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Canadian Tar Sands A Loophole For Big American Oil

Benjamin Gottlieb |
April 25, 2012 | 12:34 a.m. PDT

Executive Editor

Environmentalists from 30 different organizations deliver more than 800,000 messages to Senators Reid McConnell on February 14, 2012, urging them to block attempts to resurrect the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline (Photo by 350.org, obtained via Creative Commons license)..
Environmentalists from 30 different organizations deliver more than 800,000 messages to Senators Reid McConnell on February 14, 2012, urging them to block attempts to resurrect the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline (Photo by 350.org, obtained via Creative Commons license)..
In the heat of summer, 2010, an international oil pipeline managed by the Canadian company Enbridge Inc. ruptured in the state of Michigan, dumping more than one million gallons of thick, asphalt-like oil into the Kalamazoo River.

The environmental impact on the contiguous environment was devastating. Scores of birds, fish and other wildlife were either oiled or killed. Residents in the otherwise peaceful Michigan hinterlands were forced to evacuate as toxic levels of benzene infected the surrounding air.

The local Kellogg Co. factory in Battle Creek, Michigan even had to stop making Corn Flakes.
It had all the destruction of the British Petroleum (BP) catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and, literally, a fraction of the press.

So when news broke that another Canadian company, TransCanada Oil, was planning to construct a new pipeline connecting the tar sands of Canada to the oil refineries of southern Texas last summer, it left the environmental community fuming.

The Keystone XL pipeline ignited arguably the most belligerent and outspoken protest by the environmental community in the United States to date. Over 400 people were arrested outside the White House in late 2011 protesting the approval of the pipeline, furious that its construction would post a grave risk to the water supply of the Midwest and propel the country away from a progressive, environmental agenda promised by President Barack Obama during his election campaign.

The President has since flip-flopped on the Keystone XL pipeline. Although he initially nixed the project altogether in January, Obama has recently shown signs that he could change his mind, embarking on a self-proclaimed “all of the above” energy road trip where, among other goals, he has tried to speed up the permit process for the southern section of the pipeline in the U.S.

As it stands now, no further decision-making is planned for Keystone XL until 2013, after the presidential election. But with oil prices continuing to skyrocket, Alberta’s unconventional oil frontier comes with a motivating fact: The province’s tar sands, located in the ancient forests Western Canada, are the second biggest deposit of carbon on the planet, second only to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.

The question now, from an environmental perspective, remains whether Alberta’s tar sands will be a new, affable source of petroleum for the United States, or an environmental disaster in the making.

“Extracting oil from tar sands is literally like scrapping the bottom of the barrel,” explained Lena Moffitt, the Sierra Club’s representative in Washington D.C. “It’s both difficult and expensive to extract and transport.”


Think of an oil deposit as having thousands or even tens of thousands of individual organic molecules with a mixture that ranges from quite small -- about six or eight carbon atoms -- to those with 40, 50 or more carbons.

The smaller molecules are very liquid and volatile, like gasoline, and fall mostly in the eight to ten carbon ranges. As the number of carbon atoms increases, so does the viscosity. Motor oil is generally found to have around 20 carbon elements and, at around 40 carbons, the oil is literally like tar.

While the vast oil fields of the Middle East are, for the most part, on the lighter, more volatile side of the spectrum, the tar sands of Alberta, Canada are thick, gelatinous deposits, requiring scores of energy and advanced techniques to extract. 

“It’s the kind of stuff that we use for asphalt… the really thick stuff,” explained Alex Sessions, a professor of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech University.

Most tar sands deposits, also referred to as oil sands, began as traditional oil fields that were biodegraded over millions of years, Sessions said. Because these deposits are found underground, they are often in contact with the surrounding groundwater and plethora of microorganisms and bacteria that make eating oil a living.

Over time, the microbes carry out the responsibilities that a proper Texas oil refinery would: separate the different types of oil particles to be used in myriad sectors of our energy diet. As one can imagine, the larger oil particles – like asphalt – are much too big for the microbes to ingest, and so the smaller, gasoline-like molecules are consumed first. What’s left is a thick, nearly solid soup of carbon, very similar to a bowl of oatmeal that could use just a tad more water.

But tar sands have only recently been considered a viable part of the global energy portfolio.

With the global cost of oil continuing to rise and the development of China and India driving demand, oil deposits traditionally deemed too expensive to mine are now on the table.

“Essentially it’s the oil industry getting desperate,” Moffitt said. “And it goes to show that they have absolutely noting mind but perpetuating their prime spot in our energy portfolio.”


A birdseye view of a segment of the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada (Photo by SkyTruth, obtained via Creative Commons license).
A birdseye view of a segment of the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada (Photo by SkyTruth, obtained via Creative Commons license).
Tar sands made their landfall on the political gamut last summer, following the announcement of a proposed pipeline connecting the oil-rich tar fields of Alberta, Canada, to oil refineries in southern Texas.  If built, the Keystone XL pipeline would travel 1,700 miles from the Athabasca oil sands, through seven states – Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas – and have the capacity to transport 800,000 barrels of oil a day. The total construction cost would top $7 billion.

