Archive for Monday, May 5, 2014

Pulitzer-winning writer featured in Tuesday Lawrence library event on Keystone Pipeline

May 5, 2014


Tony Horwitz

Tony Horwitz

Last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Horwitz spent a lot of time in boomtown bars, studying the human side of the construction of the Keystone Pipeline that often gets lost in the debate over the controversial project.

"I was curious to know what was happening on the ground," said Horwitz, who will be speaking at a Lawrence Public Library event at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Carnegie Building, 200 W. 9th St. Horwitz, who lives in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., won't be there in person but will appear via Skype.

His experiences along thousands of miles of the oil pipeline are contained in his new eBook, entitled "BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever. A Long, Strange Journey Along the Keystone XL Pipeline."

The pipeline stretches from Canada to refineries in the midwest United States and the Gulf Coast.

The application for the proposed Keystone XL portion of the project, which is kind of a shortcut from Canada to Steele City, Neb., which is just north of Kansas, has been under review for several years by President Barack Obama's administration.

In an interview Monday, Horwitz said he wanted to find out more about the project than the polarized political debate in Washington, D.C., waged between environmentalists and pipeline developers.

What he found crossing the vastly rural areas of Canada and the northern U.S. plains were complex feelings about the project.

In the drilling areas of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada, and Williston, N.D., he encountered boom areas that drew tens of thousands of mostly young men to work at well-paying jobs.

"You have the predictable results: drug problems, crime, strip clubs. It is quite a scene," he said.

But, he added, "On the positive side, you have people building a middle-class lifestyle."

Then in Nebraska, he found conservative white ranchers and Native Americans joining forces to oppose the pipeline because of their concerns about oil spills contaminating groundwater and agricultural land.

He said opponents of the pipeline tend to be thought of as urban liberal environmentalists. "Then you find these burly guys in camouflage and John Deere caps aligning themselves with Native Americans," he said.

On a personal level, Horwitz said he is concerned about the pipeline's impact on the environment, but said environmentalists shouldn't discount the energy sector's ability to generate jobs.

"I also came away feeling the XL will not decide the fate of the planet," he said, but will be one of many heated debates in the country over energy policy.

Horwitz won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for national reporting on working conditions for low-wage earners. He has written several books, including a 2011 book about John Brown, "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War."


Michael LoBurgio 4 years, 1 month ago

Keystone PipeLIES Exposed: The Facts on Sticky Leaks, Billion Dollar Spills, and Dirty Air

How Tar Sands Work

Tar sands oil bears little resemblance to anything most people would recognize as petroleum. In its natural form, it is not even liquid. Rather, it is solid or semi-solid bitumen, mixed with clay, sand, and water in a sticky sludge.

“It basically is a very tarry, asphalt-like substance that requires an enormous amount of energy to get out of the ground and an enormous amount of energy to move and to refine,” says Anthony Swift, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “It's a much lower grade of oil, almost liquid coal. There are many more impurities there are many more toxic substances in it” compared to conventional petroleum.

Tar sands extraction is generally done in two ways: surface mining and drilling.

Surface mining is similar to the commonly understood form of mineral extraction. Much like a gold mine or coal mine requires digging into the earth to uncover the valuable minerals held within, tar sands mining differs only in the vast areas that must be cleared and the vast amounts of earth that must be dug up to remove the bitumen.

Drilling for tar sands, however, is very different from any other form of oil drilling. Rather than poking a giant straw into an underground reservoir that then gushes up under pressure or is pumped to the surface, the bitumen locked in the soil is too thick to be pumped in a similar fashion.

Drilling for bitumen, typically undertaken when the tar sands are too deep beneath the surface for cost-effective mining, requires a multi-step process. First, a collection tube is drilled. And then above that an injection tube is drilled, which then forces superheated steam into the earth under extreme pressure, which heats and liquefies the bitumen which is been collected by the first tube.

Each process has its own significant drawbacks. Most obviously, surface mining requires a level of industrial activity on a delicate ecosystem that many people likely would find unconscionable.

“It's called the boreal forest. This is an incredibly rich ecosystem with the largest remaining intact ecosystem in North America and the tar sands would completely devastate that region,” says Kate Colarulli, associate director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil campaign. “It would pollute some of the largest freshwater rivers in North America. The Athabasca [River] is facing tremendous pollution from this, and it would create huge amounts of toxic air emissions. So what we see at the production site is an environmental Armageddon.”

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