Science Behind Hotly-Debated Keystone XL Pipeline

The Keystone XL Pipeline has been part of a controversy-filled discussion among lawmakers over the last few years. And the new Republican-led Congress is looking to move on passing approval of the pipeline among their first orders of business.

Jeff Danner writes the “Common Science” blog at and says the XL in the name of the pipeline is important.

“There already is a Keystone pipeline, and there has been for years,” he says. “The Keystone XL Pipeline is, essentially, two additions to that preexisting network.”

Danner says an oil-sand mixture would be coming down the pipeline from Canada, with the ultimate goal of rendering out gasoline or diesel as a final product.

He says there are several environmental issues that have been causing concern during the planning process for the pipeline.

“One is on the global-warming front,” Danner says. “We keep resetting a new normal. We used to wish we could keep carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below 400 [parts per million]. Now, the environmental community and the international diplomatic community are trying to settle around a limit of 450.”

Danner adds remaining below the new limits would include leaving at least half of the known deposits of fossil fuels around the world in the ground. Exploiting the oil sands in Alberta would be a huge step toward exceeding the new goals, according to Danner.

The other major environmental concern has been the actual route of the XL pipeline.

“The new pipeline would go over the Ogallala Aquifer,” he says, “which is responsible for the fact that we are able to do things like grow wheat and raise cattle in places like Arizona, Kansas, and Oklahoma.”

Danner says concern is coming from environmentalists over contaminating that aquifer. But he adds the aquifer has not been damaged by some of the more than 2.5 million miles of pipeline that currently run across the United States.

“Hundreds of thousands of miles of that pipeline are already on top of the Ogallala Aquifer,” he says. “That aquifer is deep underground and the land there in not porous, unlike Alberta. It’s so nonporous that it’s hard for the water to get there.”

Danner says these pipelines eliminate the need for trucks or trains to haul the raw material needed to produce fuel, which would come at an even higher financial and environmental cost.

According to Danner, another issue concerning the pipeline is the value. He says once all things are considered, there is concern over whether the expected output of the pipeline is worth the infrastructure necessary for it to operate.

“It’s exceedingly more difficult and more energy intensive than if you had petroleum,” he says. “You have to pull it out of the ground, heat it up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit to get the sand and oil to come out of it. You’ve got to remove the nitrogen. You remove the metals.

“Even when you’re done, you’ve still got this semi-solid mass that you have to process further.”

Danner adds to solve the long-term environmental concerns associated with this project, the solution would be for the pipeline to not go forward – which is why the fight over the pipeline has been so intense.

“If you could stall it, it does buy you some more time if you have hopes that we’ll convince the world to leave the oil sands in the ground,” he says.

The newly-minted GOP-led Congress will likely pass the bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline. But the White House announced, on Tuesday, that President Obama would veto the bill, if it is passed through the legislature.

President Obama and Congressional leaders are slated to meet, next Tuesday, for the first time since the 114th Congress convened and discuss their priorities for the upcoming term – one of which is sure to be the Keystone XL Pipeline.

UNC Program Promotes Energy Awareness Among Local HS Students

The UNC Institute for the Environment is a collaborative, cross-departmental organization which focuses its research on critical issues that lie at the heart of our most pressing environmental challenges. Specific areas of focus include: sustainable communities, energy and the environment, watershed science and management, and environmental modeling.

This week the Institute is hosting 28 local high school students who will spend a week on the campus of UNC exploring topics related to current energy use, climate change, alternative energy and sustainability as part of the Climate Leadership and Energy Awareness Program (Climate LEAP). Science educators from the UNC Institute for the Environment (IE) and the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center (MPSC) along with scientists from UNC will contribute to programming and lead hands-on sessions and lab tours. The program will enable students to take part in hands-on STEM activities such as the construction and testing of dye-sensitized solar cells and wind turbines. Students will take field trips to locations such as the UNC co-generation plant, chemistry laboratories at the UNC-based Energy Frontier Research Center and the Carolina Campus Community Garden.

Funded by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, this student science enrichment program is free and participants are paid a $500 stipend for attending the summer program and participating in at least four follow-up activities during the academic year. In addition, students are asked to conduct a community outreach project to educate others about energy, climate change, and/or sustainability.

The program is lead by Dana Haine, K-12 Science Education Manager for the Institute and proud member of Chapel Hill High School’s class of 1991. Haine credits her outstanding CHHS science teachers for inspiring her to pursue a career in science. In the five years that the Environmental Institute has been running the program, she has seen how it inspires students to seek out more science classes in high school and select STEM related majors in college. When not running the Climate LEAP program Haine and her colleague hold workshops for K-12 science teachers and are available as a resource for educators across the state.

The Environmental Institute provides yet another example of the broad, positive reach of UNC in our education community. It’s good to know that our aspiring scientists have programs like this one available to encourage their ambitions.

Willingham Resigns

UNC academic advisor Mary Willingham shared on her website,, on Tuesday that she has officially resigned from the University.

Willingham first said she had made the decision to leave on April 21 after an hour-long meeting with Chancellor Carol Folt. She said the conversation made her realize there was no more she could do at UNC and that she wanted to continue her fight to correct problems with intercollegiate athletics elsewhere.

In an email, Willingham told WCHL that she’s currently in Washington, D.C. and will return next week. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Wednesday that Willingham, as well as former UCLA basketball standout Ed O’Bannon, will testify to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The hearing takes place Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. and is titled “Promoting the Well-Being and Academic Success of College Athletes“.

Willingham is also a key witness in the O’Bannon lawsuit in which he and a number of other plaintiffs are suing the NCAA for not allowing the players to profit from their image or likeness. That trial is scheduled to begin on June 9, but two weeks ago the NCAA asked U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken to either separate the video game portion of the lawsuit with the rest of it or delay the case by 15 months.

USA Today reports that the lawyers of former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller said they supported the NCAAs request for separation and that they are looking for close to $100 million in statutory penalties, loss of profits and punitive damages.

Eighth Rabies Case; New Restaurant; UNC Students Win; Chatham County Approves Plan

CHAPEL HILL – A dog in Chapel Hill tested positive for rabies, making it the eighth rabies case in Orange County this year.

The dog in question already had a rabies vaccine and received a booster shot shortly after the attack, pursuant to North Carolina’s rabies law that animals suspected of exposure must receive a booster within five days of potential exposure.

Orange County Animal Control reiterates the importance of giving all pets rabies vaccinations. Last year, Orange County had 12 confirmed cases of rabies.


A new sushi bar and Asian fusion restaurant will soon be added to the new 140 West Franklin development in downtown Chapel Hill.

Spicy Nine is scheduled to open next year. The owner, Tony Zikitsreth, who also owns Sushi Thai Raleigh, Sushi Nine and Sushi Love, will manage the new store with his son.

Spicy Nine will join the already-open Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, Gigi’s Cupcakes which will open at the end of August, and Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom which is scheduled for early 2014.


Two UNC doctoral students won second place in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge.

The competition invited graduate students across the nation to submit ideas with the potential to improve graduate education and professional development. UNC’s Clare Fieseler and Justin Ridge submitted their proposal, called Stories Project, to the Duke/UNC Scientists.

The project creates videos, photography, and storytelling affiliated with the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences and the Duke University Marine Laboratory, and it intends to bridge the gap between scientists and the public.


On July 17, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners approved a strategic direction for a conceptual land use plan.

The goal for the strategic growth plan is to position Chatham County for sustainable, balanced job growth.

New growth will be aimed away from environmentally-sensitive lands and toward existing towns and economic development areas.