Tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline

While the United States looks to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas for energy independence, our northern neighbor Canada looks to an even more problematic and dirtier energy source—tar sands.

Tar sands are a mixture of clay, sand, water and a tarry substance called bitumen, which can be processed into crude oil.   Bitumen can’t be pumped.  It has to be mined.   Then it has to be cooked in order to separate it from the sands and mixed with chemicals to make it liquid enough to be piped to a refinery.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

Canada is the only country with an important tar sands industry.  The Canadian province of Alberta has one of the world’s two largest known deposits of tar sands (the other is in Venezuela).  They underlie an area as large as the state of Florida or the nation of England.  If all the tar sands were usable as oil, Canada could in theory be an oil producer equal to Saudi Arabia.

Tar sands are pumped into the United States partly through Keystone pipeline, which became operational in June, 2010.  The pipeline extends from Hardisty, Alberta, to Cushing, Oklahoma, and Patoka, Illinois.  Now the TransCanada, the pipeline owner, wants to make extensions of the Keystone pipeline—the Keystone XL pipelines—which would take the tar sands crude from Cushing to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas, and create a more direct route from Hardisty across the Great Plains.

Canada is the largest source of U.S. oil imports, and a large fraction of that is tar sands oil.   Enbridge, another Canadian tar sands company, also operates pipelines in the United States and also looks to expand.

Environmentalists have valid objections to tar sands generally and to the Keystone XL plan in particular.  Alberta’s tar sands are extracted through surface mining, one of the most destructive extraction practices in existence.  Tar sands mining contributes to global warming by releasing underground carbon, increasing carbon emissions, and destruction of forest land.  Environmentalists say tar sands mining and processing uses four times as much energy as it makes available.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Processing of tar sands bitumen requires corrosive chemicals to make it liquid enough to pump.  The chemicals can corrode pipes and create the danger of spills.   Whistleblowers say that TransCanada doesn’t properly inspect its pipelines.  There were 12 spills during the first year of the Keystone pipeline’s operation, admittedly all relatively minor, and a more serious spill in Michigan by Enbridge.

TransCanada says it already has the necessary approvals for the southern Keystone XL through Texas, but President Obama has authority to disapprove the northern Keystone XL because it would cross the U.S. border at a new point.   That extension would take the tar sands pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground water reservoir which supplies irrigation water for 20 percent of U.S. farm production and drinking water for many communities.  A spill or leak could contaminate this water.   If President Obama can’t bring himself to disapprove the pipeline altogether, he should insist that it be rerouted around the aquifer.

No matter what he decides, tar sands will reamin as a presence in the United States and as an issue.

I have to admire the oil industry’s enterprise and ingenuity.   It is amazing to me that techniques such as deep water ocean drilling, horizontal hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, and conversion of tar sands to usable petroleum are even possible.  I think the environmentalists’ objections to tar sands are all valid.  But I want gasoline for my car and that gasoline has to come from some source, dirty or clean.

I wish the intelligence, hard work and capital investment that is going into developing dirty energy can be redirected into developing clean energy.   The oil industry probably would say the latter isn’t economically feasible.   I can’t prove this is wrong, but if it is, industrial civilization doesn’t have a future.

Click on What Is the Keystone XL Pipeline? for background from the Texas Stateimpact news site.

Click on Keystone XL decision will define Barack Obama’s legacy on climate change for a report by John Abraham, a professor of engineering from Minnesota, in The Guardian.

Click on Despite Spills, More Oil Sands Pipelines Are Coming for a report by Christopher Helman, a staff reporter for Forbes.

[Update 2/23/13]   Michael T. Klare, writing in TomDispatch and The Nation, argued that without President Obama’s approval of the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, producers won’t be able to get sufficient tar sands oil to market to make their project economically viable.  Existing pipelines don’t have enough capacity, he wrote, and there is strong popular opposition to new westward or eastward tar sands pipelines in Canada.

Click on Keystone XL: a Presidential Decision That Could Change the World for his article.

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2 Responses to “Tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline”

  1. Holden Says:

    I’d read elsewhere the Canadians are threatening to sell it all to China if we won’t buy it.

    This is a tough spot to be in. You really can’t risk defiling Ogallala Aquifer but we also almost can’t afford to pass on the energy sitting right across the border.

    Regardless, if it truly does take four times as much energy to mine the energy than it produces, this isn’t going to be feasible long term anyway, without energy costs rising even more substantially. And I would assume at the rate they would have to rise to fill that kind of gap, we’d look elsewhere to quench our oil thirst.


  2. philebersole Says:

    When the tar sands crude leaves Hardisty, Alberta, it is a sludge that is of no use to the Chinese or anybody else, until it is processed in a refinery in Texas or someplace else.

    The Keystone XL pipelines are necessary to get the crude to Texas in sufficient quantities to make tax sands extraction profitable, according to the Michael Klare article. From there a lot of the oil probably will be shipped to China. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. There is a world market for oil, and the price is determined by world supply and demand.

    Why build a pipeline all the way to Texas instead of to British Columbia, a much shorter distance? Even if there were sufficient refining capacity there, the environmentalist movement is strong in British Columbia and the provincial government may block it. As the video at the top of this post indicates, tar sands extraction is controversial in Canada as well as in the United States.

    I shouldn’t have noted the environmentalists claim about the energy cost without adding that I don’t know what the claim is based on. I am sure it has some basis, but I don’t know what indirect costs are included. But it can be worthwhile to convert energy into usable form even if there is a net energy loss. The great example of this was the German effort during World War Two to extract oil from coal. This was an expensive and energy-intensive process, but necessary to their war effort, because their airplanes and tanks needed liquid fuel to run.

    The time may come when we in the United States are faced with the choice of doing without automobile and airplane travel or obtaining liquid fuels through some dirty, energy-intensive process such as tar sands extraction. I don’t think that time is upon us, and, if human beings act with wisdom, it may never come.


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