to the past but also to project into the future concerns about hydrofracking in the Marcellus shale for another type of petroleum–natural gas). But let me stay in the present.

The Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion which has attracted so much attention will involve among other components construction of new pipeline in Oklahoma (Keystone Phase III — 435 miles from Oklahoma through Texas). Okay, pay attention. On Saturday November 5, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake was centered six miles southeast of Sparks, Oklahoma. I’ll reframe this geographically: the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma struck about 40 miles south of Cushing, Oklahoma which is the point of origin for Keystone XL’s phase III.

The recent earthquake and its continued aftershocks occurred on the Wilzetta fault. It is one of many faults in the area that formed during the Carboniferous Period (around 300 milliion years ago) during an episode of mountain-building activity ultimately leading to the formation of the Rocky Mountains. But we don’t understand the relationship between these recent earthquakes and this old geologic structure. We do know that Oklahoma’s east and west borders are 280 and 750 miles from New Madrid, the namesake of ahigh seismic zone responsible for several of the largest historical earthquakes to strike the continental United States (1811-1812).

H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama has taught that

 “a balanced and skillful approach to life, taking care to avoid extremes, becomes a very important factor in conducting one’s everyday existence.”

Our efforts to force sticky hydrocarbons out of the Earth’s sedimentary rocks in Alberta, Canada (A), then transport them thousands of miles across a critical aquifer while skirting a high seismic zone (conduit), so we can refine them in Texas (B) only to burn them to create energy and incidentally warm the planet seems to me extreme, unbalanced, and unskillful.

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What would the Dalai Lama say about fracking? September 16, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Dalai Lama, fracking, natural gas, science, shale.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

In his book For the Benefit of All Beings: A Commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva, His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes, “The actions of each of us, human or nonhuman, have contributed to the world in which we live. We all have a common responsibility for our world and are connected with everything in it.”

That is of course, a statement that applies to people of all kinds; not just Buddhists. As an earth system scientist, I feel the truth of that statement in my bones, every day. So, yesterday when I heard the news that ecologist, bladder cancer survivor, parent and activist Sandra Steingraber had been recognized this year with a Heinz award, I felt a surge of hope. Dr. Steingraber has written numerous books about the perils of a contaminated planet that are simultaneously scientific and personal.

Currently, she is working to prevent the unnatural disaster that will ensue if New York State proceeds with high-volume slick water hydrofracturing of shale gas — fracking — in the state. Steingraber puts it powerfully and renders the earth system science right when she avers, “we are shattering the very bedrock of our nation to get at the petrified bubbles of methane trapped inside.”

Sandra and I have had some supportive communication with one another over the years and so I dashed off a quick e-note of congratulations when I heard about the honor that carries with it a $100,000 unrestricted cash prize. Despite a very busy life, she got back to me quickly to share her statement subtitled “The Heinz Award and What I Plan to Do With It.”

In it, Dr. Steingraber acknowledged the connectedness of earth and all life, writing that “…the bodies of my children are the rearranged molecules of the air, water, and food streaming through them.” She announced her intent to devote her Heinz Award to the fight against hydrofracking in upstate New York where she lives with her family. And she implored others to join her in the struggle to fight fossil fuel addiction. In her opinion, dependency on these nonrenewable resources causes us to act irrationally — removing mountains, felling forests, drilling deeply — and to use these fossil fuels as raw materials for pesticides, solvents, and other toxic substances that insinuate themselves into the tissues of all living beings.

It seems to me that Dr. Steingraber’s thoughts and motives are as much informed by a sense of responsibility — one like the Dalai Lama wrote about – as they are by science. And that, as I say, makes me hopeful.

What about you?

Bringing a “Whole New Mind” to the BP Oil Catastrophe July 28, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in book review, BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Dalai Lama, fossil fuel, neuroscience, oil, science.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and truthout.

