Here on my climate adaptation tumblr, I try (my best) to post about environmental issues that are roughly related to the impacts from shifts in the climate. Sea-level rise is the most obvious impact. Melting glaciers and Arctic ice are raising the levels of the ocean. And cities around the world are scrambling to deal with the impacts, which are mind-blowingly huge, incredibly expensive, and often politically vexing.
I have masters degrees in environmental law and city planning. The focus of my research was/is how land-use laws were able (or, rather, unable) to accommodate climate science. So, naturally, I’m interested in how climate will affect infrastructure, economies, demographics, ecosystems, etc.
For example, I’m quite interested how can coastal communities deal with a rising sea. Especially big cities like New York City or San Fransisco, which have thousands of buildings, roads, ports, and pipelines literally built inches from the ocean.
Cities are prepared for certain levels of disasters. There are sea walls and evacuation plans, flood pump stations and hurricane barriers. And buildings and infrastructure are generally built to high standards. But, cites are not prepared for higher oceans (why would they be?). Climate change changes the equations and calculations of managing disasters in cities. They’re forced to adapt, regardless of how many solar panels are slapped onto rooftops.
It’s a complicated issue. Greenhouse gasses trap in more heat in the atmosphere, causing a bunch of crazy environmental things to happen. So the obvious response is to stop pumping carbon into the air. That’s Al Gore’s primary message.
The problem with this is that storms and fires and diseases are increasing as a result from rising temperatures. Climate change is occurring regardless of mitigation. Thus, the impacts have to be dealt with. In fact, our troubles are only going to increase. I choose to be on the impacts side of this conundrum (eg, adaptation).
So, what’s my deal with oil leaks and spills? The short answer is that oil and gas infrastructure, such as pipelines and oil rigs, are very vulnerable to climate impacts. Oil - like it or not - makes the world go round. It’s in nearly everything we use - from plastics to medicine to soap. There is no stopping oil.
I wrote about this last year for GOOD Magazine. IBM and a climate consulting firm called Acclimatise did a study on the oil and gas industry’s vulnerability to climate change. I showed that oil pipelines in Alaska are more likely to break and leak oil than ever before, and that the oil industry is way under-prepared to deal with these new types of leaks:
In one of most ironic flip-flops in environmental history, the oil and gas industry is beginning to adapt to climate change. And it’s no wonder. The majority of industry’s infrastructure is located in some of the most climate vulnerable regions on the planet. Nearly 75 percent of the Alaskan pipeline, for example, is built over increasingly unstable permafrost, which is now thawing under warmer temperatures. The Mackenzie Valley in Canada alone has recorded over 2,000 sink holes, rock slides, and large depressions from thawing permafrost.
The pipeline’s famous elevated design was the result of a 20 year study (PDF) on the stability of climate and permafrost from 1950 to 1970. Based on the historic record, engineers designed the supports for the pipeline to withstand some fluctuation in permafrost, but not for the extensive melts now predicted. Indeed, that 20 year study was the one of the coldest periods in Alaskan history. Whoops.
The study I referred to, Global Oil & Gas - The Adaptation Challenge, showed that infrastructure was dangerously unprepared for climate impacts. Thousands of miles of oil pipelines are perched on permafrost in Canada, Russia, and Alaska.
Permafrost is permanently frozen soil - essentially the land is mixture of ice, rocks, and soil. Permafrost does move around a bit and any infrastructure built on it is (usually) engineered to handle a certain level of flex (the EPA has a decent primer on permafrost).
But, when the ice melts in substantial volumes, the soil shrinks and contracts. As a result, anything built on permafrost is in big trouble. Oil and gas pipelines could rupture, causing tremendous environmental damage, as well as incredible costs to economies in terms of clean up costs (who pays?), damage to fisheries and tourism, and lowered property values (and tax revenues). Not to mention health troubles for workers and residents.
So, that’s pretty much why I post so much on oil - infrastructure vulnerability. Oil spills are nasty, nasty creatures. Their economic and environmental impacts are super gnarly to deal with. And they’re expected, as IBM showed, to increase unless the infrastructure adapts to the “new normal”.
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