Science Policy & Funding News

Experts Examine Role Scientists Play in Oil Transportation Issues

Scientists and government officials discuss how science can inform decisions related to transporting crude oil.

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U.S. hydrocarbon production is on the rise, meaning that transporting hydrocarbons—whether by pipelines, trucks, or trains—is as well. However, increasing environmental concerns, mixed with other issues such as energy independence and landowner rights, is making this transportation a hot-button issue.

One proposed project, for example, the Keystone XL pipeline, has become a lightning rod for issues related to oil and gas transportation. That pipeline, whose completion is dependent on action by politicians and the courts, would move oil from Canada to U.S. refineries.

Experts examined issues related to transporting crude oil, including how science can inform these decisions, during a 20 October forum at the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada.

At the forum, Suzette Kimball, acting director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), said, “In addition to understanding the quantity and the quality of potential resources, USGS and other science agencies are able to provide an integrated science perspective that can be used to address potential risks associated with the transport and movement of a resource.”

Among potential risks from hazards nationwide, she said, are storm surges that can flood pipelines and other energy infrastructure along coastal areas, including key facilities such as Port Fourchon, La. Kimball said that flooding has become more common along Highway 1 to Port Fourchon, whose infrastructure facilitates 18% of the U.S. oil supply and more than 90% of the Gulf of Mexico’s deepwater oil production.

Other risks include impacts from climate change (for example, melting permafrost, which can undermine pipeline infrastructure) and from road washouts due to intense rainfall from extreme weather. In addition, earthquakes can severely damage transportation routes and onshore and offshore pipelines. Pipeline routes can also fragment wildlife habitat and introduce other environmental changes.

An Integrated and Objective Science Approach

Kimball said that an integrated science approach to impacts, along with resource assessments, “is essential to inform the decision makers” about the potential risks in constructing pipelines and other means to move resources from production to consumption.

She said that a good example of a successful integrated science approach was the construction of the ­Trans-­Alaska Oil Pipeline, which crosses the Denali Fault. The pipeline, which survived the November 2002 M7.9 Denali earthquake, was designed to slide on horizontal steel beams. Careful engineering to stringent earthquake design specifications, based on geological studies done in the 1970s, paid off, Kimball said.

Kimball stressed the importance of being objective in discussions about energy resources and transport. “Those of us in the public sector very jealously guard our reputation for providing unbiased objective science in order for the decision makers to have geological information upon which they can base those decisions,” she said.

“Once we get sucked into an advocacy role or anything that is perceived as an advocacy role, we lose that objectivity, and the products that we produce become, in these highly charged situations, used as ammunition for one side or the other’s perspective,” she added. “However that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a responsibility to educate the general public, lawmakers, [and] those who develop that public policy.”

Sticking to Facts

Robert “Matt” Joeckel, Nebraska state geologist and a professor at the University of ­Nebraska-­Lincoln, focused his remarks primarily on the Keystone XL pipeline. Joeckel said that although people might think that the chief argument against the pipeline extension is environmental concerns, another fundamental issue is landowner rights.

The debate about Keystone XL, which would be built through Nebraska, has been highly charged, with unusual coalitions coming together on different sides of the project and with neighbors pitted against neighbors, Joeckel said.

He noted that not only has the issue become highly politicized, but some debate participants have demonstrated “a preponderance of pedantry,” and that “the geological truth is misrepresented by both sides, pro and anti, whether intentionally or not.”

Joeckel said that what he has found most offensive in the debate about the pipeline have been some wild claims and incorrect statements about Nebraska’s geology. “That isn’t a matter of opinion; that’s a matter of fact.” He said, “What I sought to do is stick with what I know best, and that is [to focus on] some aspect of regional geology and try at least to make sure that the appropriate points are communicated” to people who have questions about the geology.

Risks From Various Transport Systems

Discussion moderator Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey, told Eos, “People are going to use energy. You’ve got to figure out what the best way to go about getting it to them will be. There is no absolutely perfect system.”

Pipelines, however, may be the safest method to transport petroleum products, according to Chris Hunt, director of planning and public engagement at the Department of Energy for the government of Alberta. Oil that would be transported through the Keystone XL pipeline would originate in Alberta. Hunt, who focused his remarks on efforts by the Alberta government—working with other governments, regulators, industry, and others—to ensure that oil transportation systems are safe, said that improvements in technology, standards for site selection, and monitoring combine to provide environmental protection and minimize incidents.

Buchanan told Eos that there are risks with any oil transportation system. “My guess is if you took a look at risk associated with trains and certainly with trucks, that you would see a greater impact on infrastructure—certainly with trucks—and accident levels, and particularly in terms of proximity to population centers, because those trains and trucks go through cities,” he said.

Buchanan added that geologists have a lot to offer in terms of providing objective advice in public policy debates about transporting energy but that they don’t always get heard. This could be because some geologists may not choose to engage in energy debates or that they may not know how to best engage in debates that can get highly polarized or emotional.

As a result, decisions can get made “without geologic input, and that’s no good for anybody,” he said. “If you don’t get involved, those things take on a life of their own, and you never catch up.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.