On August 26, the U.S. State Department gave its approval to the Keystone XL Pipeline, otherwise known as the Tar Sands Pipeline. This is a major step in gaining government approval for a project to build a pipeline from the oil producing region of Alberta, Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
This is a privately financed, privately run project – it does not require Congressional approval. Because the pipeline would cross the U.S. – Canadian border, U.S. law requires a “Presidential Permit.” A final decision on the permit is expected by the end of the year and the decision ultimately rests with President Obama.
Not all crude oil is created equal. What’s in the ground varies widely in viscosity, density, and sulfur content. Oils that are heavier and contain more sulfur are more difficult – and therefore more expensive – to refine into gasoline, diesel fuel, and the many petroleum products used in the modern world.
You may have heard that Alberta has the world’s second largest proven reserves of crude oil. This is true. But virtually all of Alberta’s oil is trapped in oil sands – in a viscous, solid form. It must be treated with hot water to separate the hydrocarbons from the sands. The diluted bitumen can then be transported by pipeline or by tanker for refining.
Why the Pipeline?
Once extracted, the crude oil still has to be refined. Most of the facilities for refining heavy crude are located on the Texas Gulf Coast, where they were built to refine a similar, marginally lighter product from Venezuela.
American oil companies are looking for reliable sources – crude oil in any form from Canada is very attractive to them.
The first environmental concern is with extraction. Oil sands recovery is essentially a strip mining process. The Government of Alberta says that “about two tonnes of oil sands must be dug up, moved and processed to produce one barrel of synthetic crude oil.” Oil companies claim their environmental safeguards are adequate and that the land will be restored once the extraction process is finished. The Sierra Club disagrees. Maude Barlow, Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and a former senior advisor on water to the President of the UN General Assembly, calls the tar sands “Canada’s Mordor.”
The second environmental concern is with the pipeline itself. It will cover 1700 miles, most of which will require stripping the land, digging a trench, and burying the pipeline. Further, the route runs over two of the largest underground aquifers in North America. Keystone, the company building the pipeline, estimates the pipeline will experience 0.22 spills per year. The State Department report estimates 1.78 to 2.51 spills per year, and still considers that acceptable.
The third environmental concern is with greenhouse gas emissions. If the oil is extracted and refined, it will be burned as fuel, increasing CO2 emissions, which contribute to climate change.
Arguments For the Pipeline
The supply of oil from Canada is far more reliable than from places like the Middle East, and profits from Canadian oil don’t support oppressive governments like those in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The oil sands are going to be developed whether we build the pipeline or not. Either the Canadians will sell the oil to us or they’ll sell it to Asian countries.
Increasing oil sands production will increase the overall world supply of oil, which may drive down the price. With most of the “first world” experiencing stagnation if not recession, lower fuel prices could stimulate the economy.
Arguments Against the Pipeline
The biggest argument against the pipeline is that it will facilitate increased production of oil from tar sands, with the associated environmental damage to the land in Alberta. The rate of extraction, refining and burning will be lower even if the oil goes to Asia, because it can’t be refined as quickly without utilizing the Gulf Coast facilities.
The construction of the pipeline will disturb the environment in the U.S. Although that disturbance is likely temporary, the risk of an oil spill is significant, including the risk of polluting two of the most important sources of underground water. Much of that water is used for agricultural irrigation on the Great Plains, putting our food supply at risk.
Increasing oil sands production will increase the overall world supply of oil, but that may not do much to lower fuel prices. That’s because demand is artificially inflated due to speculators – investors who buy oil futures with no intention of taking delivery of the oil. They’re simply betting that the price of oil is going to go up. And if the increased supply does actually lower the price, OPEC is likely to cut their production to force prices back up.
Reactions to the State Department Decision
Since Saturday, over 500 people have been arrested for protesting outside the White House. These include actress Daryl Hannah, United Church of Christ minister Rev. Mari Castellanos and NASA climatologist Dr. James Hansen. In a letter to President Obama, Dr. Hansen wrote “If the pipeline is to be built, you as President have to declare that it is ‘in the national interest.’ As scientists … we can say categorically that it’s not only not in the national interest, it’s also not in the planet’s best interest.”
Federal law calls for a 90-day review period to allow for public comment. These protests are designed to raise awareness, but they aren’t getting much coverage. A search for “Keystone Pipeline” on CNN.com turned up one entry and it was in the “celebrity news and gossip” section. A search on supposedly liberal MSNBC.com turned up five entries on Daryl Hannah’s arrest and two on the State Department decision. Without more coverage – of the whole story – from the mainstream media, the general public isn’t likely to get engaged.
My divination skills aren’t the best, but I don’t need Tarot cards to see that President Obama is likely to approve the pipeline. He’s up for re-election next year, and he doesn’t want to have Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Mitt Romney ask him “why did you keep thousands of Americans from getting jobs building this pipeline, and why do you want us to buy oil from our enemies in the Middle East instead of from our friends in Canada?”
Is the Keystone Pipeline a good thing or a bad thing? It’s hard to look at the photos of tar sands extraction and not think it’s bad. It’s hard to calculate the risk to the Ogallala Aquifer and not think it’s bad. It’s hard to think about exacerbating climate change and not think it’s bad.
But if you’re an out of work welder, you may see things differently. If you drive a beat-up gas guzzler to your minimum wage job because that’s all you can afford, you may see things differently. If you live in China or Thailand and you hope to some day be able to live like average people in the United States and Canada, you may see things differently.
The right decision may be clear, but if it’s easy you aren’t paying attention.
A Long Term Solution
We can complain about the influence of Big Oil in government – it’s tremendous. We can complain about the effects of money in politics – it’s obscene. But in the end, this pipeline has been proposed and it will likely be built because the people of the United States demand it. We are no more able to stop the flow of oil than we are able to stop the flow of marijuana and cocaine. The demand is too great and someone will find a way to satisfy it.
The long term solution – the only solution – is to reduce the demand for oil and other fossil fuels. Walk, bicycle, or take public transportation. Many of us live in places that make cars virtually mandatory – buy the most fuel efficient car you can afford. Downsize your house and simplify your life. Support clean energy – with your votes and with your checkbook. Set a good example for your children, your parents, your neighbors, your coworkers, and your co-religionists.
We didn’t get in this situation overnight and we won’t get out of it overnight. Do what you can to make it better.
That’s all you can do.
But it’s what we must do.