Unfortunately, the land that houses these tar sands is also home to one of the planet’s most effective, atmospheric filters.

The ancient, circumpolar boreal forest, or Taiga, is the world's largest terrestrial biome, spanning across much of Northern Canada and Russia. Characterized by its massive, coniferous woodland, the boreal forest is home to 27 percent of the world’s forests and is a major carbon sink, essentially filtering the carbon waste in the atmosphere into oxygen.

In the case of Alberta, Canada, extracting oil from tar sands deposits is part of a broader, habitat reformation; the province has committed 220,000 km2 of its boreal forest to be cut down over the next 60 years, according to a report by the Taiga Biological Station. That commitment threatens the very existence of Alberta’s wildlife and the villages of many indigenous human populations.

And as one can imagine, the process of extracting dense, rock-like carbon stored deep underground is a labor-intensive process.

Because the tar sands oil is very viscous, it doesn’t just flow through a pipe. So you’re left with two choices: Dig it up and hall it out on dump trucks or, when it’s more deeply buried, pump steam into the ground and heat the oil deposits.

“The oil becomes like ice cream and you can get it to flow out of a pipe,” Sessions said.

Sessions, whose principle studies include organic geochemistry, geobiology and isotopic biogeochemistry, said tar sands extraction carries with it very high environmental costs. The process of turning the tar harvested into oil emitted a level of CO2 that is higher than oil per unit, he said.

The refining process and the pumping steam into the ground also require huge amounts water, Sessions said. While that might not matter in some places, Alberta extension of the immense Rocky Mountain Range and is notoriously dry.

In fact, when compared toe-to-toe, tar sands oil – and the processes involved in their extraction – is actually worse for the environment that offshore drilling, Sessions admitted.

Regardless of the environmental costs, ongoing debate in amongst environmentalists and policy experts centers on the necessity for an additional pipeline.

Moffitt, the Sierra Club’s D.C. lobbyist, said the United States could already import all of the tar sands oil that Canada can sell over the next ten years through the established pipeline system.

Without the Keystone XL pipeline, Canada has the capacity to ship 2.1 million barrels of oil a day from the tar sands of Alberta to the United States, Moffitt said, and those pipes are currently running well under capacity.

But what Canadian companies like TransCanada are banking on is that Americans keep buying.

“That puts the problem on the demand side,” she said.

Nonetheless, the initial suspension of the Keystone XL Pipeline was not just a victory for environmentalists, but rather a victory for Americans in general, said Maggie Kao, the Sierra Club’s national press secretary. With the President’s January decision to postpone the construction of Keystone XL, all physical pipeline construction has been tabled to 2013, after the election season.

If built, Keystone XL is slated to run along the Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High Plains Aquifer; the vast water system is a shallow underground aquifer located beneath the Great Plains that supplies water to the Midwest.

A contamination by a tar sands pipeline spill into the Ogallala, as seen in Michigan with Enbridge, would be cataclysmal.

But TransCanada is hopeful the President’s tabling of Keystone XL is will not lead to its total repeal.


On October 31, 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency suspended its mission to recover all of the oil leaked during the Enbridge tar sands oil spill disaster due to winter conditions.  They have contained more than 1,139,000 gallons of oil from the spill, found in oily river and tributary water, soil, sediment and debris, but estimate that the containment process will continue much into 2012.

After over a million gallons of containment, there is still more viscous oil deposited in the banks of the Kalamazoo.

The Sierra Club, along with others on Capitol Hill, worry that if the Alberta tar sands operation were expanded, it “would signal game over for the fight against climate change,” Kao said. 

“Exploiting dirty Alberta tar sands oil is not merely short-sighted—from the global perspective, it's downright negligent,” said Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director in a statement. “If the United States is going to be a leader in the emerging clean energy economy, we must break our addiction to oil—and there’s no better place to draw the line in the sand than at tar sands.”
As with many debates in Washington, the deliberation over Alberta’s tar sands involve two deeply entrenched factions, both unwilling and unable to budge from their particular issue. The transnational corporations like TransCanada and Enbridge want to expand to remain competitive in the global market. The environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, are poised to reverse global climate change.

What will actually transpire in 2013 remains to be seen.

Moffitt admitted that the Sierra Club’s stance on the Keystone XL pipeline would be a challenging to defend.

“I think that until we get a systematic price on carbon, something that internalizes that some resources are more environmentally destructive than others, it is going to be really difficult to prevent the development of tar sands,” Moffitt said. “There is still a huge demand for oil. So it’s price on carbon or global climate bill.”

With oil prices hovering around $100 a barrel, harvesting the tar sands of the boreal can now be a lucrative business. 

Right now, 60 percent of U.S. oil imported from Canada comes from the tar sands of Alberta. And if the Keystone XL pipeline is given the green light, that number will surely take off.

Outside of the environmental cost of drilling, events such as the Enbridge Michigan pipeline spill serve as reminders the dangers associated with tar sands oil.

“When you are refining tar- end up with the heavy stuff that didn’t get refined… a lot of heavy, petroleum products,” Sessions said. “There are only so many roads in Alberta.”



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