WATERWORKS by Gordon Prickett A monthly column for the 1/7/2015 Aitkin Independent Age
OIL AND WATER
Much ink has been used to describe what the Canadian firm Enbridge Inc. wants to do with its pipelines across Minnesota. As of December 2014 Enbridge is petitioning the Public Utilities Commission in Minnesota to allow a newly-proposed Sandpiper Pipeline Project to cross the center of Aitkin County. At first this new corridor was to transport light crude oil from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota. In recent months Enbridge has added a replacement 36-inch diameter pipeline (Line 3) into the requested Sandpiper Corridor. This oil is diluted bitumen from the Athabasca Tar Sands of Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Our county commissioners are in favor of a positive decision by the Minnesota PUC, citing several millions in tax revenue from the North Dakota oil flowing through Aitkin County. Opponents testifying before the county board and the PUC refer to oil leaks and spills from Enbridge pipelines in recent times. Both the light crude oil and the heavy bitumen pose threats to Aitkin County’s rivers and wetlands when leaking from beneath the surface. Normal depth of pipe is about four feet, but when crossing the Mississippi River below Palisade, Sandpiper will tunnel down to 30 feet beneath the river bed.
Enbridge claims they operate their lines safely today and have invested in new technology and control centers to detect any interruptions. The Line 3 pipe is 46 years old and must be operated at reduced capacity on its 34-inch diameter pipe. Inspection digs are scheduled to check on its condition. When this line is replaced it will be emptied and cleaned; then left in the ground.
WHAT ABOUT REFINERIES?
Currently the heavy Canadian Oil is transported to the nearest refineries at Superior, Wisconsin, and Rosemount, Minnesota. However, the three native tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota have plans to build an oil refinery. The economics of the global oil marketplace are changing with increasing supply from North America. The price of a barrel of crude oil has been cut in half in 2014 - from $110 down to under $55 per barrel. Extracting the sand and clay from the Alberta open pits and piping light crude up to the tar pits so a diluted mixture will flow through a pipeline is costly.
Similarly, in North Dakota large quantities of water under high pressure, mixed with volatile organic compounds and quartz sand from Wisconsin sand mines, are injected in wells two miles deep to fracture or separate the tightly-bound shale and oil. Not the least of the costs for this new oil source is the production water required and the disposal and treatment of waste water.
Then there is costly “Off-shore oil,” raised from distant ocean platforms. Scientists have tracked our Common Loons from Minnesota to their winter homes in the Gulf of Mexico - the very region where the BP oil platforms exploded and leaked. The dispersants used on that fugitive oil made the harm to coastal wetlands worse than if it had sunk to the bottom. We have indications that BP’s spill may be responsible for recent lower loon counts.
Petroleum engineers can produce oil much cheaper from the vast shallow reserves in Saudi Arabia and Iran than from other global suppliers. As North America moves towards “Energy Independence” and starts producing oil and gas for export, we can begin to see the effect on some other natural resources - clean water and wildlife.