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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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The Conservation of Oily Matter September 16, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Jack Kornfield, oil spill.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and Truthout.

You can’t make nothing out of something. That’s what I’m stuck on now that BP has resumed drilling the final stretch of relief well that will allow engineers to plug ostensibly the disastrous Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico.

And I don’t mean just that BP along with other oil industrialists would have us believe that the Gulf of Mexico deep sea oil gusher was a fluke that won’t happen again, even as we’re poised to restart deep-water drilling for oil. Or, that the New York Times might be reporting an inappropriately rosy picture of the current situation in the Gulf.

I mean the first law of thermodynamics, often called the Law of Conservation of Energy, which states that energy may be transferred but can’t be created or destroyed.

Even if you’re no Einstein, you’ve probably encountered—perhaps on a T-shirt—Albert’s famous equation that describes the relationship between energy and matter:

E = mc2

(where E stands for energy and m for matter and c is a constant—a multiplication factor that doesn’t change). Einstein suggested that energy and matter are interchangeable. In essence the first law of thermodynamics also implies that matter, like energy, can be neither created nor destroyed. That’s why Intro Physics students also know this principle as the Law of Conservation of Matter.

In case you were wondering, oil is matter. So even though I’m generally a glass-half-full kind of person, suspicion wheedled its way through my body when in August I heard that roughly three fourths of the oil unleashed from the deep-sea well had “disappeared”. The report from scientists at NOAA (the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in fact stated that, “the vast majority of the oil from the BP oil spill has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead or dispersed” and proclaimed proudly, “a significant amount of this is the direct result of the robust federal response efforts”. Well, bully for them.

I can understand why people who perhaps avoided a physics course might interpret “burned”, “skimmed”, and “dispersed” as “disappeared”. But here’s the truth of the first law of thermodynamics: since the earth is a closed system, the matter that was once entombed oil is now formerly fossilized fuel released into other parts of the Earth System. I can’t help but picture the escaped oil issuing forth from the Gulf of Mexico as cinematographers rendered J.K. Rowling’s hope-sucking dementors.

We see as coatings on beaches and birds the painfully obvious 26% of “residual oil”. As for the disappeared 74%, on an Eaarth ruled by the first law of thermodynamics, “burned,” “dispersed,” and “skimmed” means respectively, that the oil from the Gulf Gusher resides in the atmosphere helping to warm the planet; lurks as minute particles in seawater that challenge the capacity of fish to extract oxygen from water via gills suited to seawater of specific physical and chemical composition; and accumulates as something we could call the dregs of the disaster.

In his inspiring book, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, Jack Kornfield wrote:

Contemporary society fosters our mental tendency to deny or suppress our awareness of reality. 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. (23)

Therefore I’d like to suggest that as scientists, oil industrialists, government officials, and engaged citizens continue to debate the fallout from the BP catastrophe, we strive to stay open to the truth of the first law of thermodynamics and try to live in accordance with that reality.