Well, This is a Problem

The back gardens of Mayflower, Arkansas aren’t looking too good:


Yes, that’s oil. Canadian oil, no less. You’re welcome.

I’ve heard surprisingly little about this event, which occurred when an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured on Friday. It appears that the press have limited access while the cleanup crews are at work. National Geographic had a good piece, though.

Call me cynical, but I think the Canadian media are purposely keeping quiet on this one. It’s a very inconvenient time for a pipeline to burst, given that all levels of government and industry are pushing for Keystone, Northern Gateway, Energy East, etc., etc.

News of this event is largely relying on Mayflower citizens leveraging social media. There’s no way to verify their photos and videos, but they’re striking nonetheless. Here’s a video of the situation on a residential street – note the lack of cleanup crews.

The oil is going straight into the storm drain, the man in the video says, which makes me shudder. I don’t know anything about Mayflower’s stormwater system, but where I live those storm drains are about three steps removed from the Red River. Once oil got in there, I can’t imagine it ever getting out.

I find it puzzling that the negative impacts of pipelines are so often catalogued as “environmentalists’ problems” in the Canadian media – here’s a typical example. In reality, they’re everyone’s problems. Environmentalists (as much as I detest that label) are just the people who realize it. We are not a special interest group; we represent everyone. When it comes to disasters, from short-term spills like the one in Mayflower to millennial-scale impacts like climate change, Canadian oil will affect everyone indiscriminately.

Side note: Sorry I have been so absurdly quiet recently. I am busy building two climate models – just small ones for term projects, but so enjoyable that everything else is getting neglected. I’ll be posting much more on that in about a month.


10 thoughts on “Well, This is a Problem

  1. It was featured on Chris Hayes’ first night Monday at his new time on US MSNBC. He’s a great reporter and very sound and passionate on environmental issues. MSNBC put Hayes in in the hope that like Rachel Maddow he would be competitive with our Fox news. MSNBC is not network and not real “balance” but Hayes is very good news as far as it goes. Second link is to the main daily show video; of course a lot of it is US politics and issues and some fluff, though his fluff is also goodish.


    As you can see:

    We can hope that his brand of attractive knowledgeable discussion will provoke more media awareness elsewhere.

    Huffpost said this:
    “Hayes is an atypical 8 PM host, without the bluster or drama that accompanied such MSNBC predecessors as Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz. His elevation to the marquee slot was an audacious choice for the network, a bet that Hayes’ quieter, starchier form of programming will click with viewers every weeknight.”

  2. they’re in a competion who makes more mess, derailing trains or pipelines? do the results of these experiments go to OIRA?

  3. Kate:

    I think you might find this interesting. It’s The Azimuth Project, run by mathematical physicist John Carlos Baez. (In case you’re wondering, Joan Baez is his cousin.) Born in 1961, he has for some years been teaching at the University of California Riverside.

    He has concluded that this planet is in trouble. The Azimuth Project is his contribution to solving some of those problems — most especially climate change. I’ve only just discovered it, but climate modelling looks like a big part of this.

    Here’s his introduction to the project, with the necessary links: http://www.azimuthproject.org/azimuth/show/John+Baez

    For a brief biography, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_C._Baez

  4. Kate – well done you for posting this. I’ve very few contacts in that region, but I’m wondering if you may know someone – who maybe knows someone – who knows someone – who can get a camera slung under a remote controlled model plane???
    Hell if drones are ok for Barak to defend the national interest, they’re ok for all of us to do so, right ?

    Another matter I’d like to ask your help on is rather closer to your own expertise. I’d really like to persuade you to do a recce on what looks to my lay calculations like an additional potentially large early feedback with a methane output, of which I’ve yet to find any public discussion . The germ of this notion came from assembling galleries of stunning pictures of thermokarst pool landscapes, and of the advance of deciduous shrubs and tree species across the tundra.

    As a thought experiment, suppose that down the road the reportedly rapidly expanding areas of thermokarst pools and land-slip dam-lakes comprised an area of 500,000km2, and the reportedly rapidly advancing growth of deciduous species colonizes 1,000,000km2, there’d be quite a potential for their interaction across the windswept ‘cold desert’ of the tundra.

    Here in Wales, unlike pine needles, the fallen leaves blow clear across the fields if they’re not rained on and mostly make drifts against the downwind hedges and stone walls, from which they’ll blow again if the wind changes. But those who find a bit of water, say a stream or a ditch to clog up, don’t get to fly any further. By contrast any long grasses that haven’t been grazed off don’t blow about, they mostly just fall over flat.

    Some more numbers are needed here which I hope are in or at least somewhere near the ball park.
    – Suppose tundra shrub/woodland drops only about 8Ts dry leaves per acre, or about 20Ts per hectare, that’s 2.0Kts/km2, which is 2Gts/Mkm2.
    – If their carbon content is around 45%, that’s about 0.9GtsC on the move.
    – If as much as 10% of that loose carbon flies far enough in the right directions to find a pool, lake or slow watercourse to sink into, that’s about 90MtsC rotting anaerobically, and outgassing up to 112.5Mts CH4.
    – And over the critical 20-year time horizon that poses an annual addition of around 11.25Gts CO2e to the atmosphere.

    It strikes me that this back-of-envelope outcome is closely akin to the report in GRL by an arctic scientist (in 2010 ?) of how the current cryosphere albedo loss feedback was imposing a forcing equivalent to about 30% of anthro-CO2 outputs. I’m thinking that if someone of your expertise didn’t bat it straight out of court (for one or more of umpteen possible reasons), and was intrigued to explore it further, then IF perchance it hangs together as a serious dynamic-interaction feedback, it could have exceptional public-education value on the hazards of the feedback threat.

    There must be hundreds of millions of people, and their children, in wealthy countries who know all about just what masses of leaves come down in the fall and need sweeping up, who’d get some time each fall to think about it.
    So it seems to me that exploring the issue just might be a very productive use of time for the right person.

    On the other hand, there must be many scientists trudging around the tundra facing the changes there in the flesh, so it may well be that the issue has already attracted attention. If that were so, would there be any chance of getting and posting a discreet interim account of the issue’s likely potential ?

    Well thanks for reading all this and my apologies for the length,

    With kind regards,


  5. Oil spills can occur naturally as well. Going into a river is probably not that much of a problem, depending on the quantity. Right now, the issue with shale is whether it goes out by pipeline or trains, owned by Warren Buffett.

  6. I find it puzzling that the negative impacts of pipelines are so often catalogued as “environmentalists’ problems” in the Canadian media

    I think that’s a symptom of perverse journalist syndrome brought on by uncritical thinking disorder and possibly a touch of corrupt politicianese.

    Glad to hear you’ve not (yet) been muzzled by your country’s misanthropic government, Kate.

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