The Tar Sands Pipeline

August 30, 2011 by Categorized: Nature in the News.

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.

Oil Sands

Oil Sands. Photo from Suncor Energy. Used under Creative Commons License.

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.

Environmental Concerns

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.”

Tar Sands Operation in Alberta. Photo from NWFblogs, National Wildlife Federation. Used under Creative Commons License.

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.

Proposed Route of the Keystone Pipeline. Diagram from the U.S. Department of State

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

Photo by Ben Powless from tarsandsaction. Used under Creative Commons License.

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.”

The Future

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 turned up one entry and it was in the “celebrity news and gossip” section. A search on supposedly liberal 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.

Photo by Ben Powless from tarsandsaction. Used under Creative Commons License.

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?”

A Decision

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.

Comment Feed

8 Responses

  1. This is excellent coverage, thank you.

    “The right decision may be clear, but if it’s easy you aren’t paying attention.”

    Yes. This. This is perhaps one of the most important insights about environmentally-friendly living that I’ve seen in a while.

    For every easy solution (like the Tar Sands Pipeline), there are a hundred problems that it seems to solve. Yet we can strive to solve those problems in other ways. We can put people in this country to work by investing in eco-friendly infrastructure and truly renewable energy resources. We can reduce our support of oppressive regimes by reducing our overall energy consumption. We can set an example of prosperity for China, Thailand, and others that does not trade economic success for environmental devastation.

    But all of those things seem a lot more daunting than building one simple little pipeline. But the fact is that every new quick-fix solution we try only digs us deeper into the hole we’re trying to escape. The right decision is clear…. but it’s also hard as hell. On the other hand, the longer we put it off, the harder it gets.

  2. I had not heard anything about this so I really appreciate the coverage of this very important topic.

    There seems to be a post brewing in my internal cauldron about bringing energy from Canada. I wrote about Northern Pass not long ago and now this. Is there any other form of energy coming in from our northern neighbors that will destroy not only our landscape but the Canadian landscape?

  3. Thanks for your very “balanced” post, John. I live in Montague County and the latest environmental blowup here has been over a sand mine being built, against the wishes of the general population. Again, it will bring (some) jobs, but the farmers and ranchers in this area are absolutely terrified of the ramifications to the water supply. They can’t stop it – it’s a done deal – but projects like this, and the drought, must force us to use the most precious of resources – water – more efficiently. Prayers to the Mother to send us more, soon!

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. [...] Magickal Days of Remembrances” for 9/11.John Beckett at No Unsacred Place weighs in on the controversy of the planned Tar Sands Pipeline that will run from the oil producing region of Alberta, Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast of [...]

  2. [...] a follow up to John’s recent coverage of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, below is a video of a speech given at the Tar Sands [...]

  3. [...] a follow up to John’s recent coverage of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, below is a video of a speech given at the Tar Sands [...]

  4. [...] his support for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline in the midwest and his promise to increase drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, Perry [...]

  5. [...] the pipeline and its environmental ramifications, with contributor John Beckett noting that “it’s hard to look at the photos of tar sands extraction and not think it’s bad. It’s ha… Here’s hoping that this delay will result in a compromise that’s acceptable to all [...]