I recently picked up — and couldn’t stop reading — Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, because I reside with three of his so-called “R(ight brain)-directed” thinkers, and as a scientist I’ve lived most of my professional life in a “L(eft brain)-directed” world. So, though I was motivated by personal reasons to entertain Pink’s hypothesis, I was surprised to find currency in his book for two domains that preoccupy me: Buddhism and earth science.

Pink, a former speechwriter for Al Gore, argues that we now live in the dawning of the “Conceptual Age”—that which has succeeded the Information and Industrial Ages respectively—and that the skills necessary for survival in this age are, roughly put, art and heart.

Pink draws on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data, well-known to Buddhists interested in neuroscience, that show how the left and right hemispheres divide their labor: the left hemisphere handles logic, sequence, literalness and analysis while the right hemisphere processes and synthesizes emotional expression, metaphor, context, and “the big picture.” Pink uses these data to argue that L-directed aptitudes while necessary, are no longer sufficient for leading satisfactory lives in the Conceptual Age. R-directed talents including artistry, empathy, taking the long view, and pursuing the transcendent — which were undervalued during the Information Age — are now essential. Pink asserts that the requisite abilities—he characterizes them as “Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning”—are fundamentally human attributes, things we do out of a sense of intrinsic motivation, that reside in all of us and need only be nurtured into being.

In the chapter titled “Meaning,” Pink refers to the Dalai Lama’s comment at a Mind and Life Institute press conference: “Science and Buddhism are very similar,” he said, “because they are exploring the nature of reality, and both have the goal to lessen the suffering of mankind.” Pink aims to urge the importance in the Conceptual Age of taking spirituality seriously. He offers up examples of ways of doing so—medical schools that teach their students to take “spiritual histories” of patients; village greens, prisons, universities, and hospitals with incorporated labyrinths; employees who articulate hunger for bringing spiritual values—meaning and purpose—to their workplaces as documented in a University of Southern California business school report (A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America).

I bring up spiritual values and business because BP is replacing Tony Hayward, the company CEO who presided over attempts to cap the Gulf of Mexico deep sea oil gusher, with a new CEO: Bob Dudley, who says he will put safety at the center of future exploration. Dudley has spoken of the need to restructure and reorganize in order to advance this goal.

But safety is a value—a deeply held belief that is beyond compromise; if my reading of Pink is on target, BP’s new CEO, and other oil professionals are going to have to enlist “whole minds” to embrace truly safety as a value. Robots run by computers — inventions of the information age — have worked to cap the well but it took months. Many reasons explain the absence of a fast fix, among them the fact that robots and computers can feel no empathy, don’t see “the big picture,” can’t handle context, and don’t work creatively; and approaches to the calamity sprang primarily from L-directed thinking of oil professionals—logic, sequence, and analysis.

If BP enlisted R-directed thinkers and got the benefit of what Pink calls their “high concept-high touch” abilities—emotional intelligence, imagination and creativity—could the company (and others like it), move “Beyond Petroleum,” (BP’s recent and now-ironic) marketing slogan? In The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market, economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane write that the future belongs to people who excel at expert thinking (solving problems for which there are no rules-based solutions) and complex communication (persuading, explaining, and conveying information). The solution to the BP disaster and future crises like it will not be a new design for deepwater drilling. Rather we’ll need imaginative, emotionally intelligent, R-directed professionals working alongside L-directed professionals in the oil industry. But that’s not all. And in order to make my point I’ll refer to the myth of Pandora, a story I’ve previously found useful in connection with the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe.

According to the legend, Pandora opened her jar—a gift from Zeus—and the evil it contained escaped and spread over the earth. Pandora hurried to close the lid, but the entire contents of the jar had escaped, except for hope. I’d like to argue that the analogous gift that “Pandora’s Well” might still release is the human valuing of right hemisphere brain functions—synthesis, emotional expression, metaphor, and context; if so, with regard to human use of fossil fuels, we have the possibility of acting on “the big picture” with a whole new mind.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on July 28, 2010 at 12:28 pm and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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