Friday, 28 February 2014

Carbon, energy, and blame.

Another sunny day in Vancouver, and another burst of news on the radio with regards to LNG, fracking, and the whole situation of natural gas in BC.

{how apt: I've just rescued a local paper - Burnaby Now - that was flapping around in the wind outside our office porch. Front page story, "Climate change ignored in pipeline hearings" about how global impacts have been disregarded in the ongoing pipeline debates}

 The emphasis in BC has primarily been one of concerns about spills from piplelines carrying diluted bitumen (dilbit). This is a legitimate worry, and it is inevitable that accidents will happen - spending more on spill prevention just reduces the likelihood and the magnitude of a spill, but cannot eliminate it. Heaven knows, as an engineering species we strive to optimize the multi-dimensional problem of safety, cost, and efficacy. Part of the problem is that there is no simple metric for any of those three variables.

{digression: is safety considered over the lifespan of the project, and if so, how does that square with, say, the ever-lengthening operational lives of nuclear power stations? What is the efficacy of a project? How does one weigh the impact of burning coal vs. gas?}

But there's another story, and it's simply that the combustion of any hydrocarbon leads to a global threat to our wellbeing. The challenge then is to maintain our society without poisoning our biosphere. Energy usage per capita is rising at around 10% per decade (could be worse)...

(thanks wikipedia)

... but the global headcount is likely to rise for a while. So steps should be taken to switch to cleaner fuels that require the least energy to generate, and when burned produce the fewest moles of carbon dioxide per Joule. Nuclear is an obvious option, but politically the hottest potato imaginable. Non-traditional oil sources are similarly problematic - the price point at which tar sands become non-viable isn't very far from current market prices.

And there's the problem. LNG projects have become inextricably linked in the popular press with the diluted bitumen schemes - as there are a multitude of proposals currently under discussion. What is not happening is a serious attempt to address the benefits and drawbacks of two very different topics: the transmission of dilbit, and the transportation of natural gas as part of an LNG scheme. Tarring both subjects with the same brush gets us nowhere and simply builds resentment and distrust - before we can move to a low-carbon economy we need to think and act in accord with the best evidence.

Homo *sapiens*, surely.

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